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Composed: 2005

Length: c. 25 minutes

Orchestration: 2 flutes (2nd = piccolo), oboe, English horn, 2 clarinets (2nd = bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, percussion (conga, crotales, glockenspiel, maracas, suspended cymbal, and vibraphone), harp, piano, strings, and solo mezzo-soprano

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: May 20, 2005, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, soloist (LAPA co-commission; world premiere)

About this Piece

In his note for the world premiere of Neruda Songs, Peter Lieberson shared his touching inspiration: “I discovered the love poems of Pablo Neruda by chance in the Albuquerque airport…. As I glanced through the poems, I immediately thought that I must set some of these for Lorraine.”

Lieberson’s wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, was a highly regarded mezzo-soprano who was known for her intensely emotional performances. A co-commission by the LA Phil and the Boston Symphony would provide the opportunity for the composer to honor his beloved with these beautiful settings. Heartbreakingly, Neruda Songs would become Lieberson’s last collaboration with his wife; in 2006 she passed away after a long battle with breast cancer. She performed and recorded the work shortly before her death and was posthumously awarded a 2008 Grammy for Best Classical Vocal Performance. The Songs themselves earned the 2008 Grawemeyer Award for Music Composition.

The Neruda Songs are settings of five sonnets written by Chilean-born Pablo Neruda, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, known chiefly for his poems about love and loss. In his original program note, Lieberson described each sonnet as reflecting “a different face in love’s mirror.”

In each of the five settings, a different mood can be found, tracing the arc of love’s evolution. The light, dance-like qualities of “If your eyes were not the color of the moon,” evoke the “butterflies in the stomach” feeling of a newfound interest. In “Love, love…,” lush orchestral swells and pulsing rhythms accompany a lover’s joyous proclamations. Lonely woodwind cries and sympathetic strings are the lover’s only company for much of “Don’t go far off, not even for a day,” as she describes, in the composer’s words, the “anguish of love, the fear and pain of separation.”

A percussive pulse drives the lover’s declarations in “And now you’re mine,” and lush orchestral interludes relax to gentle echoes as the lover coaxes her beloved to “Rest your dream in my dream.” The cycle closes with the achingly beautiful “My love, if I die and you don’t,” which, Lieberson wrote, “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…” – sentiments that he must have known all too well. Yet, as he quotes Neruda again, he reminds the reader that there is a measure of comfort to be had: “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.’” —Deanna Hudgins