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Noon Edition

Lily of the Valley: Ether Game Playlist


The French give eachother sprigs of Lily of the Valley on May Day. The Victorians named Lily of the Valley the birth flower of May and a symbol of returning happiness. This week, in the opening days of the Spring season, we quizzed on music inspired by Lily of the Valley. 

Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825-1899) Frülingsstimmen-Walzer [Voices of Spring Waltz], Op. 410 Although he continued writing the grand waltzes and dances which secured his reputation, in the 1870s Strauss increasingly began writing operettas. The move was likely a practical one, as getting the rights to perform the most popular operettas at the time was cost-prohibitive. It also became another opportunity to showcase his waltzes, which were mixed and matched among his operettas, or really any opera that was being put on at the time. His 1881 “Voices of Spring” Waltz is interesting because Strauss used what is normally an instrumental dance form to showcase a vocalist. He wrote the waltz for the coloratura soprano Bianca Bianchi when she was performing in Delibes’ opera Le Roi L’a Dit, which was being staged at court in Vienna at the time.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918) Printemps: Suite symphonique (Spring: Symphonic Suite) In French, May Day is called La Fete du Muguet or Lily of the Valley Day. The lily of the valley is associated with the coming of spring and has been a good luck symbol in France since at least medieval times, when, on May 1 in 1561, a knight presented Charles IX and Catherine de Medici with a sprig clipped from his garden. Since then, the French have always given loved ones lily of the valley on May Day, either freshly picked from the forest where it grows in abundance in France’s temperate climate, or bought from special roadside stands. Debussy would’ve certainly experienced this tradition, especially while growing up in Paris where it is most popular. However, his Spring Suite is inspired by the season more in the abstract sense, where the composition evokes the “gradual blossoming” of beings and things in nature as they experience the joy of rebirth.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) Songs Without Words, Op. 102: No. 5 Happiness Felix Mendelssohn (and his sister Fanny) ignored the traditional necessary requirement of a song by writing several dozen Lieder Ohne Worte, or “Songs Without Words.” These solo piano pieces had all the melodic tunefulness of an art song without that pesky singer to worry about. These Songs Without Words became fixtures of 19th-century middle class homes throughout Europe, performed in the parlors of amateur musicians. Even a world-class professional musician like Franz Liszt enjoyed them: he even arranged Mendelssohn’s first Song Without Words as a grand concert piece for 2 pianos. The first song we just listened to, No. 5, was later given a programmatic title by various publishers. First “The Joyful Peasant” and later, simply “Happiness.” When Lily of the Valley was named the birth flower of May in Victorian England, it became associated with happiness and contentment, marking this music as an apt musical companion. 

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) Merry Mount, Op. 31: Maypole Dances Nebraskan composer Howard Hanson is also remembered for his work as director of the Eastman School of Music.  He held this post until his retirement in 1964.We just listened to dances from Merry Mount, an opera which wasn’t created the usual way; its libretto was written before Hanson had been selected to create the music. Writer Richard Stokes was inspired to write an opera based on a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called the Maypole of Merry Mount. The story bears similarities to The Scarlet Letter. A Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th Century still practices pagan traditions from the Old World, like dancing the Maypole to welcome the Spring season and the colorful blooms. This is discovered by a group of Puritans, and tensions arise. Stokes picked Hanson to write the music because by that point, Hanson was respected widely as a crafter of a distinctly American classical sound. He had never written an opera before Merry Mount. 

Anton Arensky (1861-1906) Six Romances Op. 38. No. 2 Lily of the Valley (lyrics: Tchaikovsky) Although little is known of his private life, Anton Aresnky spent much of his time surrounded by Russian musical royalty. He was educated by Rimsky Korsakov, Given a prestigious proffesional position at the Moscow Conservatory by Bilakirev, and taught both Scriabin and Rachmaninoff. Even with these musical masters around him, Arensky’s greatest influence was Tchaikovsky. In fact, only until recently, Arensky had been written-off by critcs as merely a Tchaikovsky imitator, due to his singular focus on Tchaikovsky’s music and a reputation among his contemporaries for laziness. More recent audiences however have found artistic value in his music, especially his chamber works. The Romance we just listened to is his setting of a poem by Tchaikovsky, who, for all of his musical genius, found poetry very difficult to write. Of Lily of the Valley however, he wrote to his brother quote “For the first time in my life I have managed to write a fairly good poem.”

Thomas Morley (1557-1602) Now is the month of Maying, Two Dances In Elizabethan England, Italian clothes, music, and pretty much anything Italian was in vogue (with the very important exception of the Pope). The English madrigal was an extension of this fad. The spring months were a popular topic, as they played into the ideal of Italian pastoral literature, where frolicking and love-making shepherds and shepherdesses were all the rage. In addition to his well-known madrigals, Morley also wrote manuals for amateur musicians and dabbled as a publisher. Controversy also surrounded Morley. Historians have argued whether or not he was a secret Catholic, or even a spy for Rome. It is also possible that he knew William Shakespeare personally. The great dramatist lived in the same neighborhood as Morley, and some have argued for connections between Shakespeare’s plays and Morley’s music.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) Le Printemps, Vol. 2, Op. 66 One of the defining characteristics of Milhaud’s music is that it is often light and playful, so it’s no surprise that he composed many pieces inspired by spring. Other than his “Spring” piano suites, (this selection comes from his second), there is his Spring Concertino for violin, and also a “miniature symphony” for chamber orchestra subtitled “Le Printemps.” As a notable member of the French avant-garde music collective known as Les Six, Milhaud incorporated a modern sense of chromatic harmony inspired by jazz and neoclassicism. He also experimented with polyrhythms inspired by South American carnival songs and popular music heard during his travels to Brazil.

Wendell P. Whalum (1931-1987) The Lilly of the Valley “Spirituals” began as an aural tradition: religious songs of work, freedom and hope written by enslaved African American communities. However, after gaining freedom, and eventually, access to education, Black Americans began notating their music, one of many strategies to prove they were intellectually equal with whites. Some of these written spirituals became popular with white listeners as concert pieces, thanks to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a student musical group from Fisk University that traveled the country giving concerts to raise money for the historically black school. Composer and educator Wendell P. Whalum arranged this version of Lily of the Valley, a spiritual that was first popularized by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Whalum would go on to make a name for himself in the classical world, as the choral director for the world premiere of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha. which finally saw a complete performance in 1972. 

Jim Hendricks (b. 1940) Lily of the Valley Nebraskan folksinger Jim Hendricks, not to be confused with Jimi Hendrix, grew up playing traditional music on an old family guitar. He later got a degree in classical music in Lincoln. However, it was while working as a schoolteacher in Omaha and playing folk music on the coffeehouse circuit during the 1960’s folk revival that he caught the attention of future The Mamas and the Papas singer Cass Elliot. Hendricks, Elliot and singer-songwriter Tim Rose formed a folk trio known as the Big 3, which was active in the early 60’s, releasing two albums and making 26 television appearances before splitting. After Hendricks and Mama Cass ended their marriage in 1968, Jim focused on songwriting, notably penning the Johnny Rivers’ hit “Summer Rain.”


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