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Peter Lieberson

Publisher: AMP

Neruda Songs (2005),
Text Writer
Pablo Neruda
Associated Music Publishers Inc
Soloists and Orchestra
Year Composed
30 Minutes
Solo Instrument(s)
mezzo soprano
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Programme Note
Peter Lieberson Neruda Songs (2005),
Peter Lieberson won the University of Louisville's 2008 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition for Neruda Songs, his song-cycle for mezzo-soprano and orchestra on poetry of Nobel Prize-winning Pablo Neruda.

"I am delighted to have received it, particularly for Neruda Songs. They are very special to me, as they were written for Lorraine."

      Read an interview with Peter Lieberson at NewMusicBox.
      Listen to clips at Nonesuch Records.
Peter Lieberson
Neruda Songs
Lorraine Hunt Lieberson,
Boston Symphony/Levine
Nonesuch 79954-2

Composer's Note

I discovered the love poems of Pablo Neruda by chance in the Albuquerque airport. The book had a pink cover and drew me in. As I glanced through the poems I immediately thought that I must set some of these for Lorraine. Years later the opportunity came when the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra co-commissioned this piece from me, to be written specifically for Lorraine.

Each of the five poems that I set to music seemed to me to reflect a different face in love's mirror. The first poem, "If your eyes were not the color of the moon," is pure appreciation of the beloved. The second, "Love, love, the clouds went up the tower of the sky like triumphant washerwomen," is joyful and also mysterious in its evocation of nature's elements: fire, water, wind, and luminous space. The third poem, "Don't go far off, not even for a day," reflects the anguish of love, the fear and pain of separation. The fourth poem, "And now you're mine. Rest with your dream in my dream," is complex in its emotional tone. First there is the exultance of passion. Then, gentle, soothing words lead the beloved into the world of rest, sleep and dream. Finally, the fifth poem, "My love, if I die and you don't," is very sad and peaceful at the same time. There is the recognition that no matter how blessed one is with love, there will be a time when we must part from those whom we cherish so much. Still, Neruda reminds one that love has not ended. In truth there is no real death to love nor even a birth: "It is like a long river, only changing lands, and changing lips."

I am so grateful for Neruda's beautiful poetry, for although these poems were written to another, when I set them I was speaking directly to my own beloved, Lorraine.

— Peter Lieberson

  • Ensemble
    Boston Symphony Orchestra
    Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, mezzo-soprano
    James Levine
  • Ensemble
    Boston Symphony Orchestra
    Lorraine Hunt Lieberson
    James Levine
  • Soloist(s)
    Kelley O'Connor (Mezzo Soprano)
    Robert Spano
    Aso Media (Label) :
  • 21 NOV 2019
    Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA
    Philadelphia Orchestra
    Stéphane Denève, conductor

    Other Dates:
    22,23 November - Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, PA
  • 18 JAN 2020
    Littleton HS Performing Arts Ctr, Littleton, MA
    Orchestra of Indian Hill
    Britt Brown; Bruce Hangen, conductor
  • 14 FEB 2020
    Alys Stephens / Birmingham, AL / USA
    Alabama Symphony Orchestra
    Carlos Izcaray, conductor

    Other Dates:
    15 February - Alys Stephens / Birmingham, AL / USA
  • 15 APR 2020
    The Kennedy Center, Washington, DC
    Philadelphia Orchestra
    Stéphane Denève, conductor

It was possible that these songs, having been hatched with a particular voice in mind — a distinctive one in the case of Hunt Lieberson — might not be taken up by other singers. However, Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony and a champion of new music, put together his own recording of the Neruda songs, using that orchestra and a rising young American mezzo, Kelley O’Connor, who studied the songs with Lieberson while he was undergoing chemotherapy in Hawaii.

Happily, Spano and O’Connor have been engaged for the concerts at Orchestra Hall. Thursday morning’s performance was one of almost startling illumination and poignancy. O’Connor seemed to have thought through every nuance and shade of meaning in these evocative texts and the settings that Lieberson created for them, and yet the performance sustained a feeling of spontaneity and an intimacy not easily achieved in this hall. (Wisely, translations of the poems appeared as surtitles above the stage as the performance progressed.)

Hunt Lieberson’s recording on Nonesuch (taped live in Boston) will always be cherished, but there was a freshness and flexibility to O’Connor’s singing — the strong, clear high notes, for instance, in the first song — that the older singer couldn’t quite realize. O’Connor also captured the urgency in the third song (“Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?”), and the tone of the final song, the one that most recalls Richard Strauss, ending in a state of tranquility with a repetition of the word “amor,” was positively radiant.
Michael Anthony, Minneapolis Star Tribune,19/11/2015
The concert's soloist, mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, performed Lieberson's "Neruda Songs" with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in February, but Thursday was distinctly different.

The SPCO performance emphasized intimacy while the Minnesota Orchestra gave the work a full-voiced lushness that underlined its words of trying to express a love beyond words or music. O'Connor proved an ideal interpreter, fully inhabiting the music with her smooth, subtle, substantial voice and warm presence.
Rob Hubbard, Pioneer Press,19/11/2015
O’Connor’s identification with this music is complete. She enters into the spirit of both words and music in a way that is almost uncanny. Lieberson’s intense, other-worldly harmonies seemed to cling to her voice in a sensual, hypnotic way. For me the highlight came at the end of the third song with the line “Will you come back? Will you leave me here, dying?” as the music dwelt on the word muriendo in a way that reminded me of Mahler. The final song, setting a poem about the death of a lover that must have been only too meaningful to Lieberson at the time of writing, seemed to be slipping from the moorings of this musical world and heading out for something in another sphere. The sensuous orchestration, rich yet delicate and individual, seemed to shimmer around O’Connor’s voice with power and beauty. The performance was dedicated to Lieberson’s memory: I think he would be pleased with the memorial.
Simon Thompson, Seen and Heard international,01/05/2011
The orchestration is lush, yet spare, lightly accompanying and moulding the voice.
Hilary Finch, The Times,05/10/2010
With considerable emotional depth that comes from something as personally inspired as this, yet with a directness that reaches out to us all.
Colin Anderson, Classical Source,01/10/2010
The Neruda Songs by Peter Lieberson are, I think, some of the most sublimely beautiful pieces to be written in recent years…The words are extraordinary and the Neruda poetry is amazing. Harmonically it’s totally ravishing – the first time I listened to it, I was in tears.
David Briggs, BBC Music Magazine,01/05/2010
"Lieberson's orchestral writing is both opulent and sensual, highly selective and invariably effective in its use of colour...Each of the five settings is distinctive, while as a unified work the piece works brilliantly. Lieberson has here turned something deeply personal into something of much wider significance. The cycle deserves many more performances."
George Hall, BBC Music Magazine,01/02/2007
"Inevitably, these are deeply personal as well as public utterances, and in this sense, Lieberson's 'cycle' of five sonett settings have a Mahlerian impact on the listener, a sense of being witness to something essentially intimate, almost an invasion of privacy...These are, indeed, life-enhancing, uplifting songs, rejoicing in the joys and passions of a love that death cannot destroy. Lieberson wrote memorably singable lines for his wife's unique voice, and his orchestrations are rich and inventive, evoking the sultry, hot-house atmosphere of Latin-American ardour."
Hugh Canning, International Record Review,01/02/2007
The great music of the afternoon came with Peter Lieberson’s Neruda Songs for mezzo-soprano and orchestra. The soloist was Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, the composer’s wife... The Neruda Songs — a setting of five love poems on deep and wrenching subjects such as passing delight, memory, fear of separation and transcendence beyond death — is one of the most extraordinary affecting artistic gifts ever created by one lover to another... The score is achingly lovely, a genuine mixture of modernism and romanticism that has been sumptuously orchestrated and charged with the same appreciative ripeness that pervades Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs... I hope the Neruda Songs are recorded, for they are just as universal as they are shatteringly personal.
Tim Page, Washington Post,01/03/2006
Peter Lieberson’s new set of love songs to his wife is a thing of silvery, 3 a.m. beauty. In the half-light and glimmer of the orchestra, a melody leaps languidly upward like a dancer on the moon. This is music of untethered lyricism, born of the voice — specifically, the burnished-copper mezzo of its dedicatee, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

...[Lieberson’s] setting of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s sonnets is a blushingly romantic offering to Lorraine, who sang them with a concentrated glow. They are, of course, tailored for her voice, but more important, being married to a singer has taught the composer to think in song...

Justin Davidson, New York Newsday,28/11/2005
"If your eyes were not the color of the moon," the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote in one of a hundred sonnets to his third wife, Matilde Urrutia, "if you were not that bread the fragrant moon kneads, sprinkling flour across the sky, oh my dearest, I could not love you so!"

If you don't think such lines (and they are more beautiful still in their original Spanish) need to be set to music, you must have missed the Los Angeles Philharmonic's premiere of Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs...But that's OK — there will surely be other performances, and a recording is all but inevitable. These songs are here to stay...

Neruda Songs is a new direction for Lieberson. The five love poems are allowed to bloom with deceptively simple music. The orchestra is small, and used with great delicacy. Each line of poetry is rounded into easy melody, while harmonies coddle the text...

This is, of course, deeply personal music, and Hunt Lieberson's performance was like her reading to us her love letters. Each word was given its expression. Others will want to sing these gorgeous songs, but Hunt Lieberson is one of a kind.

Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times,20/05/2005
Neruda an achingly beautiful cycle on love sonnets by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda.

You actually can feel the love emanating from the pages of Lieberson's exquisite score...Neruda Songs holds the listener spellbound...

Donald Rosenberg, Cleveland Plain Dealer,01/01/0001
Peter Lieberson has inscribed the score of his Neruda Songs "to my beloved Lorraine," and his wife, mezzo Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, sang the triumphant East Coast premiere of his extraordinary, indrawing song cycle... Lieberson chose five of the 100 love sonnets the Chilean Pablo Neruda addressed to his own beloved, Matilde Urruitia... They are passionate, mysterious, painful, joyous, piercingly sad, and, ultimately, accepting in an all-encompassing way... Lieberson has found haunting music for Neruda's words, music that is both direct and elusive... The music is dark in color, full of idiomatic Spanish timbres, rhythms, and vocal melismas... Hunt Lieberson sounded glorious. Her singing is never just about singing, though her voice is lustrous and her vocalism superb. She doesn't create "effects;" instead she expresses contrasting states of being and feeling with what is apparently utter, fearless candor... The highest tribute to a musical performance is a sustained, rapt period of silence at the close. It is a rare phenomenon, but it happened...after the Lieberson.
Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe,01/01/0001
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