Austerity is probably not the first characteristic that would come to mind when describing the music of John Cage, and yet that’s precisely what dominates his short song The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, composed in 1942. The text is extracted from a passage (on page 556) of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:
night by silentsailing night…
wildwoods’ eyes and primarose hair,
all the woods so wild, in mauves of
moss and daphnedews,
how all so still she lay neath of the
whitethorn, child of tree,
like some losthappy leaf,
like blowing flower stilled,
as fain would she anon,
for soon again ‘twil be,
win me, woo me, wed me,
ah weary me!
Now evencalm lay sleeping; night
Veuve La belle
Cage sets these words for voice and piano, on both of whom he imposes severe restrictions; the singer has just three pitches at their disposal (F#, G# and C#) while the pianist isn’t even allowed to open the lid, playing instead on the outside of the instrument. Cage flirted with strict pitch restrictions a few years earlier in the Five Songs for Contralto (song no. 3, “in Just-“, also uses just three pitches), but the atmosphere he establishes here is much more sombre and unsettling. The voice is instructed to sing without vibrato, and the result is a strange cross between sacred chant and folk song, somehow elegant and crude simultaneously. The blunt wooden knocks from the piano create a texture that’s similarly paradoxical, one moment sounding like the random clonks of branches or heavily stylised insect noises, the next like a carefully choreographed ritual. Combined, the effect is truly eerie, and a perfect mouthpiece for Joyce’s highly expressive nocturnal text.
This performance was given by mezzo-soprano Lore Lixenberg and pianist Philip Thomas at the 2008 Huddersfield Festival. Lixenberg is superb, dramatic but subtle, at times sounding almost as though she’s about to swoon, while Philip Thomas must have had very red knuckles by the end.