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The voice is the oldest of all musical instruments (although some might say that singing predates even the spoken word). Yet the context in which it is presented to us can vary.
The song recital is very different from the challenge of performing in an opera, where the singer is part of a larger whole. It is the simplest and cheapest form of a vocal concert to organize but artistically the most demanding.
The History of the Recital
In June 1840, Franz Liszt gave the world’s first piano recital, which paved the way for the first song recital (although I have read that Clara Schumann played a role here, which makes sense given her supposed disdain for Liszt).
The Hungarian composer Franz Liszt turned the concert on its head, interacting with the audience and speaking to them in between pieces.
He often arranged the audience’s seats to move between them and chat with his fans. The programmed works would be used as the basis for spontaneous improvisations too, which became something of a party trick and had a tendency to whip the crowd into a frenzy.
And to give his audience a better view and sound, he positioned the piano sideways on stage. Not only could he then be seen in profile, but with the lid up, the piano sound carried more easily into the room.
Although the format varied slightly with the song recital, it allowed the artist to create a new type of dynamic with the audience and share more of themselves.
Today we are listening to “Serenata” by Pietro Mascagni from the Pavarotti’s 1988 recital at Lincoln Center.
Luciano Pavarotti became the first singer to give a solo performance at the Met’s Lincoln Center home in 1978. Ten years later, he returned for this performance. The entire recital can be seen in the video below but cued up to “Serenata” (45:27).
In 1894, four years after Cavalleria Rusticana, Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) produced what was to become arguably the most popular of his more than 35 songs. This was “Serenata” (“Serenade”), which in addition to Pavarotti, has been sung by soprano Renata Tebaldi and tenors Giuseppe Di Stefano, Carlo Bergonzi, and Francesco Albanese.
Musically Mascagni gives the listener two identical verses in “Serenata”, sung to sweet and straightforward text. The singer thinks of his sleeping love, with the hope that she won't wake up because he’s about to kiss her in her dreams.
🎧 Listening Example: (3 minute listen): Luciano Pavarotti singing “Serenata” by Pietro Mascagni from the Pavarotti’s 1988 recital at Lincoln Center
English Translation, “Serenata” by Pietro Mascagni
Like loving doves sleep with their heads tucked under white wings
You, sleepy, recline under soft, embroidered blankets.
You enjoy rose-colored dreams as your head rests upon the pillow.
As sweet fairies pass by, one brushes your smiling face,
And tells you that my heart is bleeding for you, and my veins run hot with blood! Passing by, it tells you that I love you; that you are both sweetness and torment to me!
White, within a cloud of blond hair, you smile happily at your pleasant dreams.
Do not awaken, oh flower of paradise!
Because I come to kiss you in your dreams!
Thank you for reading (and listening),
PS. We listened to The Easter Hymn from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Rossini's Biblical opera if you missed last week's selection.
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Pavarotti is great to listen to anytime - so enjoyed this
I've only recently become interested in opera in my more mature years. Listening to Pavarotti I am both awed by his effortless pure singing - no strain at all - and sad because I'll never hear him in person. His voice was astonishingly beautiful.