• Three Auden Songs for voice and piano

 programme notes

 concert review

 Musée des Beaux Arts by W.H. Auden

 Roman Wall Blues by W.H. Auden

 Autumn Song by W.H. Auden

• Two Frisian folk song arrangements

The Three Auden Songs received their first performance in on 19th January 2007 sung by Conor Biggs, bass-baritone with Pádhraic Ó Cuinneagáin, piano.

Programme Notes

The first poem, Musée des Beaux Arts, has as its inspiration Brueghel's painting The Fall of Icarus, which hangs in the museum of the same name in Brussels. The curious thing about the painting is that one has to look quite hard to discern Icarus at all. The main interest seems to be a tranquil land- and seascape. Only after a careful search does one find Icarus's legs sticking out of the water near one of the ships which Brueghel has depicted sailing calmly on. Perhaps the curious discrepancy between title and subject matter was Auden's inspiration for a rather serious poem about man's indifference to suffering. The song is at first rather angry about this indifference, waving an indignant finger and reminding us about another historical figure who was allowed to die in pain while the rest of humanity looked on apathetically. In the end the song realises, as Auden must have, that one must not expect too much from mankind, but find beauty and tranquillity where one can, in spite of human suffering.

The second song, Roman Wall Blues, is a cabaret number about a roman soldier stationed on the Scottish Borders. His girlfriend is miles away in Tungria (an area around the middle stretch of the river Meuse in modern Belgium) and he has to put up with the disgusting weather on Hadrian's Wall.

Autumn Song is a sad song about what might have been, about the pressure of society on the individual, about our faint-hearted response to that pressure, about the distractions of materialism, about the spirit's struggle for survival.

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Concert Review in the Irish Times

Biggs, Ó Cuinneagáin: NCH, Dublin Institute of Technology

Critic: Andrew Johnstone

Irish Times, Tuesday, 23 January 2007

To say that bass-baritone Conor Biggs and pianist Pádhraic Ó Cuinneagáin were well prepared for this concert would be an understatement.  With seven out of 14 items taken from their recent disc of Tchaikovsky songs, their programme was consistently ready and fluent.

Their mostly Russian selections were neatly arranged like a Russian doll, with an outer layer of Rachmaninov and an inner one of Tchaikovsky.  At the centre, and receiving its first performance, was a song cycle by English composer Andrew Wise, who, like Biggs, is a resident of Belgium.

Tackling three Auden poems from the 1930s, Wise’s cycle is in a colourful and aptly new-tonal idiom that’s reminiscent of art-deco modernism.  An arioso-like setting of Musée des Beaux Arts  brings out the poem’s semantics rather than its irregular rhymes and metres, while Roman Wall Blues and Autumn Song capitalise on the crisper prosody of two sardonic ballad texts – the one swinging with mock cabaret fun, the other a finely crafted series of variations.

It’s not unknown for leading vocalists to refer to a score during song recitals.  Biggs, however, had committed this new material to memory – as he had the swathes of Russian verse.  His preparedness extended from the mental realm to the vocal, with the initial vowel of every song hitting its mark of grit, tenderness or trepidation.

In a repertory that’s popularly associated with the rumblings of bassi profundi, Bigg’s svelte tones and Ó Cuinneagáin’s polished and artfully scaled accompaniments made for a satisfying mix, both technically and emotionally, of gravitas and agility.

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Musée des Beaux Arts

About suffering they were never wrong,

The Old Masters: how well they understood

Its human position; how it takes place

While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

How when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting

For the miraculous birth, there always must be

Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating

On a pond at the edge of the wood:

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away

Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may

Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,

But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone

As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green

Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,

Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

poem by W.H. Auden

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Roman Wall Blues

Over the heather the wet wind blows,

I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.

The rain comes pattering out of the sky,

I'm a Wall soldier, I don't know why.

The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,

My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.

Aulus goes hanging around her place,

I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.

Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;

There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.

She gave me a ring but I diced it away;

I want my girl and I want my pay.

When I'm a veteran with only one eye

I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

poem by W.H. Auden

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Autumn Song

Now the leaves are falling fast,

Nurse's flowers will not last,

Nurses to their graves are gone,

But the prams go rolling on.

Whispering neighbours left and right,

Daunt us from our true delight,

Able hands are forced to freeze

Derelict on lonely knees.

Close behind us on our track,

Dead in hundreds cry Alack,

Arms raised stiffly to reprove

In false attitudes of love.

Scrawny through a plundered wood,

Trolls run scolding for their food,

Owl and nightingale are dumb,

And the angel will not come.

Clear, unscaleable, ahead

Rise the Mountains of Instead,

From whose cold cascading streams

None may drink except in dreams.

poem by W.H. Auden

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• Two folk song arrangements

Written for the Dutch tenor Albert Bonnema

It heitelân      Frisian folk song arr. for voice & piano

to listen to Albert Bonnema, tenor & Andrew Wise, piano performing It heitelân, click here.

It Marke      Frisian folk song arr. for voice & piano

to listen to Albert Bonnema, tenor & Andrew Wise, piano performing It Marke, click here.

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