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Felicia Donceanu

 

(Click here to see Song List)

 

Felicia Donceanu, born January 28, 1931 in Bacău , is one of Romania ’s foremost composers of art song and choral pieces. Although she has composed works for stage plays and numerous pieces for instrumental ensemble, she has focused largely on chamber works, and is particularly noted for her compositions for harp.

            Casting aside her initial goal of a career as a stage director, Donceanu pursued composition studies at the former Ciprian Porumbescu Conservatory in Bucharest (1949-1956), now known as the National University of Music. Mihail Jora was her composition teacher. Her love of theater and theatrical flair is evident in her art songs and many of her instrumental pieces. She is a leading composer of cycles for solo voice and colorful instrumental ensembles.

            Apart from a brief stint as an editor for ESPLA (1956-1958), and for its successor Editura Muzicala (1958-1966), she has supported herself as a composer. She is a member of the Choral Board of the Romanian Union of Composers, and an adjudicator for the annual Romanian Art Song competition held in Romania . Her works have been performed extensively in Romania , Europe, and the United States . Alliance Publications in Wisconsin (www.api.org) publishes her choral music and a number of her songs have been published in Romania by Editura Muzicală and by Leyerle Publications in New York (www.leyerlepublications.com). Lyra Music published one of her works for harp, “Inscription on a Mast” (www.lyramusic.com).

            Donceanu has composed a number of vocal-symphonic works for which she wrote the texts: Arie de Concert (1973), for baritone and orchestra; Măiastra (1973) for soprano, chorus, and string orchestra; Picolicomando (1984) for tenor, children’s chorus, organ, violin, and percussion; Yolanda (1993) for soprano and orchestra, composed in honor of famed Romanian soprano Yolanda Mărculescu. For others of this genre she chose Biblical texts: Rugăciunea Domnească (1992) for voice, string orchestra, and percussion; and a second piece of the same title (1998) for male chorus, string orchestra, and percussion; and Invocatio (1999) with Biblical texts and fragments of verses by Ovid, scored for soprano, piano, violin, and chamber orchestra. A more recent work is a setting of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe: Clopote la soroc (1999), a cantata for SATB chorus and orchestra.

            Although her oeuvre of instrumental chamber music is modest, almost half of the pieces have been published or recorded. Her sharp wit resonates in her recent work, Retro-Tango, scored for bassoon ensemble.

 

Felicia Donceanu-Art Songs

Donceanu’s works are steeped in the traditional Romanian culture, embracing not only Romanian folk modes and rhythms, but the poetry of native Romanian writers and the customs of the land, dating to its origins. These she infuses with traits of Western diatonicism, creating a palette of subtly shifting colors and tonal ambiguity. Some of her instrumental ensemble works call for traditional Romanian folk instruments such as the toacă, a wooden drum traditionally strung between two trees. Donceanu is an accomplished painter and sculptor, influences strongly evident in her music. Hers is a mind constantly creating, tweaking past compositions, and infused with an unceasing stream of ideas. The catalyst for many of her art songs lies in events current during the time of composition. Her music is passionate, filled with an emotional response triggered by the compositional stimulus. To know her music is to become acquainted with the person.

            Donceanu has provided texts for numerous works by her colleagues and for a number of her own choral pieces. Poets whose verses she has chosen for her art song include Tudor Arghezi, Macedonski, Mihai Eminescu, Ovid, George Bacovia, George Călinescu, Victor Tulbure, Alexandru Voitin, Ienăchiţă Văcărescu, Mihail Crama, Cornelius Greissing, Aurelia Diaconu, Mihai Constantinescu, and Mariana Dumitrescu.

            Her songs, much in demand by singers, are easily accessible on first hearing, and consequently, equally popular with audiences in Romania , Western Europe, and the United States . One of the more published song composers in Romania , Donceanu’s first song cycle, Odinioară, for mezzo-soprano and piano, took honorable mention in the International Composition Competition in Mannheim in 1961. She has won the Romanian Union of Composers’ prize on multiple occasions (1984, 1984, 1986, 1988, 1993, 1996, and 1997), and the Order of Cultural Merit (1981), and George Enescu prize of the Romanian Academy in 1984.

            Narrowing the description of Donceanu’s art songs for a website is challenging as most of her songs are masterpieces. Many of them are commissioned works. As is the case with most post-Enescu Romanian composers, her song cycles usually conclude quietly. Few composers begin with masterpieces in their early compositions. Yet Donceanu’s masterful first cycle, Odinioară, was followed by several contrasting song cycles for soprano that remain in the current song repertoire and have also been performed on numerous occasions in the States: Mărgele (Beads) (1962), four songs to verses by Tudor Arghezi, and Trei Cântece pentru Til (1964), to verses by George Călinescu. While Donceanu’s songs are characterized by frequently shifting meters, often irregular meters, and diatonicism laced with the ambiguity and piquancy of chromatic intervals typical of Romanian folk modes, the tonal pictures she paints in these songs differ radically from one another. Rich in atmosphere, expressive innocence, and charming in their originality, they delight singers and performers alike. Her songs are among the most frequently chosen from the required list of performance literature in Romanian art song competitions. All three cycles were published by Editura Muzicală and are currently available through Leyerle Publications in the States.

            Two songs most appropriate for contralto, are Dor I and II, which appear in the Romanian Art Song series published by Leyerle Publications in New York (www.leyerlepublications.com). These are folk-inspired songs, one a bocet, the other drawn from the style of the doina.

            Imagini pe versuri de Eminescu (Pictures on Verses of Eminescu) (1963-1965), three Impressionist-influenced songs for soprano, have been published twice in Romania, and most recently in the States by Leyerle Publications. One almost hears the rustling of the cooing doves’ feathers in “Cu Penetul” (With Plumage) in the subtle arpeggios, as the birds settle in their nests. These highly evocative songs capture birds at sunset, the stillness of the middle of the forest, and twinkling stars through washes of color, as though Donceanu painted the sounds with a brush. The changing meters create an undercurrent of energy within vocal lines that vary from recitative and a marriage of tone and word not unlike that of Hugo Wolf.

            Donceanu labored on Mărturisiri (Confessions), a cycle of five songs for bass-baritone to poems by Alexandru Voitin, from 1975-1978, and returned to it in 1986, following the death of her husband, the poet. The technical demands on the voice via tessitura and dramatic scope are substantial. Editura Muzicală published the work in 1987, together with the piano-voice arrangements of Donceanu’s vocal-instrumental cycles Cântece de fată frumoasă and Cântând cu Ienăchiţă Văcărescu.

            Again, Donceanu’s uncanny ability to capture a scene, its characters, and their emotions, plunges listeners into the reminiscences of the man, and transports them to Spain and Don Quixote’s adventures. As in the beginning, “Sincron,” the final song, the singer addresses his friends, returning to the present and the sadness of a life nearing its end. While Donceanu culls her techniques from aspects of Romanian folk music, the varied melodic styles are one with the text. Meters shift frequently. Some of the songs are interior monologues, others are dramatic scenas. The composer is proud that her songs defy classification into compositional eras or trends in her work. Each, while related in some way, is unique, and utterly Donceanu.

           

Felicia Donceanu-Voice and Instrumental Chamber Works

Her voice and instrumental ensemble works are unsurpassed in their evocative instrumental colors and vivid writing. Each of them is a musical and emotional tour de force. For Ponti Euxini Clepsydra (1971) for soprano, clarinet, oboe, percussion, and harp (recorded by Electrecord), Donceanu requires the singer to play a toacă, a traditional drum strung between two trees, and wear a long toga with a single dot of a contrasting color, to suggest an aquatint. In several movements the soprano is to sing, kneeling and bending, as in a bocet (lament). The texts, fragments of Ovid’s writings during his exile in Romania, evolve in the movements to imply the origins of language, a concept that has long interested Donceanu.

Mai sunt încă roze (1972), to texts by Macedonski, is a five-song work for soprano and instrumental ensemble, whose lush harmonies, romantic spirit, and Impressionist washes of color contrast strongly with Ponti Euxini Clepsidra.

In 1973, Donceanu set Two Serenades for baritone, flute, and harp, to verses by Baconski which invoke the trecento era in both text and music. Editura Muzicală published them in 1978. The work has been performed in Romania and the United States .

Cântece de fată frumoasă (1976), is a three-movement work for mezzo-soprano, English horn, and marimba. Editura Muzicală published the voice-piano version in 1987. The fairy tale nature of the verses resonate with Romanian folklore and beliefs.  The first song is inspired by cântece de zori, songs of dawn stemming from ancient pagan worship of the Thracian sun god. The second movement, which begins after a fermata at the conclusion of the first song, is a bocet (lament). For the final song, Donceanu layers a Romanian folk mode and church modes in this invocation to the sun god.

Cântând cu Ienăchiţă Văcărescu (1983), composed during an era of attempted eradication of the historic Romanian culture by the government, is an impassioned plea for the preservation of the Romanian culture and language. Originally scored for soprano, lute, viola da gamba, flute, harpsichord, and percussion, she later prepared a version substituting guitar and cello for the lute and viola da gamba. For this work Donceanu chose fragments of verses by poet, philosopher, grammarian, and historian Ienăchiţă Văcărescu (1740-1797). The riveting melismas and cries of “Testament,” the final movement, are drawn from Romanian folk music. Accompanied by a viola da gamba pedal point and crescendoing strikes of the gong, the piece is a chilling cry for the value of language as the soul of the people. The piece has been performed in the United States and Romania .

Within this genre, Donceanu has continued to move toward a more theatrical presentation in recent years. Abţibilder după Tristan Tzara (1996) is a semi-staged work for soprano, harpsichord, and two viola da gamba, for which the performers don eighteenth-century wigs, and the soprano works with props and plays percussion instruments while singing. The work was recorded in 1998 (CD La clé de l’horizon, Musique pour Tristan Tzara), and performed in Romania and the United States .

For Cutia cu surprise … şi pentru oameni încrutaţi (The Box with Surprises), Donceanu wrote her own verses and scored the composition for soprano, two viola da gamba, harpsichord, piano, and puppets. Composed in 1998, it was a commissioned work and well-received in performance. Unlike Donceanu’s previous works, there is considerable spoken dialogue in this work.

In this genre, her most recent work strays further afield. Tablouri vivante (Living Tableaux) (1999), for voice and instruments, requires the singer to dance. Regardless of the genre, Donceanu’s music is viscerally satisfying, plumbing the depths of emotions, be it joy, sorrow, despair, frustration, or humor.

 

Dr. Paula Boire.