Soprano Nina Berman and pianist Steve Beck release a recording of Milton Babbitt's complete works for treble voice and piano, including his epic A Solo Requiem for soprano and two pianos with Eric Huebner. Babbitt was deeply engaged with poetry throughout his life, and his text settings demonstrate his sensitivity to the intricate nuances of the musicality embedded in the poems. Berman and Beck's performances are beautifully expressive, illuminating the longer lined lyricism that is revealed through precise renderings of Babbitt's often thorny, virtuosic scores.
|01||The Widow’s Lament in Springtime|
The Widow’s Lament in Springtime
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steve Beck, piano||3:04|
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steven Beck, piano|
|09||Sounds and Words|
Sounds and Words
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steven Beck, piano||3:00|
|10||Phonemena [with piano]|
Phonemena [with piano]
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steven Beck, piano||4:56|
|11||Phonemena [with tape]|
Phonemena [with tape]
|Nina Berman, soprano, Milton Babbitt, electronics||4:22|
A Solo Requiem
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steven Beck, piano, Eric Huebner, piano|
|18||In His Own Words|
In His Own Words
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steve Beck, piano||3:50|
|19||The Virginal Book|
The Virginal Book
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steve Beck, piano||1:22|
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steve Beck, piano||3:37|
|21||Now Evening After Evening|
Now Evening After Evening
|Nina Berman, soprano, Steve Beck, piano||3:34|
This album has taken us many years and many performances to complete, and it is with tremendous gratitude, joy, and excitement that we share this evening’s program with you in celebration of its release. Steve and I are so pleased to present some highlights from Babbitt’s catalogue, juxtaposed with works by composers who were deeply influential to Babbitt, and works by his students and colleagues.
I was initially drawn to Babbitt as a listener, and I was struck from the first by the contradiction his work encompasses — it is notated with precision, yet it swings; it is simultaneously emotionally removed, yet full of pathos; the melodic lines are disjointed, yet form a lyrical tapestry of sound; and Babbitt’s veneration of jazz and popular American music intermingles seamlessly with his penchant for a degree of complexity that is sometimes nearly opaque.
As a singer, I love the challenges presented by this work, and singing this repertoire has tested my vocal technique and my musicianship. I have found great reward in seeking balance between the restraint necessitated by the music on the page and the deep feeling required in order to make meaning of it, and I have found joy in engaging with the feeling of release that comes with allowing my voice to speak across the broad vocal range for which Babbitt writes. Further to the musical rewards of working on these pieces, I have always appreciated Babbitt’s deep respect for poetry and literature; the texts he chooses to set are full of nuance and richness, much in the way of Babbitt’s music. One of my hopes is that as you listen to this evening’s program, and to Babbitt’s vocal music more broadly, you will come away feeling not only that his music elevates the texts, but that the richness of the texts equally elevates his compositional style.
Why does this music matter, though and why embark on this project? It matters because despite its sometime reputation for severity, Babbitt’s music is arguably the best, the greatest, exemplar of serialism, and Babbitt, himself, is a towering figure in high modernism more generally. Despite his prominence, though, some of his songs had never before been recorded! Thus it has been an honor and a joy (and sometimes a slog…) to put together this recording. Babbitt’s music is full of liveliness and varied expression, and working through his catalogue as both a listener and performer has been eye-opening for both of us. Furthermore, in presenting a stylistically varied program like this evening’s, Steve and I hope to illustrate not only the diversity of music that influenced Babbitt, but also Babbitt’s broad and continued reach: as a composer, he was deeply influenced by music as different as the Bauer and the Brahms on this evening’s program, but also by theatre music and American jazz; in turn, as a teacher, Babbitt turned out students whose music sounds as dissimilar as, for example, the Nichols and the Adolphe on this evening’s program.
In my view, a large part of Babbitt’s genius is that the intricacy of his music dovetails beautifully with the sense of humor for which he is so famous; in other words, to my ear, his music overspills with heart not in spite of its complexity but as a result of it. In a sense, the systems he created around composition freed him to let rip the poignancy and soul that draw me to it. I hope that as you listen this evening, you will feel the same pull toward it that Steve and I have felt.
With that, we’d like to extend tremendous thanks to all of you for being here this evening. We are further grateful to the support of a few individuals who have made this project possible — to Dan Lippel, Zack Bernstein, Jeff Nichols, Bruce Adolphe, Galen Brown, Ryan Streber, and Josh Mailman: THANK YOU.
- Nina Berman
"Milton Babbitt (1916–2011) is well known for his contributions to serialism and electronic music. A less heralded but perhaps no less remarkable aspect of his legacy is his deep engagement with poetry. His personal library had dozens of books on poetic analysis, literary criticism, linguistics, and related disciplines. Reflecting this interest, vocal music is a prominent part of his output, appearing in every decade of his creative life. On this album, Nina Berman and Steven Beck present a complete survey of his work for high voice and piano, spanning 1950 to 2002.
The result is a celebration of Babbitt’s marvelous text-setting. He is particularly attuned to poetry’s intrinsic musicality: its rhythms, accent patterns, lineation, syntax, and rhyme. Babbitt’s music is an exemplar of high-modernist angularity, but his vocal writing almost always retains a lithe, nimble lyricism, and his close study of poetry ensures that his texts are communicated clearly. The few moments that push lyrical vocality beyond its natural limits do so with clear expressive intent, as expressions of pain, horror, or disorientation.
“The Widow’s Lament in Springtime” (1950) is the first song Babbitt published. Written as a memorial for Roy Dickinson Welch, Babbitt’s colleague at Princeton, the song sets a heartbreaking poem by William Carlos Williams in which an elderly widow contrasts her grief with the vibrant, colorful flowers of spring.Read More
Du (1951) is a cycle of seven songs drawn from a collection by August Stramm, an early-twentieth-century German Expressionist. It was written just a few months after “Widow’s Lament,” but its expressive impact is a world apart. Stramm depicts two characters known only by their pronouns, Ich (I) and Du (you). The situation is one of unrequited love by Ich for Du, but Stramm’s poetic vision stretches beyond the two characters: in Ich’s mad ravings, love is transformed into an eternal cosmic grappling.
Stramm’s poetry is remarkable for its high density of phonemic echo, pushing sense to its limit: “Wirr / Wirren / Wirrer / Immer wirrer / Durch / Die Wirrnes / Du / Dich / Ich!” In “Sounds and Words” (1960) and “Phonemena” (note the spelling!), Babbitt takes the obvious next step. The “text” in these songs is constructed of pure phonemes. “Sounds and Words” is notable for its free-floating rhythmic flexibility, each short section unfolding at a different rate. “Phonemena”—performed here in both its versions, one accompanied by piano (1969) and one by tape (1975)—is quick atonal scat singing. A joyful romp.
A Solo Requiem (1977) sees Babbitt return to a more somber mood. He composed the Requiem as a memorial for Godfrey Winham, a young student of Babbitt’s and the husband of soprano Bethany Beardslee, who premiered the work. In settings of Shakespeare, George Meredith, Gerard Manley Hopkins, August Stramm, and John Dryden, this vast cycle amounts, in Joseph Dubiel’s words, to a search for a “tenable attitude toward death.” The accompaniment is unusually full, requiring two pianos that trade spectral diminished seventh chords in a complex, skittering exchange. The work requires the full range of vocal expressivity: shy pleading in the opening sonnet, quiet meditation in the Meredith, overpowering intensity in the Hopkins and Stramm, and half-ironic oration in the Sprechstimme setting of Dryden. The cycle ends by reprising crucial phrases from each of the settings, closing in hopeless resignation: “Farewell.”
Babbitt’s late vocal works are shorter and lighter: whimsical, nostalgic, sometimes humorous, and often featuring knowing winks at older music. “In His Own Words” (1988) is a birthday tribute to the composer Mel Powell. Babbitt compiled the spoken text from Powell’s writings and lectures about Webern, Hindemith, electronic music, Stravinsky, Babbitt himself, and Powell’s own career.
In “Pantun” (2000), Babbitt returns to John Hollander, setting six of Hollander’s translations of Malay pantun. A pantun is a quatrain form in which each couplet expresses distinct ideas that, after a moment’s thought, reflect a deeper connection.
A wistful sense of loss also suffuses the album’s last song, “Now Evening after Evening” (2002). This setting of an eclogue by Derek Walcott depicts a seaside sunset, with gentle waves rolling in from a calm Atlantic. For most of the work, the voice rises and falls in slow, quiet arcs. A greater emotional pitch in the second half complicates the flow, as the singer recalls “your voice”—perhaps the voice of a lost lover. The song fades out with luminous, bell-like repeated tones, a soft farewell to Babbitt’s final work for voice and piano."
– Zachary Bernstein (edited for length, complete notes in booklet)
Producers: Nina Berman and Steve Beck
Edit production: Ryan Streber
Mixing and mastering: Ryan Streber, Oktaven Audio
Session Producers: Nina Berman and Steve Beck
Recording credits: Christopher Jacobs, engineer (Lippes Concert Hall at Slee Hall, State University of New York at Buffalo): A Solo Requiem (December 11-12, 2014). Ryan Streber, engineer (Oktaven Audio, Mt. Vernon, New York), all other tracks (May 2015-April 2020)
Graphic design: Marc Wolf, marcjwolf.com
Cover art: Antony Jażwiński, Tableau Muet, 1834
Liner notes: Zachary Bernstein
Soprano Nina Berman has performed in a variety of settings, from vocal improvisation to opera, with a particular focus on chamber music and art song. She has given numerous premieres, and has done live radio performances on WQXR, WNBC, and WHTZ. Additionally, Dr. Berman has focused on both early music and standard concert repertoire, singing in concert and on the opera stage throughout the US and Canada, and as a chorister with The Bard Festival Chorale, the St. Bartholomew’s Choir, and Bard SummerScape. She is active in New York, having performed as soloist and chamber musician at the city’s major venues, including Carnegie Hall’s Weill Hall, Alice Tully Hall, B.B. King’s Blues Club, The Iridium, New York City’s Town Hall, Brooklyn’s Roulette, The Cutting Room, and SubCulture, as well as in numerous tristate area concert series, most often in collaboration with pianist Steve Beck. Dr. Berman also sings as a member of Andrew McKenna Lee’s neo-psychedelic ensemble The Knells, whose recordings have been lauded by the New York Times, Washington Post, and The New Yorker. She holds a Bachelors and Masters of Music from the Manhattan School of Music, and a Doctorate of Musical Arts from the CUNY Graduate Center.
Pianist Steven Beck continues to gather wide acclaim for his performances and recordings. Recent career highlights include performances of Beethoven’s variations and bagatelles at Bargemusic, a venue where he first performed a complete Beethoven sonata cycle. In addition, this season he performs with the Westchester Philharmonic and the Alabama Symphony.
An esteemed performer of new music, he has worked with Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux, Charles Wuorinen, George Crumb, George Perle, and Fred Lerdahl, and performed with ensembles such as Speculum Musicae and the New York New Music Ensemble. He is a core member of the Da Capo Chamber Players, the Knights, and the Talea Ensemble. He is also a member of Quattro Mani, a piano duo specializing in contemporary music.
Mr. Beck’s discography includes Peter Lieberson's third piano concerto (for Bridge Records) and a recording of Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto on Albany Records. He is on the faculty of the Sewanee Summer Music Festival.https://nyphil.org/about-us/artists/steven-beck
Eric Huebner is a versatile pianist known for his performances of 20th and 21st century music. Appointed pianist of the New York Philharmonic in 2012, he appears in over 60 orchestral and chamber music concerts annually with the orchestra. As a recitalist, he has performed throughout North America, the U.K., Germany, Japan and Brazil. From 2001 to 2012 he was a member of Antares, a mixed instrument quartet awarded first prize at the 2002 Concert Artists Guild International Competition. The quartet toured North America extensively and commissioned, recorded and performed many new and recent works for its combination. Huebner’s work with living composers is documented in recordings on Col Legno, Centaur, Bridge, Albany, Tzadik, Innova, and Mode Records labels. A critically acclaimed 2020 New Focus recording features Ligeti’s Piano Études (Books I & II) and Horn Trio. His debut 2015 New Focus solo release, features works by Schumann, Carter and Stravinsky. Huebner is currently Professor of Music at State University of New York at Buffalo, where he has served on the faculty since 2009, and is an adjunct collaborative piano faculty member of The Juilliard School.
Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) was one of the luckiest modern American composer of his time because, despite the fact that he wrote extraordinarily complex modern music based on both the Schoenberg school and mathematical algorithms (he was also a mathematician), he gained such a huge reputation as a genius that women literally knocked his door down to date him, possibly hoping that he would (cough, cough) impart to them a child genius of their own.
And, unlike other very good modern American composers of his time (like Easley Blackwood, who as of this writing is still with us), his works continued to be hailed as products of genius and are still performed to this day. Personally, I’m not crazy about Babbitt’s instrumental works, nor am I generally a fan of any of his (or anyone else’s) electronic music, but he was clearly a brilliant composer and, for me, this comes out most clearly in his vocal works.
But just because Babbitt’s music is somewhat more accessible than his purely instrumental works, that doesn’t mean that they were written to appeal to the masses. They’re still atonal, though not always strictly 12-tone, and challenging for the listener. Thus you need performers who approach it as music and not necessarily as just an intellectual exercise. Babbitt was very lucky during his lifetime to have two excellent sopranos, Bethany Beardslee and Dora Ohrenstein, sing and record his music, and I am here to say that Nina Berman follows in their tradition. Aside from one flaw, and that is her enunciation which is only intermittently clear, she has a wonderful voice, both bright and full (in fact, a fuller tone than Beardslee had) in addition to a superb legato and first-rate musicianship. As to her diction problems, particularly in English, if Berman reads this review I would respectfully recommend that she listen very carefully to the recordings of British soprano Gwen Catley, whose diction was so clear even in her highest register (and Catley could ascend easily to the F or F# above high C) that not a single syllable was ever lost…and she did NOT over-enunciate. Catley’s recordings are, in my humble opinion, the greatest voice lesson for sopranos left to us on records. They should be required listening for every modern-day soprano regardless of fach or repertoire. the flaw that I hear in Berman’s singing is a tendency to “mush” the consonants and somewhat swallow the vowels. Always heed the instructions of the old Italian singing masters of the 18th century:
PUT THE WORDS ON THE LIPS AND LET THE BREATH RUN THEM OUT.
Thank you. And now, back to our regularly scheduled review.
Since Babbitt’s approach to writing was often the same, working with and around wide-leaping intervals—here mostly in the piano parts—there is a tendency in his music for each piece to sound much like (but not identical to) any other. This was his weakness. Even Berg and Schoenberg himself varied their approach more than Babbitt did. This is one reason why I can take his better music (mostly the vocal music) in small doses but not large ones. Incidentally, the same bad habit afflicted Pierre Boulez’ compositions as well. Babbitt was not alone in this failing. (I would also add that, despite its atonality, most of his music seems to have been written in or around the same basic “key area.”)
Thus I would recommend that the listener pause a couple of minutes between each piece on this CD (not necessarily , however, between individual movements of Du or the Solo Requiem) to let it all sink in before moving on. It will certainly help you appreciate the good things in Babbitt’s music, such as his surprisingly varied approach to rhythm in Phonemana, and in fact the second version with tape is somewhat different from the one with piano. (THIS is the kind of piece I’d like to hear a young soprano sing in an audition: it would immediately reveal not only the entire range of her voice, but also her musicianship, which is just as important.)
Also surprising is that Babbitt was actually able to create a somewhat tonal vocal line in his Solo Requiem which, divorced from the atonal accompaniment, would not sound all that strange to most ears. There’s also a fairly long and difficult piano piece in the third movement which is played very well by our two keyboardists, and the fifth movement bears a strong resemblance to Pierrot Lunaire. In the Requiem, Berman’s diction is a little clearer (but not so clear that you can make out every word), yet her vocal control is not as good, the voice having a slow flutter throughout.
In In His Own Words, Berman’s diction is very clear indeed, but this is not a sung piece but a Sprechstimme, which is entirely different. And a cute piece it is, too.
Taken in toto, this is an extremely good album, not to be missed by modern music aficionados and particularly by Babbitt fans. A shame he never wrote anything for Elvis Costello to sing. One would love to have seen a collaboration between Babbitt and Costello! (Just kidding!!).
— Lynn Rene Bayley, 11.13.2022
The vocal compositions of Milton Babbitt (1916-2011) probably are not as well-known as his instrumental work, particularly classic early serial pieces like All Set or Composition for Twelve Instruments. But they reflect Babbitt’s deep engagement with the systemic possibilities and expressive potential of dodecaphonic music, as well as his interest in language as a medium of expression made up of sounds. On Works for Treble Voice and Piano soprano Nina Berman and pianist Steve Beck show the range of Babbitt’s writing for voice by presenting a chronologically arranged survey of his published work for piano and soprano or contralto, spanning the years 1950-2002.
The set begins on a somber note, with Babbitt’s 1950 setting of William Carlos Williams’ poem The Widow’s Lament. The music follows the flow of Williams’ words and creates a mood appropriate to the words, the setting for which, like Williams’ poetry, is plain and direct even while maintaining its atonality. The following year Babbitt set German Expressionist poet August Stramm’s text Du to seven short movements. The music is exuberantly atonal; Babbitt’s setting of the text brings out the consonant-driven musicality of the German text. Sounds and Words (1960) and 1969’s Phonemena—the title of the latter reflecting Babbitt’s love of wordplay–take the musicality of language to its logical conclusion by breaking it into phonemes and setting those as texts. The music features extreme leaps, as if it had been liberated by the text’s freedom from conventional meaning. In an exception to the voice-and-piano program, Phonemena appears here as well in its second iteration for soprano and tape (1975). The six-movement A Solo Requiem (1977), which like Phonemena is from Babbitt’s second compositional period, is a setting of texts from several different poets for soprano and two pianos, Beck here being joined by pianist Eric Huebner. This composition, a memorial to Babbitt’s student Godfrey Winham, again shows how Babbitt’s sensitivity to language allowed him to elicit affecting moods from the ostensibly cerebral angularity of atonal music. From Babbitt’s third and final period are In His Own Words, a spoken word tribute to composer and jazz pianist Mel Powell with texts taken from Powell’s writings on music, and Virginal Book, a setting of a John Hollander poem for contralto, both from 1988; Pantun (2000), featuring Hollander’s translations of Malay poetry; and 2002’s Now Evening after Evening, an atonal pastoral setting for an eclogue by Derek Walcott.
This is a fine recording of an aspect of Babbitt’s work that deserves to be better known.
— Daniel Barbiero, 11.14.2022