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Interview by Henry Fogel, Review by Huntley Dent

Interview with Sarah Moulton Faux
By Henry Fogel

I was completely taken by your recording of songs of Lola Williams—a composer whose name I had never encountered before. So my first (and probably obvious) questions are: How did you discover this music? And what was your initial reaction at that discovery?

I came to Lola Williams through her son, Derek Williams, one of my history teachers at Phillips Academy, Andover, a boarding school in Massachusetts where Lola had taught in the summer and which her three sons all attended. Unfortunately, I did not meet Lola when she was alive, but after she passed I offered to record a few of her songs for her family. When Derek sent me the initial batch (I believe Plot of the Fairy King and Feste’s Song were in that group), they fitted my voice so well and I enjoyed working on them so much that I was curious to see if there were more. That was the start of several trips to Vermont, where Williams’s music was now in boxes in Derek’s basement, mixed in with hundreds if not thousands of pages of her prose and poetry writing. It ultimately became a wonderful detective project, as not only did we find more songs than we were expecting, but for every song there were multiple undated drafts, so determining which was the most “finished” or in some cases the most “beautiful” or “interesting” was a time-consuming but ultimately very fulfilling endeavor. There was even an instance where we were missing a few measures of Where Should This Music Be?, only to find a single page of music with the missing measures buried in another box. It was such a thrill to make those discoveries.

It seems to me that while Williams wrote in what would be called a fairly conservative idiom, she displayed a streak of harmonic adventure in her work. Did that strike you too? And how does that influence your performance of these songs?

Yes! Some songs feature modality, while others like Celia Sings: Be Merry and There’s Only One Man are extremely pentatonic. An interesting feature of the piano writing is the extensive use of dominant 7ths, even in bass lines, which one might think would give the songs an ungrounded quality, but the strength of the vocal lines somehow counters this impression. So, the job of the singer becomes one of taking a position of strength in the texture, not simply riding over a lovely accompaniment. 

The piano writing in these songs seems much more than mere accompaniment. Can you describe how you and your pianist (Ted Taylor) worked together in fashioning your performances?

It was a true collaboration. As you mentioned, some of the most interesting and emotionally compelling aspects of the songs are in the piano writing. I tried to be sensitive to that and give Ted the space to bring out Williams’s musical ideas. Each piece took a lot of discussion and experimentation to reconcile the various elements into a cohesive whole. 

Ted was an integral part of the process from the beginning. I would narrow down Williams’s versions to what I felt were the strongest two or three, and then we would sit down at his piano, play through them, and sometimes do a page by page comparison. For example, deciding between the many versions of Sonnet 116 was particularly challenging, and it ultimately came down to two measures of music in the piano part which we felt showed something a little different in Williams’s piano writing than her other compositions.

On the disc you have other singers involved, because a number of the songs are for more than one voice. How did you go about choosing the other singers, and what was there reaction to discovering this music?

Nicholas Tamagna and I have performed together many times, including a recital of soprano/countertenor duets, The Tyranny of Love. Although Williams did not specifically write for countertenor, I was thrilled at the prospect that some of her pieces might lend themselves to that pairing.

Heather Johnson and Laura Krumm came to us on the recommendation of our producers, The American Opera Project and Laura Kaminsky. Although I had never worked with them before, as soon as Ted and I heard their voices, we knew they were the right singers for this project. All of the singers have a strong background and interest in performing new works, and it’s pretty extraordinary to record with Judith Sherman, a five-time Grammy-winning producer.

I presume you have performed Williams’s songs in recitals. What is the reaction of listeners upon encountering a composer of whom they have probably never heard?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Williams’s music is very approachable and many of the songs are quite humorous. I think people find it refreshing.

When fashioning a recital that includes songs by Williams, what do you usually pair them with?

The songs are so versatile, they are a natural fit for many programs. For example, I did a program on Shakespeare’s musical legacy, where Williams’s songs were alongside Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Gounod’s “Je veux vivre” from Romeo and Juliet. On one of my lecture recitals, Romance, Trysts, and Intrigue: The Secret Love Lives of the Great Composers, I placed Williams after a set by Gabriel Fauré that included Lydia and L’hiver a cessé. I believe in both instances that Williams’s songs absolutely held their own.

Williams’s scores are currently being prepared for publication by our transcriber Amy Scurria (who is also a composer), and I look forward to seeing how other singers choose to program her work.

In looking at the biography for you included in the booklet with the disc, I see the career of a singer with a very wide range of musical tastes and sympathies. Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and Handel are to be expected from a lyric soprano, but also Gilbert and Sullivan seem to play a strong role. And there is also your willingness to expand into a composer whom virtually no one has discovered before you. Are there still more adventures on your part, more unknown or, perhaps, unexpected areas?

It would be thrilling to work on another project like this that combines archival work with performance and recording, especially if it involves women composers, as I strongly believe that they have been underserved by history. I’m also always open and eager to work with living composers.

One project I’ve been wanting to give more attention to is the life of one of my ancestors, Lillie Moulton, who was an American singer in Europe in the 1850s to the early 1900s. She studied with Manuel Garcia in London, and then worked with his sister Pauline Viardot when she moved to Paris. Lillie published two books of her letters back to America that are filled with fascinating accounts of her interactions with Rossini, Wagner, and Liszt. Massenet even dedicated songs to her. I’ve referenced her in previous recitals, but would love to explore her life and times more fully, perhaps as a one-woman show.

 

LOLA WILLIAMS O Mistress Mine. There’s Only One Man. Scene from “The Tempest,” Act 1 1,2,3 . Our Revels Now Are Ended. The Cuckoo Sings (for Spring) 1 . The Owl Sings (for Winter) 2 . Celia Sings: Be Merry. How Do I Love (Thee) You?. Sonnet 116. Feste’s Song. Sigh No More, Ladies. A Sweet Lullaby. Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind 1,2 . Come Away, Death. Threnos (for Romeo and Juliet)3. Plot of the Fairy King. Christmas Words. Manger Scene 3 . My Dancing Day Sarah Moulton Faux (sop); 1 Heather Johnson, 2 Laura Krumm (mez); 3 Nicholas Tamagna (ct); Ted Taylor (pn) NEW WORLD 80818-2 (63:45 Text and Translation)

Shakespeare devoted only one life to producing his plays, but countless lives have been devoted to them ever since. Unlike G. B. Shaw, who coined the derisive term “bardolatry” to describe Shakespeare worship, many great composers were enticed to set Shakespearean texts. I didn’t realize, however, that the list needs to be much more amplified to include, for example, the 34 women composers who set a single song, “O mistress mine” from Twelfth Night, of which the leading group, 14 in all, were Americans, including the North Carolina composer Lola Williams.

Williams had a consuming passion for Shakespeare’s writing. She intended to take every play and do homage to it with an essay of analytical commentary, an original verse of her own, and a song setting of a lyrical passage. Since she undertook this project only in later life, after retiring from teaching English and music in Durham, North Carolina, and being widowed, Williams didn’t achieve her goal. She did leave behind a trove of Shakespeare songs, which form the bulk of this fascinating album.

Williams was self-taught and so modest that at times she sought compositional instruction from a music undergraduate of her acquaintance. The two plays that have inspired the most music are Twelfth Night, which features a line everyone knows, “If music be the food of love, play on!,” and As You Like It, but songs populate the entire Shakespeare canon. Born in 1913, Williams undertook her project in 1973 and persisted for two decades; she died at the remarkable age of 99 in 2013. Except for one public occasion when two of her songs were sung and exposure through an amateur music club, her compositions went unperformed in her lifetime.

This unique back story can’t help but enhance the present release, which is the premiere recording of the 19 songs on the program, variously set for solo voice, duet, and trio. Sincerity and depth of feeling mark every item, and Williams would have been delighted at the caliber of these performances. The guiding force is soprano Sarah Moulton Faux, who entered by serendipity. Williams’s son Derek had stored boxes of his mother’s compositions in his basement. Derek had taught history at Phillips Andover Academy, where Moulton Faux was one of his pupils. After she was contacted by him, Moulton Faux and conductor Ted Taylor, who serves as the sympathetic and accomplished pianist here, undertook the seemingly endless task of combing through piles of hand-written drafts, eventually compiling the songs on this disc (and presumably many more).

Listeners who have any level of devotion to Shakespeare will recognize familiar and unfamiliar verses, with an immediate attraction to Williams’s musical response. She didn’t write her songs to be inserted into the plays—some pieces, like Scene from “The Tempest,” depicting Ferdinand washed up on Prospero’s island, were not written as lyrics for a song. Williams was attracted primarily to the comedies, and she has a light, winsome touch in a comical number like Feste’s Song, intended for the clown in Twelfth Night. She rises to her best, I think, in wistful romance, as in “Sigh no more, ladies” from Much Ado.

The four singers have impressive artist’s bios including performances at New York City Opera and the Met. Moulton Faux, who sings 13 songs solo, has a melting lyric-coloratura soprano; she blends beautifully in duets and trios with mezzos Heather Johnson and Laura Krumm. Countertenor Nicholas Tamagna has a warm tone and notable artistry in his singing. (He is a reminder that any song for a female character would have been sung by a boy in Elizabethan theaters.) There’s a joyful quality to all the singing that goes to the heart of Williams’s love for composing. Technically her idiom, as I hear it, harks back to the parlor songs she would have encountered as a child; there’s an aura of the Victorian drawing room in many of the songs, which don’t veer into sentimentality, however. You feel a genuine connection between the composer and the literary genius she adored.

My only caveat is that the voices could have been miked more closely; the ample ambience blurs their diction at times, so it’s good that New World provides full texts. The Shakespeare setting of Lola Williams may never receive a second CD, and if they did, it would be hard to match the level of music-making on this one. Warmly recommended. Huntley Dent

 

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