Program Notes

Extraordinary Things: Songs by André Previn
Song texts and program notes

Two Remembrances

1. Love Song
Come to me in the night — we shall sleep closely together.
I am so tired, lonely from being awake.
A strange bird already sang in the dark early morning,
As my dream still wrestled with itself and me.

Flowers open before all the springs
Taking on the color of your eyes. . .

Come to me in the night on seven-starred shoes
And love shall be wrapped up until late in my tent.
Moons rise from the dusty trunk of heaven.

We shall make love quietly like two rare animals
In the high reeds behind this world.

Text by Else Lasker-Schüler (1889-1945)
Translated by Michael J. Gillespie

2.  Lyric
I am yours, you are mine,
Of this we are certain.
You are lodged in my heart,
The small key is lost.

You must stay there,
You must stay there, forever.

Text by Frau Ava (c.1060-1127)
Translated by Willis Barnstone

 

Four Songs
Texts by Toni Morrison

1. Mercy
I could watch
heads
turn from the traveler’s look

the camera’s probe
bear the purity of their
shame
hear mute desolation in syllables
ancient as
death.

I could do these things
if
only if only
I knew that when milk
spills
and hearts stop
underheel
some small thing gone
chill
is right
to warm toward a touch because
mercy
lies in wait
like a shore.
mercy
mercy
mercy
like a shore.

2. Shelter
In this soft place
Under your wings
I will find shelter
From ordinary things.

Here are the mountains
I want to scale
Amazon rivers
I’m dying to sail.

Here the eyes of the forest
I can hold in a stare
And smile at the movement
Of Medusa’s green hair.

In this soft place
Under your wings
I will find shelter
From ordinary things.

3. Stones
I don’t need no man
telling me I ain’t one
My trigger finger strong
as his on a shot gun.
Buttercake and roses smooth
stones in my bed.
Handmade quilts cover
stones in my bed.
I don’t need no man
telling me I ain’t one.
My backbone ain’t like his
but least I got one.
High-heeled slippers break
stones in my bed.
Games played at night trick
stones in my bed.
Stones in my bed.
Stones.
I don’t need no man
telling me.

4. Lacemaker
I am as you see
what most becomes me:
miles skipped
cancelled trips
masters yet unmet.
Lace alone is loyal, sacred, royal, in control
Of crimes stopped
By patterns of blood bred to best behavior
As you see I am
What has become of me.

Program Notes

Two Remembrances
Previn’s Two Remembrances was written in 1995, with soprano Sylvia McNair in mind. The first movement, A Love Song, is by Else Lasker-Schüler, a Jewish-German expressionist writer known for her bohemian lifestyle. Along with an active literary life, Lasker-Schüler led an intense personal one marked by scandal, which served as inspiration for many of her works. Previn interprets this work with winding, tangled lines in the flute obbligato that set the stage for the poem’s amorous invitation. The Debussy-like instrumental accompaniment creates the effect of an exotic dream, and descending chromatic lines lead the listener down uncertain paths, ultimately reuniting the poem’s two lovers. In contrast, Lyric by Frau Ava is a concrete declamation of love. The first lines “I am yours, you are mine/ Of this we are certain”, sets the tone for this delicate, sweet ode. The movement reaches a climax as the soprano exclaims that “the small key is lost” before gently winding down, resolving that her love “must stay there forever”.  Poet Frau Ava, aka Ava of Gottweig, Ava of Melk or simply Ava, lived in the 11th century, and was the first named female writer in any genre in the German language. Her poetry centered on themes of life related to the Christian church; the words for Lyric are vows from the marriage ceremony. Ava was married and had two sons who likely were priests. After the death of her husband she lived on the estate of Gottweig Abbey in Lower Austria. In nearby Klein-Wien there is still today a tower called “Ava’s Tower”, possibly the remains of a nunnery; the church of Saint Blaise stands on the site of a little chapel that was there at the time of Ava.
Excerpted from program notes by Kerry Smith

Four Songs for Soprano, Cello and Piano
André Previn’s Four Songs was first performed by Sylvia McNair, Carter Brey, and Martin Katz at Alice Tully Hall in New York City on November 27, 1994. McNair also programmed Schubert’s Italian Songs, a Mozart aria, two Bizet songs, and Debussy’s Ariettes Oubliées on the same recital. Sylvia McNair had recorded the album Sure Thing with André Previn and later asked him to write some songs for her. Like the texts for Honey and Rue, the Four Songs were penned by Toni Morrison. Originally Morrison sent Previn five texts, but for artistic reasons, Previn decided not to set the last text. It contained an offensive word about which Previn stated with amusement, “I don’t know what note that goes on!”

Four Songs is not cyclic. There is no direct connection between the texts. Toni Morrison has said the speaker in the songs is female, but not necessarily African-American and not necessarily one woman. Morrison left the ordering of the texts to Previn. Unlike the collaboration for Honey and Rue, written for soprano Kathleen Battle, Morrison did not work with singer Sylvia McNair for Four Songs.

Morrison has said that African-American identity has little or nothing to do with the “speaker” in Four Songs. The first text in this group of songs, Mercy, is about how the media looks at starvation, blood and misfortune in settings such as Ethiopia. The traveler and the probing camera, referred to in the lyrics, attempt to exploit those who can only turn away in shame. Morrison’s lyrics express embarrassment at the way the media invades the privacy of the dying. The speaker could “bear the purity of their shame” – the shame of the dying – if she knew that ultimately there would be mercy for them.

Stones is based on an old blues song, Rocks in my bed, and is inspired by the singing style of blues singer Bessie Smith. The speaker in Stones is a brash, bold woman who is angry at the absence of a man in her life. Her tone is not one of complaint, but of anger. Only stones warm her bed at night. Her trigger finger, buttercake, roses, and handmade quilts are intended to make up for the lack of a man. The sentiments in these lyrics severely contrast those in the next song, Shelter.

The poem Shelter is about a woman who is ‘having a good time in her imagination.’ She thinks about her man and all of the challenges, both mythical and metaphorical, that she can overcome with him in her life. The character in The Lacemaker is hollow, regretful, and mournful. Morrison’s lyrics are an assessment of a spinster, a woman who has settled for less in life. Her vocation as a lacemaker has prevented her from committing “crimes” in her life – passions that she’s left unexplored. In lieu of trips and personal adventures she has chosen to become a woman who creates lace for royalty.

Program notes excerpted from a 2001 dissertation:

THE ART SONGS OF ANDRÉ PREVIN WITH LYRICS BY TONI MORRISON: HONEY AND RUE AND FOUR SONGS FOR SOPRANO, CELLO AND PIANO, A PERFORMER’S PERSPECTIVE
by Stephanie McClure Adrian, B.M., M.M.
The Ohio State University, 2001

André Previn
Born Andreas Ludwig Priwin in Berlin, Germany, on April 6, 1929, Previn was the youngest child of a wealthy Jewish family. His father, Jacob, was a respected attorney, as well as an accomplished amateur pianist. Music was an important part of family life, and young André, wanting to participate, asked for lessons. After testing revealed that he had perfect pitch, he was enrolled in the Berlin Conservatory of Music at the age of six. As the threat of World War II (1939–45; a war in which German-led forces were crushed by those led by Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and, later, the United States) loomed, life under Nazi (the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, which, under the control of Adolf Hitler [1889–1945], took control of Germany in 1933) rule became increasingly difficult, and in 1938 the family fled to Paris, France. Previn studied at the Paris Conservatory of Music until the family moved to the United States.

Life in Los Angeles, California, was different from life in Berlin and Paris in almost every way possible—from the climate and architecture to the language spoken and career opportunities available. Upon arrival to the United States, none of the family spoke English, including Previn’s father, which made practicing law impossible. To make ends meet, he gave music lessons at home—yet nothing stood in the way of young Previn’s musical education. He studied piano, theory, and composition from the best instructors available, Joseph Achron and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco.

Previn became an American citizen at the age of fourteen, about the same time he became obsessed by the most American of all musical forms—jazz. Previn began splitting time between his classical studies and jazz, and word of his talent spread. As a teenager Previn practiced piano up to six hours a day. Eager to help his family financially, he quickly followed up when he heard that the movie studio Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) needed someone to compose a jazz arrangement (a musical score). This led to writing more arrangements, at first sporadically and then more regularly, several times a week after school. Seduced by Hollywood’s glamour, he signed a contract with MGM when he turned eighteen. He also made his first recording on the Sunset label while still in his teens.

Previn’s career flourished in the late 1950s and early 1960s with musical hits that he adapted from the theatrical stage for films, and original scores he composed and conducted for other musicals and dramas. He became musical director at MGM, was nominated for sixteen Academy Awards, and won four.

Another part of Previn’s musical talent was calling, however. According to his own account in No Minor Chords, My Days in Hollywood, he longed to be part of the inner circle of what he regarded as the legitimate world of classical music. Hollywood was not the place to write and perform serious music. In 1965 he began recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, and from 1967 to 1970, he was conductor-in-chief of the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

In 1969, while Previn was married to his second wife Dory Langdon, he began to be seen with actress Mia Farrow, ex-wife of popular singer Frank Sinatra (1915–1998). She gave birth to their twin sons, Matthew and Sascha in early 1970. The scandal resulted in Previn leaving the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Langdon and Previn divorced, and he married Farrow shortly thereafter. Due to career conflicts, they divorced in the late 1970s.

Life changed gradually until Previn accepted the appointment of principal conductor with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1969. In London he became a popular personality, appearing frequently on television to talk about music. He also toured throughout Europe and the United States with the London Symphony, and became especially well known for his interpretations of British and Russian symphonic works.

Throughout Previn’s active conducting career—with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (1976–1984), the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1985–1989), and the Royal Philharmonic (music director, 1985–1988; principal conductor, 1988–1991), and as Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony (since 1993)—he continued to compose. Compositions included a Symphony for Strings ; “Four Outings,” for brass quintet; a piano concerto, commissioned by Vladimir Ashkenzy; a cello sonata, written for Yo-Yo Ma; a song cycle, written for Dame Janet Baker; a music drama, Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, written in collaboration with playwright Tom Stoppard; and an opera based on Tennessee Williams’s (1911–1983) A Streetcar Named Desire, commissioned by the San Francisco Opera in 1998.

In 1982 Previn married Heather Hales and they had one child. In the early 1990s he returned to one of his first loves—jazz. He resumed recording, and formed the Andre Previn Jazz Trio, which toured Japan, North America, and Europe in 1992 and 1993. In 1998 Previn was honored with an award for his career as a conductor and composer at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony in Washington, D.C.

Previn passed away in 2019 in New York City.

Encyclopedia of World Biography