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Songs & Arias
Marilyn J. Ziffrin
D'Anna Fortunato, mezzo-soprano
Max Lifchitz, piano/harpsichord
Liuh-Wen Ting, viola
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Marilyn J. Ziffrin was born in Moline, Illinois in 1926 and began the study of piano at the age of four. She went through the Moline Public School system graduating valedictorian of her high school class. Recently, she was inducted into the Hall of Honors of Moline Senior High School, her alma matter, only the second person to be so honored.
Her undergraduate years were spent at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where she took a double major in applied music and instrumental music education, graduating cum laude with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1948. Ziffrin received her Master's Degree in music from Teachers College, Columbia University in 1949, where she wrote her first large scale work, a piano concerto.
While living in Chicago she studied composition with Alexander Tcherepnin. Her Piano Suite was awarded Second Prize in the composition contest of the Chicago chapter of the International Society of Contemporary Music in 1955. Recorded by Max Lifchitz in 1992 and available on the American Debuts album (North/South Recordings No. 1002) the reviewer for High Performance Review described the Piano Suite as follows: "This music has a peculiarly American sound: lean, direct, tonal and often jazzy; it is delightful and unpretentious."
In 1961 Ziffrin was a accepted as a Fellow of the MacDowell Colony, her first of six residencies through the years, with a later residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. In 1961 Ziffrin also began teaching music at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and remained there until 1967 when she accepted a position at New England College in Henniker, NH.
Before taking up her post in the east, she spent a year in Vermont doing research on Carl Ruggles, the distinguished American composer and painter who was then a Vermont resident. Her biography of Ruggles was published by the University of Illinois Press in 1994.
Meanwhile the list of Ziffrin compositions continued to grow. Sono, for cello and piano written for the Wells Duo was a semi-finalist in the 1983 Kennedy Center Friedheim Awards. The Boston Chapter of the American Guild of Organists commissioned her Theme and Variations "In Memoriam" for the 1990 national meeting. Critic Scott Cantrell writing in the American Organist summed up the work dedicated to the memory of artists who have died of AIDS thus: "avoiding the Scylla of sentimentality as surely as the Charybdis of hectoring, it impressed as a noble thoughtful statement, effectively conceived for the organ."
Ziffrin's Symphony for Voice and Orchestra, "Letters," written for soprano Neva Pilgrim was given its premiere by Tom Nee and the New Hampshire Music Festival Orchestra in August, 1990. Subsequently, Neva Pilgrim and the Radio Orchestra of Slovakia conducted by Robert Black recorded it for the Master Musicians Collective label. Also for this label, Richard Stoltzman recorded her Clarinet Concerto a couple of years later.
Most recently, pianist Helen Lin and the North/South Consonance Ensemble led by Max Lifchitz recorded her Concertino for Piano and Six Instruments, a work written in 1999 to mark North/South Consonance's 20th anniversary season.
Ziffrin has received many grants, prizes and commissions. All through her music there is evidence of love of melody, a strong structural logic, a keen sense of rhythm and a joyous feeling of affirmation.
Ms. Ziffrin kindly provided the following written commentary for the vocal chamber works featured in this album:
Three Songs of the Trobairitz
Written in 1991 at the request of soprano Neva Pilgrim, Three Songs of the Trobairitz was inspired by the poetry of three writers from the late Middle Ages: Castelloza, Azalais de Porcairages and Countess de Dia. Thanks to the efforts of researchers such as Meg Bogin the writings of the trobairitz—women troubadours—are becoming better known and receiving the recognition they deserve.
The cycle consists of three contrasting songs: the first is bittersweet, the second sad and remorseful, and the third carefree and dance-like. The musical settings capture the simplicity and directness of a bygone era without compromising the modernity of the musical language.
The first recording of these songs made in 1993 by Neva Pilgirm and Max Lifchitz is available on the Music at The Crossroads album (North/South Recordings No. 1005).
Three Songs for Woman's Voice
In 1955 the poem, The Woman at the Spring Drip written by Millen Brand appeared in the New Yorker Magazine. I liked it so much that I wrote Brand asking permission to set it to music. He readily consented, and our friendship developed. Brand began sending me poems, and from these I selected A Song of Night for the second song in the set.
For the third selection I wanted a lighter poem, so I turned to my longtime friend, Carolyn Hill Wales, for the ditty The Maid Who Sells the Rose.
The first performance of the entire set, Three Songs for Woman's Voice, was given by Elizabeth Wysor, with Dorothy Mayer at the piano on December 5, 1957 at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.
Three Songs for D'Anna
This is my most recent set of songs having completed them in 2003. As the title indicates, they were written specifically for the soloist in this recording.
D'Anna Fortunato had previously sung several of my other cycles, and since Marc Widershien, the poet, is the artist's husband, the project soon fell into place.
The songs reflect the seasons as well as the inner life of a person. This recording represents the first performance of the entire set.
Two Arias from Captain Kidd
If Only There Were Someone and So a Man Must Die are from the opera Captain Kidd. While I commenced working on this project in 1980, the opera has never been completed. I wrote the libretto based on the true story of William Kidd, who was not really a pirate, though he was tried and hung for that offense. Captain Kidd's wife Sarah sings the two arias heard on this recording.
If Only There Were Someone is sung during the trial. Sarah laments that none of the powerful men who supported Kidd will speak the truth and thus exonerate him. A viola underscores her sadness and frustration.
So a Man Must Die is the final aria in the opera and also the final selection in this album. Sarah is alone on stage, and William has been sentenced to death by hanging. She expresses her despair and anguish, and her love for him. Suddenly, at the end, she hears the roar of the mob signaling his death, and she gives one final cry as the falling curtain marks the end of the opera.
The first performance of this final aria was given January 20, 1982 at the New England College in Henniker, NH with Marilyn Coromel, mezzo-soprano; and Jane Ann McSwiney, piano. Neva Pilgrim has also performed it with Nancy Ogle.
Two Songs for Voice, Viola and Piano
1998 was the 20th anniversary of the North Country Chamber Players and the Robert Frost House in Franconia, NH. The poet in residence at the time was Sue Ellen Thompson. As part of the celebration, the Chamber Players asked me to write a work using some of Thompson's poetry. The result was Two Songs for Soprano, Viola and Piano.
The first performance took place at the Frost Place on July 5, 1998, with Carol Wilson, soprano; Laurance Feder, viola; and Bernard Rose, piano.
In the songs the three parts are truly equal, with some sections a duet between the viola and the voice.
Haiku: A Song Cycle
In 1961 I had my first residence at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, NH. While there, I met the writer Kathryn Martin, who at that time lived in San Francisco. Over the years we corresponded, and periodically Martin would insert haiku settings, whose form she was teaching, in her letters. I saved them, and in 1971 I selected thirteen of them for the song cycle Haiku, for voice, viola and harpsichord.
They are roughly divided into three sections representing the seasons and inner feelings. The first four are haiku about winter; the next four are more reflective, while the third group of four deal with spring and summer. The final haiku is a reprise of the opening.
The first performance of the work took place on November 8, 1971 with Dorothy Crum, soprano; Nancy Bond, viola; and Harriette S. Richardson, harpsichord. The work subsequently won the 1972 Delius Competition.
D'Anna Fortunato first sang Haiku on the program Chamberworks over WGBH-FM in Boston with Patricia McCarthy, viola; and James David Christie, harpsichord. The same trio performed the work at chamber music concerts in Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut. In 2000 D'Anna Fortunato also performed it with different instrumentalists at the Ashmont Hill Chamber Music Series in Ashmont, MA.
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