In a Persian Garden by Liza Lehmann

Note: the timing of this post is meant to tie in with both Women’s History Month and the Persian New Year known as Nowruz or Norooz.

Often the purpose of links is to indicate further information is available on related topics. Most links are independent, but some help support this web site. If you prefer, feel free to donate instead.

a 17th Century Persian panel of tiles in shades of blue and yellow showing people enjoying themselves outside in a setting of blooming plants and trees
Fritware wall panel now in the Louvre, 1500s-1600s, showing entertainment in a garden
(similar to this one at the Victoria and Albert Museum)

The word “paradise” comes from an old Persian word that means “a walled garden.” The intent of that walled garden, however, was indeed to create an earthly paradise. At the beginning of the Old Testament, Genesis 2 mentions four rivers in the Garden of Eden, so these spaces were traditionally divided into quadrants, known as chahar bagh. In addition, so was the country.

oil painting showing inner courtyard and garden at the Palacio del Generalife and Patio de la Acequia near the Alhambra in Granada, Spain painted in 1848 by Wilhelm MeyerThat design sounds formal, and often these areas were courtyards with pavilions and elaborate tile work. You might wonder: what did Persians plant there? Most had rows of trees such as cypresses, sycamores, or date palms, possibly low boxwood hedges, and perhaps sycamores, beeches, lindens, palms, or other trees such as mimosa or redbud at intersecting points or just planted around for shade. But despite its formal tendencies, the defining aspect of the Persian style was not total control over nature; it was contrast. Light and shade, dry and wet, earth and sky, terrestrial and spiritual. Just as the cultivated space contrasted with the wild surroundings beyond the walls, and the well-watered enclosure might differ from the more arid exterior, the geometric layout contrasted with the wildness and inherent informality of the plants that grew there and birds that would visit and sing. This earthly paradise was not merely for looks; it also was designed to appeal to the other senses. Many plants were grown in particular for fruit or fragrance, with figs, pomegranates, plums or apricots, cherries or Cornelian cherries, almonds, pistachios, olives or Russian olives, grapes, peaches, myrtle, jasmine, cardamom, melons, lilacs, wallflowers, dianthus, stocks, valerian, narcissus, lilies, and roses likely to be found. Trade with China brought options not native to the Middle East, such as hollyhock, rose of sharon, ginger or camphor, peonies, and chrysanthemums. Some of the most important surviving examples of Persian gardens are now recognized as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.

In a Persian Garden is a song cycle written appropriately for four voices: soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass. After she married and retired willingly from the concert stage in 1894, British soprano Liza Lehmann devoted herself to writing music and teaching voice. Her first project was to make musical settings of the famous four-line poems attributed to Omar Khayyám which were soon published in London by Metzler and Company (1896). The set, dedicated to her husband, is not merely songlike in character, but rather operatic and theatrical because it includes recitative.

 

a black-and-white photograph of composer Liza Lehmann taken around 1900She tells us in her memoir, “It was not long after my marriage that a curious thing happened. All the intense longing to compose music, which I had for so long felt and which had been practically repressed for years, now found vent. I wrote a song on my honeymoon and within a year produced my first serious composition, the song cycle In a Persian Garden. I have so often been asked how I came to choose the subject that I may as well answer it here. I felt the desire to write something of larger dimensions than a song, and asked my husband to suggest a subject or a poem which would permit of more extended treatment. He told me that he had often thought that parts of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám might furnish material suitable for a cantata. I already knew and loved the poem intensely, and decided to examine it with a view to dealing with it in such a manner; but, study it as I would, I could not ‘feel it’ in the suggested form. How the idea of a song-cycle suddenly flashed upon me I really do not know; but, once having decided on this, I sketched the whole very rapidly in a few weeks though it took much longer to finish in detail, of course.”

a black-and-white photograph of Liza Lehmann in 1894In a Persian Garden, which was my first work of any significance, was written just outside of the city of London, when we were living in a little home located in the middle of a lovely apple orchard. I was very deeply impressed with the wonderful beauty of the Oriental poem, and I was very happy. I am always happiest when I am composing. One might as well ask me whence come the birds in springtime, as to inquire where the melodies come from. But if one desires to be a composer, the melodies must come, and they must be melodies that have an individual and original interest. Without the facility to produce beautiful melodies it is foolish to strive to become a composer. It would be quite as feasible for the raven to aspire to be a nightingale. There can be little doubt that many students waste years and years studying composition, which might be spent much more profitably in other vocations, if they could only discover at a sufficiently early age how foolish it is to attempt to accomplish the impossible.”

“I arranged the order of the stanzas as I required them, choosing the most lyrical versions from the several editions brought out by FitzGerald in his passion for revision, what Alphonse Daudet, an equally restless spirit, calls ‘this damn need for perfection’ (Ce maudit besoin de la perfection). Not infrequently I found an earlier version more suitable for musical setting than those of the later editions. I fancy FitzGerald’s Omar must have been very much in the air about that time. It certainly pervaded our set. Many of us knew most of it by heart; my husband had, as I have said, already been considering it for musical treatment, and Edward Heron-Allen, who married my sister Marianna, went so far as to devote two or three years to mastering the Persian language for the sole purpose, I believe, of studying the Rubáiyát in the original tongue. He later published two volumes of unique interest to lovers of Omar, in which he included his literal translations of the originals and traced every stanza of FitzGerald to its source, thus giving the coup de grace to that section of literary quibblers who insisted that a considerable portion of the FitzGerald version was original work of which there was no original to be found in Omar. The idea for the title of my song cycle occurred to me when I found that in the Persian language the word ‘garden‘ also means ‘poem’.” [Could she possibly have known about the book Flowers from a Persian Garden and Other Papers by folklorist William Clouston published in 1890?]

the cover of the original publication of Liza Lehmann's song cycle In a Persian Garden in 1896“When my In a Persian Garden was completed, I thought I might as well try to get it published; but although I offered it to ever so many publishers they one and all refused it, saying that it was difficult music, and ‘they saw no possibility of there being any demand for chamber music involving so many singers.’ [this plaint unfortunately is also true of the many fine but neglected examples by Schubert] Rather depressed, I ventured one day to play it to a very kind friend, Mrs. Edward Goetz, sister of the late Lord Burnham, a composer herself, and the best kind of musical enthusiast. (My sister Alma has since married her son Charles.) Her house was a rendezvous for the notables of the musical world, who knew that they found in her a loyal friend and a sincere and clear-sighted critic. When I had finished playing it through, and singing what I could of the soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass parts, to my surprise and delight she kissed me and said: ‘I want to introduce this work to London. The first performance shall be given at my house, and it shall be a good one!’ She was as good as her word, for not only did she induce Messrs. Metzler, as a personal favor to her, to publish my work, but she immediately set about getting together a quartet of splendid artists to interpret it. She sent out invitations right and left for the (to me) eventful soirée; and the whole evening seems like a dream to me now! The Persian Garden’s first press notice was from the pen of Mr. Herman Klein, who was present, and who was then musical critic to The Sunday Times.”

composer Liza Lehmann seated at the piano in 1913[This had developed in July 1896.] “In the autumn the foreshadowed performance at the Monday Popular Concerts took place [actually it was December 14], and several other performances followed. But it was not until it had been given in New York that the Persian Garden may be said to have arrived. There it was so fortunate as to make a kind of furore.” [The review from London’s Musical Times January 1, 1897, however, went beyond favorable: “let us hasten to say that the cycle, written after the manner of Brahms, is one of the most impressive works ever penned by a female composer. ( . . . Khayyám) was apparently an agnostic and a pessimist . . . But on the melancholy and morbid verse Miss Lehmann has raised a musical superstructure of surprising strength and beauty.”]

“By the way, I have often been asked how I hit upon the local color. As a matter of fact, I made no conscious effort to reproduce it; but, strangely enough, I have been told by those who have traveled in Persia that some of the phrases in the song ‘Ah, Moon of my Delight’ and other numbers are curiously like snatches of music they have heard in that country. If so, I can only say that, as I have never traveled in the East, the local color must have come to me quite instinctively, or rather that it really emanated from the spirit of the poem.”

If Lehmann’s composition stands out only a little for its style, it is quite distinct for its genre. The song cycle was a novelty to England even in the 1890s. This was unfamiliar territory for a British composer back then. Although Schubert and Schumann had written the examples that established the genre in the 1820s and 1840, respectively, the entire sets had not been performed in England yet–only excerpts. Lehmann’s was almost the first British contribution to the form. The only one before hers was Arthur Sullivan’s Window; or The Songs of the Wrens (1867-70). Her example would be followed shortly by others: Stanford’s Princess (1897) and Elgar’s Sea Pictures (1899), plus her own In Memoriam to the words of Tennyson (1899). The first complete performance in England of Schubert’s first cycle (1823) would not take place until 1904, almost a decade after this work had been written, published, and performed.

an example from the illustrated edition of the Rubáiyát by Elihu Vedder (1884)
an example from the hand-lettered illustrated edition of the Rubáiyát by Elihu Vedder (1884)

Why did In a Persian Garden “make a kind of furore” in New York? There was a vogue for Orientalism around this time, denoted in England especially by The Mikado (1885) and The Geisha (1896) and outside the British Isles by Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade (1888) plus gamelan performances at the Universal Exposition of 1889 in Paris. And–more broadly–why? One reason would be described best by Vivek Bald in his essay “Selling the East in the American South”: “the notion that the people and cultures of India and the Middle East could open Westerners up to new worlds of spirituality and sensuality appealed to a millennial generation that was pushing at the restrictions of the Victorian Era.” The ancient story of Shakuntala exemplifying this combination would be presented many ways in the 1880s and 1890s: as a ballet by Sigismund Bachrich (1884: Vienna) and Pierre de Bréville (1895: Paris), as an opera by Felix Weingartner (1884: Weimar), as an oratorio by Ludwig Scharwenka (1885: Berlin), and as a play with incidental music by Felix von Woyrsch (1885: Breslau) and Arnold Dolmetsch (1899: London). Against this background, the edition of The Rubáiyát illustrated by Elihu Vedder, an American living in Rome, was published in November 1884 and became a sensation. Beyond the current interest in Asian culture, consider as well that the educational system of the time in both America and England emphasized memorizing poems and public speaking. The Rubáiyát was considered a subject very suitable for either committing to memory or basing a speech on. Lehmann and her husband were both familiar with the poem before she began to work on it. She selected 29 quatrains to set–one twice–plus fragments of four others, ending with ‘Alas! that Spring should vanish with the rose’ for the second time.

From left to right: baritone David Bispham, alto Marguerite Hall, pianist Adella Prentiss, soprano Estelle Ford, and tenor Mackenzie Gordon, who gave many concerts together in 1898 and 1900. Photographer unknown, March 1898, and the original copy may not survive.
From left to right: baritone David Bispham, alto Marguerite Hall, pianist Adella Prentiss, soprano Estelle Ford, and tenor Mackenzie Gordon, who gave many concerts together in 1898 and 1900.
Photographer unknown, March 1898, and the original copy may not survive.

After living in Europe since 1885, American baritone David Bispham returned to the United States to make his American debut in November 1896 singing Wagner at the Met. That summer, he had been one of the four original performers of In a Persian Garden, and the following year he put together a group of singers to take it on tour. The others were Estelle Ford, Marguerite Hall, and Mackenzie Gordon (actual name Peter Gordon Mackenzie). Soon local musicians and amateurs were giving performances, such as one in November 1897 presented by the Fortnightly Musical Club of Cleveland. Among the audience was a charter member named Adella Prentiss, who had traveled in Europe and was not impressed by the level of music making she heard. Afterwards, she was talking to a friend and said she wished to hear the work with professionals who were better. Knowing she was involved with the group that presented the mediocre ones, he replied, “Why don’t you bring some here?” and she did. It happens that Estelle Ford was born and based in Cleveland, and this is who she contacted. Yes, Ford did know of some top-tier singers who could give a performance of a Persian Garden: the ones she’d been touring with! As a result, Cleveland got to hear a better rendition on March 12, 1898.

The piano part was played by Prentiss, a recent graduate of Vassar College. That fall, with sponsorship from John D. Rockefeller, the “Persian Garden Company” would make a successful tour she arranged, and another in 1900. Prentiss would later state that organizing these endeavors convinced her to enter the field of artist management, and ultimately found the Cleveland Orchestra.

the cover of the original publication of Liza Lehmann's song cycle In a Persian Garden in 1896The American premiere was once thought to have been a private concert with piano held in New York’s Mendelssohn Hall on April 29, 1898. This was in fact preceded by another private concert held April 25 at the new home of Mrs. James Speyer, 257 Madison Avenue. The performance was a charity event for the University Settlement Society, and according to The New York Times “society people turned out in numbers.” A public performance followed May 1 at the Met. Lehmann recalls, “It became quite a little joke how many hundred singers wrote to tell me that they had been in the very first quartet to perform the work in the United States.” Part of the concert at the Metropolitan Opera House was with orchestra; Victor Harris had conducted and accompanied. Some sources state that Harris would accompany a performance with the same quartet of singers at Vassar on October 22, but the pianist was alumna Adella Prentiss. Thus Vassar College indirectly played an important role in the early reception of this piece. Harris would too, leading more than 20 performances over the years.

In 1903, London publisher Hawkes & Son brought out an orchestration of the work by John Crook (1852-1922), conductor of the orchestra at the Duke of York’s Theater. In 1909, Henry Geehl orchestrated a set of light classics including one song from here that were published by Metzler and Company. Why Lehmann didn’t do them herself is a good question, because these undertakings must have required her permission. Perhaps she was more interested in writing new works and that made her willing to delegate this comparatively mundane task of orchestration.

In 1910, Lehmann (now as pianist) and several singers undertook a massive concert tour of the United States and Canada that included this work or selections. She had actually arrived at New York in time for Christmas 1909.

While we were still in the Hudson River, and I was still in my cabin, with a pea-green complexion and my heart in my mouth (literally!), a nimble flock of reporters bombarded the door, and, apparently crediting me with the gift of prophecy, demanded my impressions of America and the Americans. My husband, who was with me, was fortunately able to keep them at bay until I had at any rate passed the Customs House and reached our hotel.

A snippet from the end she wrote out and signed during the tour has recently been listed for sale. In April 1910, The Etude magazine ran an interview titled “To the Young Musician Who Would Compose” that an excerpt above is taken from. The group of singers spent a lot of time on trains, and as they traveled west and east, there were hours upon hours for looking out the window. In 1918, Lehmann recalled,

The vast stretches of lonely prairie are very impressive, and had for me a haunting quality. Miles and miles of uninhabited grey-green land; not a human being to be seen; occasionally the carcass of some animal a sun-scorched skeleton. The regions still inhabited by North American Indians fired my imagination; and when the train halted at some small station of theirs, and a melancholy-eyed person, clad in a blanket, but bearing himself like a king, approached to sell basket-work, or when a smiling squaw with a nut-brown baby slung on her back held up plaited bead necklaces for sale, I lost my heart outright, paid any price, and felt that I must at least write a North American opera.

Before I left New York a lady came to see me to enquire whether I would come to Paris with my own quartet of singers to give a performance of the Persian Garden, as she wanted to give it at her house there in memory of a very dear relative who had been especially fond of it. After my return to England we duly carried out the performance. Three receptions were given: one for the American Ambassador and the diplomatic set, one for a Russian princess, and one for all the dressmakers and their assistants who worked at the various establishments that supplied our hostess’s wardrobe. Outside current fiction I do not know very much of Parisian seamstresses, nor do I know how much they understood of Omar Khayyám; but they certainly made an enthusiastic audience and heartily enjoyed the excellent supper their hostess had served to them in the garden of her villa in the Bois de Boulogne.

This run-out would in fact be the seed for a later development: the work would soon be repeated in a kind of duplication of a popular show in Paris.

a colorful and dramatic Art Nouveau set design by Léon Bakst for 1910 production of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade as a ballet
set design by Léon Bakst for 1910 production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral tone poem Scheherezade as a ballet

While Lehmann and her singers were dragging their exhausted selves across North America, the Russian Ballet’s production of Scheherezade was playing in Paris. It was a tremendous triumph although the composer’s widow Hope objected to the sensationalism. (That plus, in the hallowed Offenbach tradition, the show could be rather naughty.) As a result, other Oriental pageants followed, in particular one held June 24, 1911. Called the “Thousand and Second Night,” it was a private party with a clear reference to the Thousand and One Nights that had inspired Rimsky-Korsakov, although any connection between the two was rejected. The host was fashion designer Paul Poiret, wearing a robe and turban while his wife, also in a turban with a large white plume, “languished dramatically” in a huge gold cage. The coup of the eventful evening was not letting her out but getting all the guests to dress up in Middle Eastern clothing, much of it his design.

Among his next projects was to . . . you’d NEVER see this coming . . . design the costumes for a stage production with a Middle-Eastern theme. Full disclosure: most of them, including the ensemble worn by the lead actress, Mata Hari, were done by his Russian assistant Erté and Spaniard José de Zamora. Le Minaret opened March 20, 1913 at the Renaissance Theater in Paris. Modern writers describe it as a typical oriental fantasy with slaves, musicians, and eunuchs set, as stated in the libretto, in the “Orient of the Thousand and One Nights.” Writers also compare it to Max Reinhardt’s symbolist Sumurun, which played in Berlin, Vienna, London, New York, London again, and then Paris over 1910 to 1913. Jacques Richepin had written the comedy in 3 acts with incidental music by Tiarko Richepin, his younger brother. Paris would eat up Le Minaret like high school athletes at Taco Bell after practice, but all this was merely prelude to the release of Poiret’s next collection, which takes us back to the United States and the piece by our British composer.

Half-page ad in The Evening World September 24, 1913 announcing the event.
Half-page ad in The Evening World September 24, 1913 announcing the event.

That fall, In a Persian Garden was presented two ways at the Wanamaker Auditorium in New York; John Wanamaker also ran coverage afterwards in The Opera News, which he edited and published. The stagings were part of the hype associated with a visit by designer Paul Poiret to the United States and Canada in September-October 1913: “The Wanamaker Store presents the Persian tendency in the new autumn fashions.” In three scenes, Morning, Afternoon, and Evening, the show was accompanied by Lehmann’s set. The American Cloak and Suit Review would describe the event in its October issue:

Billowy folds of night blue fabric, dotted with silver stars, hung from the ceiling of the stage, at the front, to the floor, at the back. Groups of “futurist” trees, vividly green, were there in abundance, and a trifle to the left of the center of the stage was the domed entrance hall or doorway in stucco effect, apparently leading to a mysterious “Arabian Nights” castle beyond.

[Another report tells us “The footlights were bordered with the orange and red tulips made famous by Poiret . . .” One of his pieces was a morning gown “embroidered with motifs copied from an ancient ‘touloupe’ of Oriental Siberia.”]

The inner wall of this entrance way was hung in folds of black, lending a feeling of depth and distance, and it was through the overlapping folds of this black drapery that the “Persian princesses” first appeared. Each of them stood, for a moment, framed in this artistic, arching doorway, then proceeded on down three stairs onto the stage itself, where, one by one, the models grouped themselves, with all due regard to an artistic blending of the colors of the gowns they wore and to the beauty of the completed picture.

Then, one by one, a few of the models quietly left the stage, disappearing through the clouds of billowy blue of the poster trees, at some point near which they had been standing. This was much more effectual than it would have been had all crossed the stage and used the same exit, thus breaking the picture and obstructing the view of the remaining gowns. The reappearance of the models, in the various gowns and wraps displayed, kept the interest of the audience constantly centered upon the doorway.

Throughout the entire display of gowns a quartet, hidden away somewhere in the background, sang the cycle In a Persian Garden by Liza Lehmann, Mr. Depew at the organ. The music of this exquisitely beautiful cycle and the beauty of the words were impressive beyond expression to all music lovers, and even the vast throngs who were not at all familiar with or outwardly appreciative of this music were apparently unwittingly influenced by it, so that they felt and saw the oriental effect in the stage setting, in the gowns, in everything, even though they could not have quite explained why.

 

Outfits by French designers in a fashion show held at the Wanamaker store in New York, late September 1913. Shown is probably Tableau II, Afternoon. From page 5 in The Opera News giving recent events at the Wanamaker Auditorium, November 8, 1913. The periodical ran a full page of text and pictures on November 1st and this large picture November 8th amidst an abundance of activity in October for Verdi's centennial. In a Persian Garden and Verdi did not necessarily come from different worlds. When she was a girl, Lehmann's family once dined with Verdi and Boito in Genoa.
Outfits by French designers in a fashion show held at the Wanamaker store in New York, late September 1913. Shown is probably Tableau II, Afternoon. From page 5 in The Opera News giving recent events at the Wanamaker Auditorium, November 8, 1913. The periodical ran a full page of text and pictures on November 1st and this large picture November 8th amidst an abundance of activity in October for Verdi’s centennial. In a Persian Garden and Verdi did not necessarily come from different worlds. When she was a girl, Lehmann’s family once dined with Verdi and Boito in Genoa.

The show, given twice each day at 11 and 3 on September 25, 26, and 27, was not entirely Poiret. Most of the gowns were from Callot Soeurs, and contributions by Lanvin, Paquin, Martial & Armand, Tollman, Worth, Bongar, Doucet, Agnes, Beer, Groult, and Champot were also included. In some cases the contribution from these other designers was as small as one dress. Poiret did receive special billing for the event nonetheless. The public was told the outfits and headdresses were exact replicas of the ones worn in Le Minaret as produced at the Renaissance Theater. This revolutionary Fall/Winter line of clothing had two oriental scents to go with it, Le Minaret and Nuit de Chine.

If you think the Wanamaker store outdid itself here, check what they had done in 1912.

figures pose from a staging of In a Persian Garden

Following the six fashion shows, a staged presentation of In a Persian Garden played to capacity audiences at the Wanamaker Auditorium from September 30 to October 4. The production was preceded by a short organ recital titled “A Half Hour in the Orient.” With staging by vocal coach, baritone, and painter Perry Averill, the voices were presented as four stock characters: The Maiden, The Prophetess, The Youth, and The Philosopher. The Opera News report said in part:

Nearly two decades ago Liza Lehmann, the English composer, achieved worldwide fame with her setting of text from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, in the form of a song cycle for four solo voices called In a Persian Garden. Her remarkable sense of the dramatic, of Oriental color, and the beauty of her musical ideas have won for her a permanent position in the galaxy of women composers. So popular has this cycle become that for years it has been the pièce de résistance of concert programs throughout the civilized world. It was our privilege to present it in costume with an appropriate stage setting for the first time in this city.

The first complete recording would come only a few years later. In 1916, the four singers did not include the composer, then in her 50s; Agnes Nicholls was the soprano. Lehmann did supervise the recording, which was made on eight 78 rpm albums and then sold in Britain and the United States. This recording might have provided some consolation for the death of her older son Rudolf Bedford from pneumonia. The six-foot 18-year-old died at home while on leave from training at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. He had caught cold in February and it didn’t improve, so March 12th, 1916 and infection, not the war, spelled the end of him. His younger brother Leslie (1900-89) would live to adulthood and go on to receive the Faraday medal. Meanwhile, in the United States, Sol Alberti, director of the Kansas City Philharmonic, arranged the piano part of In a Persian Garden for string quartet and on March 27, 1916 it was performed that way in Kansas City. Alberti played the cello part himself in the quartet. This was far from the first performance there, which had taken place November 10, 1898.

a black-and-white photograph of the young singer Marian Anderson in 1920The next instance in the history of In a Persian Garden would be notable not as a performance, but for what the program accomplished. On May 14, 1920, the Union Baptist Church of Philadelphia sponsored a concert to raise money for a talented young adult who couldn’t afford voice lessons since her father died. Unusually for such a cause, the concert was not a solo affair. It consisted of a chamber work: this piece, and the participants besides the beneficiary were local professionals. The event made a profit of $566, which was more than enough to cover a year. The singer who then began lessons was a high school student named Marian Anderson. Perhaps you recognize that name. Had she been alive, Lehmann would have been sincerely grateful that her piece could so help one of the finest vocalists of the next generation.

There was another more direct way Persian gardens helped people achieve their aspirations around this time. Back in 1913, Hurst and Blackett of London would publish a book titled Peeps into Persia, which included this recollection:

I had always dreamed of seeing Persian gardens, and as we drove through the town, and I saw the great tree tops showing over the mud walls, I began to believe that my dream might come true. I am glad that I first came to Persia before there were railways and factories, and all those things that go by steam and electricity and make life hateful in a large civilized town. I cannot picture the quiet streets of Tehran full of noisy motors, nor can I imagine the placid Persian hurrying to catch a train.

The Persian houses almost always stand in the center of a garden filled with trees and flowers, even the poorest people having their own compound, or at least a courtyard, with its basin of water in the center; the water flows through the streets and ditches and under the walls into the gardens of each side of the road.

two black-and-white photographs of a Persian garden and an interior room of a large house from the book Peeps into PersiaThe author, British-born Dorothy de Warzée, Baroness of Hermalle, was married to Belgian Léon, le Maire de Warzée, Baron of Hermalle (1877-1931), an avid tennis and poker player who had been ambassador at times to Iran, Japan, and China and who would die in Beijing. Not much time would pass before the book was inspiring songs. ‘Come and Dream with Me in a Persian Garden‘ with words and music by Fleta Brown Spencer (1883-1938) was published in 1914 by Jerome Remick & Company of Detroit. The popularity of Peeps into Persia did last beyond the War. In 1921, Fred L. Conrad would write lyrics set by Henry B. Ackley: ‘In a Persian Garden, where my dreams came true’ also coming from the Baroness’s travel story. Interest in Middle-Eastern culture was given a boost around this time by two movies and a best-selling book: the film version of Sumurun, known in the United States as One Arabian Night (1920), and The Sheik (1921) starring Rudolph Valentino, based on the book by Edith Hull. A genre of novel and film called the desert romance would begin, misleading generations of Americans to believe the Middle East consisted entirely of desert and sand dunes until Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) showed Americans the Middle East also had Petra.

cover of American edition of In a Persian Garden published by G. SchirmerIn 1928, Columbia issued the song cycle as a 5-record set recorded under the direction of Liza’s husband, Herbert Bedford (“surely through this mighty London of ours there does not exist another businessman who possesses such a soul for music”). Since Lehmann died a decade before in 1918, this undertaking shows that the popularity of the work outlived her. In 1929, G. Schirmer of New York would publish a 12-minute suite in a new orchestration by Adolf Schmid (1868-1958). They had already reprinted an edition in 1920 after her death (shown). Between 1900 and 1930, individual songs were programmed 14 times at the BBC Proms.

Following Lehmann’s lead, over the early 20th Century, many other composers would set groups of a few songs of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, but the German-Swiss composer Will Eisenmann (1906-92) would probably be the next to set more than a few, in two large sets over 1939-43. These remain in manuscript held at the Swiss Music Foundation. The Polish-born German lawyer and Jewish cantor Max Kowalski (1882-1956) would simultaneously set the quatrains as a song cycle over 1940-41 just after moving to London. This work was never published, but it is considered his Op. 26 and was immediately preceded by 12 song settings of another Asian writer, Li Tai Po (1938-9).

Although the apex of its fame was long ago, In a Persian Garden is not entirely forgotten today, as a few examples shall illustrate. In February 1983, the Victorian Lyric Opera Company presented it in Rockville, Maryland, located between Baltimore and Washington, D. C. It was performed in Weill Recital Hall April 17, 1998 on a program with chamber works for voices by Haydn, Schubert, and Brahms. Since then, individual numbers from the set have appeared on song recitals at Carnegie Hall. Not long ago, the Orpheus Pagan Chamber Choir in Denver programmed it November 15, 2015. The centennial of Lehmann’s death in 2018 ought to create some interest.

You might wonder: How can you hear it? In a Persian Garden was recorded in 1981 on LP (Argo ZK 87), but has almost been ignored since CDs began. In 2000, the cycle was recorded on the Quattro Voci label, although some critics have wished for higher quality singing. Perhaps that self-produced release is better to miss. In March 2005, Dominic Combe transferred the original recording to disc. It is listed for sale as Palaeophonics 87.

There are videos of a few songs online performed by American quartet CORO! in March 2014. Here is the first:

(remember that the poem begins before dawn in darkness)

Wake! For the Sun who scatter’d into flight
The Stars before him from the field of night,
Drives night along with them from Heav’n, and strikes
The Sultan’s turret with a shaft of Light.

Before the phantom of false morning died
Methought a voice within the Tavern cried:
“When all the Temple is prepared within
Why nods the drowsy Worshipper outside?”

Now the new year reviving old Desires,
The thoughtful Soul to Solitude retires,
Where the “White Hand of Moses” on the Bough
Puts out, and Jesus from the Ground suspires.

Iram indeed is gone with all his Rose,
And Jamshyd’s sev’n-ringed Cup where no one knows,
But still a Ruby kindles in the Vine,
And many a Garden by the water blows. [archaic way of saying blooms]

Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling.
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly–and lo, the Bird is on the wing!

Whether at Naishapur or Babylon,
Whether the Cup with sweet or bitter run,
The Wine of Life keeps oozing drop by drop,
The Leaves of Life keep falling one by one.

The wistful lines about the Bird of Time introduce her memoirs, completed in September 1918 shortly before she died, and published the next year. “To my darling son Rudolf, my hope in heaven, and to my darling son Leslie, my joy on earth, I dedicate these pages.” More than 200 pages later, she tells the reader, “Even as I write, I hear the dull thud of the barrage, and my darling son Leslie is in khaki and has begun his military training. God help us!” Lehmann would not live long enough to know that two months later the war would end and he would survive.

Join the Community!

Are you ready to start busting myths? Ready to beautify your neighborhood, enrich your life, and get better results in the garden than ever before? Subscribe to e-mail if you're ready to take things to the next level . . . Are you?

Get more of what you need to know and do in the garden. Remove yourself easily if this just isn't right for you. Powered by ConvertKit

One thought on “In a Persian Garden by Liza Lehmann

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons