First, the Words
Holocaust survivor, poet, and composer Mira J. Spektor on Lord Byron
By Sara Warner
Performed by soprano Maeve Höglund, Mira J. Spektor’s new album SUMMER & WINTER SONGS glides through stories of love and loss. With songs set to texts by herself, Goethe, Byron, and a selection of poetry by her granddaughter Lily Nussbaum, Spektor’s songs are as lyrical as they are profound. The richly melodic work is alive with images of falling into slumber as summer fades to fall, bitter winter chills within the heart of one whose lover is far away, passionate romance in the city, and other inspired pictures of life in summer and winter, both literally and in metaphor.
I was fortunate to correspond with Spektor to gain some insight into Byron’s influence on her poetic and musical work throughout her life and career.
Born in Lithuania in 1928, Spektor escaped the Nazis as a child in Germany and then France, all the while learning to read. By the time she emigrated to the United States in 1940, Spektor was in seventh grade and learning English, her third new language. While she had always loved Classic poems and their formal structure, at this point she became engrossed in both music and Romantic poetry.
I asked Spektor how she shaped the music around Byron’s lyrics. She says, “as a composer, retired singer, and published poet, I always believed in Prima le Parole, or ‘First, the Words.’ I wrote my first musical as a high school senior and still love to set structured poems and lyrics to classic and cabaret songs, musicals, and chamber operas.” In fact, Spektor has been inspired to create operas from a broad spectrum of written word, including The Passion of Lizzie Borden based on Ruth Whitman’s poetry around the infamous murders and Lady of the Castle based on a play by Lea Goldberg depicting the true story of one of the “hidden children” found after the Holocaust.
The Byron work featured on SUMMER & WINTER SONGS is ‘When We Two Parted’, originally composed for Spektor’s chamber opera Villa Diodati. The opera tells Shelley’s story through the eyes of a contemporary American couple travelling on a Swiss train that derails, transporting the couple to the cold summer of 1816 and right into the drama taking place at the notorious villa. In the opera, ‘When We Two Parted’ is sung by the character Claire Clairmont, pregnant with Byron’s daughter, Allegra.
The full chamber opera began as a poetry cycle by the late poet and Columbia University professor Colette Inez, and was performed as a series of thirty-minute concerts under the name Mary Shelley – Scenes from a Life. The opera grew into its current form as Spektor delved more into the Geneva locale and the dynamics between its once summer residents. Arriving home from visiting Villa Diodati, Spektor added music she composed from Byron’s When We Two Parted and We’ll Go No More A Roving, sung as a duet, as well as three of Shelley’s poems: Love A Coupling of Souls, an a cappella trio, Indian Serenade, a tenor aria, and Music When Soft Voices Die, part of the opera’s finale.
The opera was produced on DVD by Bank Street Films, and just aired in May 2019 on the new PBS All-Arts channel.
Outside of the opera, the song ‘When We Two Parted’ has been performed in many concerts by other sopranos, but Spektor found the melancholy tones of Maeve Höglund’s performance a great addition to the mood of the second half of SUMMER & WINTER SONGS. Paired on this album with songs with lyrics by Mira herself, Goethe, and Mira’s granddaughter Lily Nussbaum, Byron’s voice comes through to tell once more of a lover’s sorrow.
SUMMER & WINTER SONGS will be available to the public to stream and download on June 14th, 2019 from Navona Records, a subsidiary of PARMA Recordings. For more information on Spektor and her album, please visit the album’s Navona Records catalog page at http://www.navonarecords.com/catalog/nv6236/. If you are interested in pre-ordering a CD from Amazon, they are available at https://www.amazon.com/