text: various writers
Date of Composition: 1996
PROGRAM NOTES: The Kissing Songs are based on popular dance forms: the waltz, tango, two-step, slow fox trot, and the maxixe. In this sense they are similar to the Liebeslieder Waltzer of Johannes Brahms. Of these dances the only one likely to be unfamiliar is the maxixe (pronounced ma-SHE-shay), a Brazilian urban dance that appeared in Rio de Janeiro around 1870. A kind of polka incorporating Afro-Brazilian elements and danced with a dragging of the feet and hip motions, the maxixe, along with the tango, is the dance form found in Darius Milhaud’s Saudades do Brazil.
All the poetry set in the Kissing Songs deals in one way or another with the kiss, from the risqué exuberance of Catullus (c.84-54 B.C.) to the coy Victorianism of Coventry Patmore (1823-1896). The lyric for the “Waltz” set here is my own hammered together version of Catullus. The “Tango” is a setting of John Fletcher’s “Take, oh take those lips away,” the first stanza of which was used by Shakespeare in Measure for Measure and set by Virgil Thomson in a charming, old-American style in his Shakespeare Songs. However, the second stanza of Mr. Fletcher’s verse deserves inclusion, if only for the quaint metaphor in makes of the line, “Hide, oh hide those hills of snow,” in alluding to the bosom of the poet’s ladylove. The “Two-Step” is a setting of “The Kiss,” by Thomas Moore, an Irish poet and composer, who is perhaps better known for his songs, One dear smile and When midst the gay.
From the Two-Step developed the Fox Trot, the horse trot, turkey trot, grizzly bear, bunnyhug and eventually, by way of the English ballroom, the slow Fox Trot, which is similar to the American popular ballad. The ‘Slow Fox Trot’ lyric, “Kisses Desired,” is by William Drummond, whose poetry has been characterized as “a strange blended glow of warmth and melancholy withdrawal which is of some poignancy.” I was especially taken with the words, “Heart, mine,” which begin the second verse. Mr. Drummond lived the life of a cultured and rather remote gentleman of means at Hawthornden, his inherited estate in Scotland. The versus of two poems, both imitations of Catullus, are alternated for the “Maxixe” lyric. John Langhorn is known for his translations of Plutarch and his poems, which anticipate George Crabbe in their “sympathetic treatment of the humble and unfortunate.” Virtually no biographical information for John Chatwin is available. His Catullus imitation, preserved in manuscript at the Bodleian Library, I found in the newly published Oxford Book of Classical Verse in Translation. I must say that I relished setting the words of these old Brits to the rhythms of the hot Brazilian maxixe.
Here and there in the Kissing Songs, kisses are illustrated musically by the interval of a major or minor second (two notes next to one another on the piano keyboard). The music, in general, is a late 20th-century stylization of familiar dance forms. Oft-used rhythms and melodic contours (one might even say clichés) clearly define the idiom of each dance. In overall form, the five dance-songs are interrupted by two Interludes, settings of short versus in a recitative-like melody over a repeating progression of atonal chords.
Completed in January 1996, the Kissing Songs were commissioned by the New York Festival of Songs with funds provided by The Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust and are dedicated to Michael Barrett and Steven Blier.
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Additional Program Notes - Kissing Songs
Kissing Songs should be listed in the program thus:
James Sellars: Kissing Songs (1996)
I Waltz: adapted from the 5th Epigram of Gaius Valerius Catullus (c. 84-54 B.C.)
II Tango: “Take, oh take those lips away” by John Fletcher (1579-1625)
Interlude One: “The Kiss” by Coventry Patmore (1823-1896)
III Two-Step: “The Kiss” by Thomas Moore (1779-1852)
IV Slow Fox Trot: “Kisses Desired” by William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649)
Interlude Two: “Jenny Kiss’d Me” by Leigh Hunt (1810-1873)
V Maxixe: Imitations of the 5th Epigram of Catullus by John Chatwin (17th century)
and John Langhorne (1735-1779)