William Mayer: Voices From Lost Realms

William Mayer (b. 1925)

“William Mayer's music sings out with real beauty, both in the vocal writing (he is especially known for his operas and songs) and the instrumental settings” wrote John Rockwell of the New York Times on the occasion of the composer's 60th birthday. And indeed, this compact disc illuminates a rich sampling of William Mayer's vocal music: opera, songs and choral compositions. But just as importantly, it contains two purely instrumental works - Abandoned Bells for piano and Inner and Outer Strings for string orchestra - which must count as two of the composer's most haunting scores.

William Mayer's career has been studded with such memorable events as Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt narrating his Hello, World!, a musical trip for orchestra, and Leopold Stokowski premiering his Octagon for Piano and Orchestra, the recently released compact disc of which American Record Guide called “a superbly crafted, powerful work with a wealth of expression and drama.” His Two Pastels for Orchestra - also just issued on compact disc with Skrowazcewski conducting - has been described by Stereo Review as “Highly poetic, redolent with color and prevailingly evanescent.”

Varying assignments for the U.S. Information Agency attest to Mayer's versatility: composing an extended piano work for its Artistic Ambassador Series; interviewing Rostropovich; organizing a lecture series on American opera for overseas use; and serving as moderator for the historical first meeting between composers Aaron Copland and Aram Khatchaturian. The breadth of Mayer's musical and human perceptions has been on of his distinguishing characteristics. Thus, John Vinton, in his Dictionary of Contemporary Music, cites Mayer's principal influences as Bartók, Stravinsky, Barber and show music, especially the songs of Jerome Kern, an attribution echoed in AmeriGrove which adds that “his style is characterized by a contrasting of transparent textures with humorous, highly rhythmic and densely scored passages.” In his Introduction to Contemporary Music, Joseph Machlis writes: “His is a lyrical music that follows the middle of the road, favored with an unusual flow of fancy and wit, and marked by what he calls `a free use of compositional techniques and disparate material with the aim of synthesizing so-called opposites into a coherent whole.'”

Mayer's many awards and honors include two NEA grants, Guggenheim and MacDowell Fellowships, recording grants from the Ford Foundation, performance grants from the New York and Michigan State Arts Councils and a citation from the National Institute for Music Theater for contributing to “the advancement of American musical theater“; his Agee-based opera, A Death in the Family was named the best new work of its type for 1983. More recently, listeners around the country were able to hear the St. Louis performance with Dawn Upshaw and Jake Gardner under the auspices of National Public Radio.

Mayer lives in New York and Vermont with his wife, the artist Meredith Nevins Mayer. Their three children, concert pianist Steven Mayer, (heard on this compact disc) and two journalist daughters, Jane and Cynthia, have earned recognition and esteem in their respective professions.

The album opens with two excerpts from the opera, A Death in the Family, which is based on James Agee's Pulitzer Prize winning novel. The opera itself was awarded a citation for excellence by Hal Prince and Beverly Sills, representing the National Institute for Music Theater.

In the first excerpt, the uncle of six-year-old Rufus is relating a miraculous occurrence at the graveside of Rufus' father (Jay). As the coffin was lowered into the ground, the sun suddenly broke through the clouds; just at that moment a magnificent butterfly flew up out of the grave, rising ever higher until it disappeared from sight. In the musical setting, a high accompaniment ripples above the tenor's voice, generating the sensation of rushing clouds, wind and flight.

Unexpectedly a folksong appears in the middle of the tenor's aria, representing a flashback to childhood. The excerpt ends with Rufus dreaming of the multicolored butterfly. This is conveyed by a few dreamlike bars of piano alone. Without becoming too literal the bitonal glints of sound above the steady bass may be viewed as the delicate manoeuvrings of a butterfly.

The second excerpt takes place earlier in the opera when Jay is comforting his young son who has awoken from a nightmare. Singing the old tune Sugarbabe as a lullaby, Jay remembers how he himself was comforted when he was a little boy. Past and present now intermingle. In fantasy we hear his mother singing to him “you're getting to be a big boy now; and big boys don't cry.” Jay suddenly experiences an acute sense of loss when he realizes how far he has come away from his old self as a child. The excerpt closes with the same folksong we have heard in excerpt one (and which interweaves throughout the opera).

Kyrie, for a capella chorus, was written in an abandoned Vermont schoolhouse. It was prompted by the sad news that the nine-year-old daughter of friends had contracted a serious disease. The work opens with long modal lines and simple harmonies. As the Kyrie proceeds chords grow more complex; modulations occur more quickly. Intensity supplants serenity. Shortly before the end, basses rise out of the orchestral fabric with a poignant motif. The work ends on an otherworldly plane with tenors singing high F sharps, pianissimo (not easy!).

In First Song, a tenor sings of three small boys making music in an Illinois cornfield by rubbing cornstalks together. The evening croaks of frogs add to this green, out-of-doors symphony. The boys exult in the music. They also experience the wonder of night and, as poet traditionally the instrument for frogs, and a violin to suggest the boys' music making but also the mystery of night falling over an Illinois farm.

Limited and What Lips My Lips Have Kissed are both from the song cycle, Passage, which focuses on the passage of time. Limited refers to the famous transcontinental railroad train, the Twentieth Century Limited. Poet Carl Sandburg observes that not even the all-steel coaches can withstand the ravages of time - to say nothing of the passengers aboard it. Yet his poem brings a light hearted tone to this troubling reality; this includes a passenger who is confident that he is going to Omaha - and no place else. A word about the train sonorities undergirding the vocal line: the harp, generally associated with gentle airy figures, finds itself in the less common role of producing metallic, twangy chords; the flute provides the repetitive clacking of wheels riding on tracks; and the performers chant out steam engine puffs.

In What Lips My Lips Have Kissed Edna St. Vincent Millay poignantly recalls lost youth. The many suitors she once had no longer court her. She sees herself as a lonely tree in winter that doesn't know “what birds have vanished one by one, yet knows its boughs more silent than before.” She closes with the sad admission “I cannot say what loves have come and gone; I only know that summer sang in me a little while that sings in me no more.” Whistling heard in the opening and humming between stanzas hark back to “the sweet bird of youth.”

The famous Passionate Shepherd to his Love, (“Come live with me and be my love”), opens this trio madrigals for a capella chorus. They date back to Mayer's student days at Mannes College of Music. After their premiere in the school's auditorium a review appeared in the Herald Tribune stating that “the madrigals were carefully modeled on their Elizabethan antecedents.” Mayer was doubly surprised: he did not know that a critic had been present, and as a young student he was all too ignorant of Elizabethan music.

The Passionate Shepherd is direct and romantic. Sir Walter Raleigh's The Nymph's Reply is a sassy “no” to the shepherd's pleading - perhaps an early example of feminism! And in To Electra the suitor is spectacularly modest when he assures his lady that his utmost desire is but to “kiss the air that lately kissed thee.” But in all three of these madrigals Mayer chooses to take the poets at their word. The tone is warm in the first madrigal; by turns saucy and bleak in the second; and haunting in the last in its use of the modal scale.

Abandoned Bells is dedicated to the celebrated pianist William Masselos, who just twenty years ago premiered Mayer's Octagon for piano and orchestra under the baton of Leopold Stokowski. This performance is by the composer's son, Steven Mayer, who has studied with Masselos. Bradford Gowen writes, in the Piano Quarterly, “Abandoned Bells is a single-movement work, frequently concerned with bell-like sounds: clanging, booming, tinkling, gently tolling. It is also concerned with piano sounds including marcato, percussive, and cantabile effects. Beginning and ending in a haunting style, it projects mercurial changes of atmosphere. Pianists should bless its publication.”

Fern Hill, a recollection of Dylan Thomas' youth on a Welsh farm, operates in two time frames. Some passages recreate the exuberance and ease of youth as they were once experienced. Other passages filter these same experiences through adult eyes. In the composer's setting for soprano, flute and harp, abrupt changes in tempo and tessitura signal these shifts in perspective. At times the singer “is” the child; other times she is remembering the morning song of a child, unconcerned with mortality: `Time held me green and dying, Though I sang in my chains like the sea.' These lines seem equally true for Dylan Thomas, the man, who sings despite all.

“Intimately touching” was the phrase Edward Rothstein of the New York Times chose to describe La Belle Dame Sans Merci at its premiere. And indeed this work is personal rather than formal in its treatment of John Keats' famous poem in which a knight is seduced by a wild young maid inhabiting a medieval wood. His pleasures are shortlived, however. Lulled to sleep, he has a ghastly dream of other warriors who had been with her, now all death pale and unable to escape her spell. He awakes to find his nightmare was all too real. He, too, is feverish and pale. And birds no longer sing. Heard throughout is a modal motif on the piano, linking choral stanzas. The composition seems not so much to end but rather to be suspended in the air. This is due, in part, to the somewhat tentative resolution of the recurrent motif (concluding on the modal seventh chord).

Two of the most adventuresome choral ensembles in New York - Florilegium and The New Calliope - combine to render Festive Alleluia, which depicts the climactic moment in William Mayer's opera One Christmas Long Ago. Ancient bells, set in a church tower that rises above the clouds, are reputed to ring of their own accord if an extraordinary offering is made. Yet they have been silent for so many years that people wonder whether these bells even exist. But on one particular Christmas Eve they do ring again because of the selfless deed of a young boy. The alleluia heard here is the congregation's response to this miracle.

Hist-Wist (e.e. cummings) and Flotsam (Langston Hughes) show two sides of “William Mayer's eloquent, imagistic song cycle, Enter Ariel” - Tim Page, New York Times. “Mayer's sensitive settings actually augment the power of the texts, something not always true today,” writes Byron Belt. Hist-Wist finds the poet in a goblinesque mood, dealing with ghostthings, witches, a wart on an old woman's nose and, improbably, with “toads in tweeds.” The clarinet adds its rakish timbre to this jolly and macabre scene. Flotsam, on the other hand, expresses the hope that even after an artist is gone, his song will survive, “taken by the sea wind and blown along.”

“William Mayer's Inner and Outer Strings is a remarkable work with some extraordinary string writing,” writes conductor Gerard Schwarz whose performance closes this disc. The score was commissioned by Howard Shanet in 1982 for his String Revival; he asked that it be scored for the rare combination of a string quartet with string orchestra. “I was initially dismayed,” states Mayer; “how was I to get enough contrast between two groups of strings? But my consternation gave way to excitement when I came upon a natural plan: the quartet would embody the warmth of human life while the outer strings would represent the coldness of the universe. Acoustically translated, this meant that the outer strings would play in the outer ranges: very high or very low and with a remote sound devoid of vibrato. In contrast, the quartet - or inner strings - would play expressively in the more human sounding middle ranges. And indeed this is the way Inner and Outer Strings begins and ends.”

“Yet my grand plan deferred to many other patterns once the composing got underway. At times the inner strings would trade ideas with the outer group; sometimes the two groups would merge, and often solo voices would surface from the overall fabric.” The wide spectrum of timbres prompted conductor Milton Katmis to write that “this intriguing score achieves a remarkable variety of color in a 20th century version of a concerto grosso.”

Composer's Note

I had not planned to name this album Voices from Lost Realms. I had chosen the selections because they all seemed to share a kind of intimacy absent from more external and ceremonial type works. It was only later that I noticed that one after another of the compositions seemed to be calling up worlds distant from ours.

Sometimes it was the mythical past as in John Keats' Las Belle Dame Sans Merci. At other times the music sought to open great reaches of space as in the string orchestra work Inner and Outer Strings. In Abandoned Bells for piano the imagined sound of long-stilled bells was the spark. Often the music sought to reenter the passionate worlds of childhood and youth in Dylan Thomas' Fern Hill and Edna St. Vincent Millay's What Lips My Lips Have Kissed.

“How far we all come away from ourselves,” wrote James Agee in his novel of remembrance A Death in the Family. The sentiments of this poignant line, set here for tenor and chorus, echo throughout the disc. Thus, the overall title of the album, Voices from Lost Realms, just about sprang up on its own.

William Mayer


Butterfly Aria (from A Death in the Family)

Andrew: If anything ever makes me believe in Life After Death, it'll be what happened this afternoon in Greenwood Cemetery…There were a lot of clouds, but they were blowing fast so there was lots of sunshine, too. Right when they began to lower your father into the ground, into his grave, a cloud came over and there was a shadow like iron, and a perfectly magnificent butterfly settled on the coffin, just rested there, right over the breast, and stayed there, just barely making his wings breathe like a heart.

Victoria: Tain't a -going' to rain on, etc.

Andrew: That butterfly stayed there all the way down, Rufus, until the coffin grated against the bottom like a bottom like a rowboat. And just when it did, the sun came out just dazzling bright, and he flew up and out of that hole in the ground, straight up into the sky, so high I couldn't even see him anymore.

How Far We All Come Away From Ourselves (from A Death in the Family)

Jay: (singing a folk song to comfort his young son who has just awoken from a nightmare)

Every time the sun goes down,

`Nother dollar made for Betsy Brown,

Sugar Babe.

I told my old woman when I left down,

Was a good ole wagon, but done broke down,

Sugar Babe.

Jay's mother: (heard in flashback, comforting Jay when he was a little boy)

Don't you fret, Jay. Don't you fret. You're getting to be a big boy now, and big boys don't cry.

Jay: (reflecting on the lost realm of childhood)

How far we all come, so far away.

Off-stage voice: (a folk song is heard that interweaves with Jay's reflections)

Oh, tain't a-goin' to rain on, etc.

Jay: Before I was even dreamed of in this world, she must have lain under the hands of her mother or father, and they under the hands of others.

(Folksong): Oh, tain't a-goin' to rain on,

Tain't a gonna snow,

But the sun's goin' to shine,

And the wind's goin' to blow—

Sugar Babe.

Jay: (reflecting on his life)

God knows I'm lucky…only however good it was, it wasn't what you once had been and had lost. And once in a long time you remembered and knew how far you were away.

Off-stage voice: (singing folk tune)

But the sun's goin' to shine,

An' the wind's goin' to blow—

Sugar Babe.

First Song (Galway Kinnell)

Then it was dusk in Illinois, the small boy

After an afternoon of carting dung

Hung on the rail fence, a sapped thing

Weary to crying. Dark was growing tall

And he began to hear the pond frogs all

Calling on his ear the pond frogs all

Calling on his ear with what seemed their joy.

Soon their sound was pleasant for a boy

Listening in the smoky dusk and the nightfall

Of Illinois, and from the fields two small

Boys came bearing cornstalk violins

And they rubbed the cornstalk bows with resins

And the three sat there scraping of their joy.

It was now fine music the frogs and the boys

Did in the towering Illinois twilight make

And into dark in spite of a shoulder's ache

A boy's hunched body loved out of a stalk

The first song of his happiness, and the song woke

His heart to the darkness and into the sadness of joy.

Passage: (two selections)

Limited (Carl Sandburg)

I am riding on a limited express.

One of the crack trains of the nation.

Hurtling across the prairie

Into the blue haze and dark air

Go fifteen all-steel coaches

Holding a thousand people.

One of the crack trains of the nation.

(All the coaches, all shall be scrap and rust

And all the men and women laughing

In the diners and sleepers, all shall pass to ashes.)

I ask a man in the smoker where he is going

And he answers “Omaha.”

What Lips My Lips Have Kissed (Edna St. Vincent Millay)

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why

I have forgotten, and what arms have lain

Under my head till morning; but the rain

Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh

Upon the glass and listen for reply;

For unremembered lads that not again

Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.

Thus in winter stands the lonely tree

Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,

Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:

I cannot say what loves have come and gone;

I only know that summer sang in me

A little while, that in me sings no more.

Three Madrigals

The Passionate Shepherd To His Love (Christopher Marlowe)

Come live with me and be my love,

and we will all the pleasures prove

that valleys, groves, hills and fields,

'woods or steepy mountains yields;

And we will sit upon the rocks

seeing the shepherds feed their flocks

by shallow rivers to whose falls

melodious birds sing madrigals.

The shepherds swains shall dance and sing

for thy delights each May morning.

If these delights thy mind may move

then live with me and be my love.

The Nymph's Reply to the Passionate Shepherd (Sir Walter Raleigh)

If all the world were gay and young

and truth in ev'ry shepherd's tongue

these pretty pleasures might me move

to live with thee and be thy love.

But time drives flocks from field to fold

When rivers rage and rocks grow cold

And Philomel becometh dumb,

The rest complain of cares to come.

But could youth last and love still breed,

Had joys no date nor age no need,

Then these delights my mind might move

To live with thee and be thy love.

To Electra (Robert Herrick)

I dare not ask a kiss,

I dare not ask a smile

lest having that or this,

I might grow proud the while.

No, no, the utmost share

of my desire shall be

only to kiss that air

that lately kissed thee.

Fern Hill (Dylan Thomas)

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green…

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns

About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,

in the sun that it young once only,

Time let me play and be

Golden in the mercy of his means,

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the


Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,

And the sabbath rang slowly

In the pebbles of the holy streams.

All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay

Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it

was air

And playing, lovely and watery

And fire green as grass.

And nightly under the simple stars

As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away,

All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the night-


Flying with the ricks, and the horses

Flashing into the dark.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white

With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder; it was all

Shining, it was Adam and maiden…

So it must have been after the birth of the simple light

In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking


Out of the whinnying green stable

On to the fields of praise.

And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house

Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long

In the sun born over and over,

I ran my heedless ways,

My wishes raced through the house high hay

And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows

In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs

Below the children green and golden

Follow him out of grace.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would

take me

Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,

In the moon that is always rising,

Nor that riding to sleep

I heard him fly with the high fields

And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.

Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

La Belle Dame Sans Merci (John Keats)

O what can ail thee, knight at arms, alone and palely loit'ring;

The sedge is wither'd from the lake and no birds sing.

I met a lady in the meads, full beautiful a faery's child.

Her hair was long, her foot was light, and her eyes were wild.

I see a lily on thy brow with anguish moist and fever dew,

And on thy cheeks a fading rose fast withereth too.

I made a garland for her head, and bracelets too, and fragrant zone;

She looked at me as she did love, and made sweet moan.

She found me roots of relish sweet, and honey wild, and manna dew.

And sure in language strange she said “I love thee true.”

There she lulled me asleep, there I dreamed. Woe betide!

The latest dream I ever dreamed on the cold hillside:

I saw pale kings and princes too, pale warriors, death pale were they all;

They cried “La belle Dame sans Merci hath thee in thrall.”

And I awoke and found me here on the cold hill side.

And this is why I sojourn here alone and palely loitr'ing.

Though the sedge is withered from the lake and no birds sing.

Enter Ariel (two selections)

Hist Whist (e.e. cummings)


little ghostthings



little twitchy

witches and tingling


hob-a-nob hob-a-nob

little hoppy happy

toads in tweeds


little itchy mousies

with scuttling

eyesrustle and runand


whisklook out for the old woman

with the wart on her nose

what she'll do to yer

nobody knows

for she knows the devil

the devilouch

the devil

achthe great








Flotsam (Langston Hughes)

On the shoals of Nowhere,

Cast up - my boat

Bow all broken,

No longer afloat.

On the shoals of Nowhere,

Wasted—my song—

Yet taken by the sea wind

And blown along.

The Performers


Gerard Schwarz has given a new meaning to the phrase “busy conductor.” He has served—concurrently—as Music Director of the Seattle Symphony, the Mostly Mozart Festival, the Waterloo Festival, the New York Chamber Symphony and the Music Today Series, where he has presented innumerable contemporary works including William Mayer's Inner and Outer Strings, which concludes this disc. Mr. Schwarz's recordings on the Delos, Nonesuch and Angel labels continue to receive acclaim, two of which were nominated for Grammy awards.

Choral conductor JoAnn Rice, a native of Oklahoma, is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary and is organist at St. Paul's German Lutheran Church in New York City. A champion of new works, she is the founder of the Florilegium chamber Choir, which can be heard on a recently released compact disc on the Leonardo label.

Peter Schubert, founder and conductor of the New Calliope Singers, is currently located in Montreal, teaching at McGill University and also leading the choral group Les Champeurs d'Orphée. He is also a composer and an arranger. The New Calliope Singers, led by Mr. Schubert, are recorded on the Finnador label,

Singers & Instrumentalists

Jane Bryden, known for her performance of baroque and contemporary vocal literature, has gained national recognition from her appearances with conductors Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa and Edo de Waart. Ms. Bryden has made an award winning recording of the Bach Magnificat in D for Pro Arte Records.

Judith Christin, a leading mezzo-soprano who has appeared with major opera companies throughout the United States, is currently in two productions of the Metropolitan Opera Company. She is also a noted recitalist and has had televised performances with the New York City Opera, San Francisco Opera and Opera Theatre St. Louis.

Marshall Coid not only has a busy career as violinist, but is also a countertenor, an actor and a composer. He is completing an opera as well as concertizing with such groups as the New York City Opera and Downtown Music Productions.

Paul Dunkel, one of New York's most prominent flutists, is now devoting most of his time to conducting. He is both Music Director of the New Orchestra of Westchester and Resident Conductor of the American Composers Orchestra.

Mary Feinsinger, mezzo-soprano, has premiered new works extensively. She has appeared with the Juilliard Contemporary Ensemble, Speculum Musicae and the Manhattan School of Music Opera.

Richard Goldsmith, clarinetist, has distinguished himself as a chamber musician and soloist of highest regard. He has recorded on the CRI, Grenadilla and Classic Master labels.

Pianist Philip Hosford has toured six of the seven continents. His most recent honors include the Terence Judd Award in London, England and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

James McKeel, baritone, has performed over 40 roles with the opera companies of Minnesota, Santa Fe, St. Louis (the MUNY) and Pittsburgh. He sang the role of Jay in the world premiere of William Mayer's award-winning opera A Death in the Family and recently recorded the Gramophone award-winning Paul Bunyan on Virgin Classic Records.

Gergory Mercer, tenor, has appeared in the New York City Opera's production of Die Soldaten by Zimmermann and the New York Choral Society's presentation of Dvorak's Stabat Mater. A much sought after soloist, he has also joined the Metropolitan Opera's production of The Ghosts of Versailles.

Pianist Steven Mayer came into prominence at fifteen years of age after winning a New York Times sponsored competition to find the most gifted young pianists in the New York area. Six concerts with the American Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie hall followed, as did later collaborations with conductors Leonard Slatkin, Edo de Waart, Herbert Blomstedt and James Conlon as well as recordings with the London Symphony and Hague Philharmonic.

Elizabeth Poore, soprano, has sung major roles with the Mobile, Orlando, Michigan and Glimmerglass Operas as well as with the Asolo Opera Festival. In addition, she has given many solo recitals, particularly in Italy where she has appeared at the American Academy in Rome and the Academia Nazionale de Santa Cecelia.

Harpist Stacey Shames has been a first prize winner in the national competition of the American Harp Society. She has since been heard as concerto soloist with such groups as the St. Louis Symphony and is active as both solo recitalist and chamber musician, touring in the United States, Canada and the Far East.

Charles Stier, clarinetist, has been hailed as a leader of the new generation of American classical soloists, having appeared with cellists Leslie Parnas and Bernard Greenhouse, the Cleveland and Franciscan Quartets and with the Sibelius Academy String Quartet in Helskini, Finland. Elan Recordings recently released a compact disc featuring solo performances of Mr. Stier.

Producer/Engineer: Judith Sherman

Recording Engineers: Leszek Wojcik & Curt Wittig

Editor: Adam Abeshouse


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