Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Evelyn Lear 1926-2012

I learn from Lisa Hirsch that the soporano Evelyn Lear died July 1. Of course, I remember her first and foremost for American Scenes, American Poets, an album of songs by Charles Ives she recorded with her husband, the late baritone Thomas Stewart. It was my first exposure to the songs of Ives and remains both a favorite recording and another one of those Columbia classics Sony has never seen fit to release on CD.

Strange, though — Lear was an American (born Evelyn Shulman in Brooklyn), but for a long time I assumed she was ... well, I know not what. My confusion was due to a minspronunciation on the Ives recording. The song "The Light That Is Felt," with text by Whitter, contains the lines "And only when our hands we lay / In thine, Oh God! the night is day." Maybe she was distracted, maybe she was uptight, maybe she wasn't making sense of the lyric, but for some reason, Lear pronounces "lay" as "lee."

And only when our hands we lee ...

Regardless, it is a wonderful rendition of a wonderful piece. When my mother died in 1999, I hired a soprano to sing it at her funeral — in large measure because of the impression Lear had made on me 25 years earlier.


Cal said...

I just listened to two versions of “The Light That Is Felt,” one by Douglas Dickson and Tamara Mumford, the other by Susan Narucki and Donald Berman. Both nicely convey the innocent, fearful tone of the song and the poem it is based on.

Any idea why Ives didn’t include the third stanza of the poem? Or did he, and these two recordings just don’t use it? It is the least concrete of the three stanzas and, for that reason, maybe less useful as lyrics. But it also makes sense of the title. Or maybe he just wanted the song to be very brief.

Joe Barron said...

Setting only two verses makes sense musically, since the tempo is slow, and the third verse would undercut climax on the words "Oh God!" The two verses by themselves are nicely symmetrical, one presenting the image of the little girl, and the other comparing the love of God to the love of the parent. The composer is showing better judgment here than the poet did, I think.

Ives occasionally excerpted verses for his songs, rather than including entire poems. His "Children's Hour," for example, sets only the first few lines of the Longfellow poem, and for the final repeat, uses only fragments of the first four lines, which gives the ending a broken, dreamlike quality.

Cal said...

You may be right about "Oh, God." They are practically the only words in the poem that Ives outright replaced, the originals being "Dear Lord."

I am less convinced by the slow tempo explanation. I can think of no reason why a slow song should also be short, or shorter than it might have been.

I still like concreteness and brevity. Lines 2-3 of the third stanza are too elusive for lyrics. Unfortunately line 1 is my favorite of the whole poem; it would have been nice to have heard it sung. And I still think the title is left hanging without the last two lines of the poem, though Ives might have said, "So go read the poem," which, of course, is exactly what I did.

I think the song is brief because Ives wanted the overall experience of it to be ephemeral. He didn't want us to settle in on the melody and anticipate it the third time around. Repeat once to a climax, then sign off. (Or sing off, which is what I initially mistyped.)

Joe Barron said...

I think a third, literal repeat of the complete melody, as short as it is, would be a drag, and Ives proabably realized it. Think of the opening of Beethoven's Fifth: two iteratons of the four-note motif is a knockout. Three would be too much. And that's only four notes.

Listen to the song "Walt Whitman," which is one of his finest: it uses only a piece of Song of Myself.

Joe Barron said...

Looking at at it again, I notice that in addition to changing the words "Dear Lord" to "Oh God," Ives switched the word order. In the poem, the line reads, "And only when our hands we lay, Dear Lord, in Thine, the night is day." Ives changed it to "And only when our hands we lay in Thine, Oh God! the night is day." Another liberty, but just about demanded by the musical phrase.

Cal said...

" . . . the song 'Walt Whitman' . . . uses only a piece of Song of Myself."

I'll say. It uses five lines out of 1346. That makes leaving out one short stanza of the Whittier poem seem pretty trivial. I am humbled.

I'm going to have to get over the brevity issue, too. Those five lines go by in a flash in the Ives song. This is ever shorter than ephemeral, it's truncated.