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Songs from Opp. 6, 72, 86 & 96
It may be surprising to learn that while Brahms is universally revered as a giant of 19th-century instrumental music, he is often listed as one of the lesser composers of 19th-century art song. This may be because the texts he chose to set were for the most part not those of the great German poets. It may also be because he was loathe to indulge in the type of word-painting that Schubert had established so effectively as a major dramatic feature of the Lied (art song) genre.
But Brahms was strongly of the view that truly great poetry had no need of music, and so he chose lesser works that his musical ideas could more easily illuminate. His musical ideal in vocal music remained the simple German folk song with one general mood, subtly varied in response to the meaning of the text. A major role in creating that mood was the piano accompaniment, as illustrated in the songs chosen by Sir Simon.
In Nachtigallen schwingen (Nightingales beat their wings) the twitter and rustling of birds is picturesquely sounded out in the piano’s chattering triplets that create an animated aural backdrop to the singer’s identification with them as he walks through the forest.
Even more vivid is the piano’s depiction of the ebb and flow of waves breaking and foaming on the shore in Verzagen (Despair).
The piano conveys the tramp-tramp-tramping of footsteps over heathery terrain in Über die Heide (Over the heather) while its gentle drowsy pulse and saturated harmonies evoke the mood of Brahms’ famous lullaby in O kühler Wald (O cool forest).
An unusual and slightly eerie alternation between major and minor captures the ear immediately in the piano introduction to Nachtwandler (Sleepwalker). It almost sounds like a mistake, but conveys brilliantly the floating psychological state of the somnambulist.
A more playful interaction between piano and singer characterizes the last song in the set, Es schauen die Blumen (The flowers gaze), in which the piano plays the role of supportive sidekick, often echoing the vocal line back to the singer, as if to say: “Hear, hear. Well said.”
Quatre poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire
Francis Poulenc was absolutely besotted with the works of French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918), originator of the terms cubism and surrealism. Apollinaire’s manner of constructing the fantastical ‘word salads’ of his poems finds its musical equivalent in the way that Poulenc composed these four settings of Apollinaire poems in 1931. Poulenc would compose isolated phrases individually, and then assemble them together as a kind of cubist collage.
The result is a kaleidoscopically colourful mix of sometimes comical non-sequiturs depicting with twinkling irony and dreamy nostalgia the somewhat louche demi-monde of society in which the composer thrived, and into which he threw himself with gay (in all senses) abandon. A pose of restrained elegance, however, keeps the aesthetic pose well this side of ‘camp’.
L’Aiguille (The eel) is a valse-musette that, in the composer’s words, “evokes the atmosphere of a shady hotel, with a rhythm inspired by little steps in felt shoes, and should be touching.”
Carte postale is dedicated to Madame Cole Porter and strikes a tone of amorous mockery.
The last two works in the collection, Avant le cinema and 1904, are patter songs that rely on the straight face of the singer for their wit to come across at just the right voltage.
Suite Française for piano
In 1935 Poulenc was commissioned to write incidental music for Edouard Bourdet’s play La Reine Margot about Marguerite de Valois (1553-1615), wife of Henri de Navarre (1553-1601), later crowned Henri IV of France. To get the right period feel for his music, Poulenc plundered the Livre de danceries of 16th-century French composer Claude Gervaise, whose dances he rewrote in a modern neo-classical style for chamber orchestra, much as Stravinsky had done with the music of Pergolesi for the ballet Pulcinella. A piano version of this incidental music to La Reine Margot came out in the same year under the title Suite Française.
Like Stravinsky, Poulenc mostly kept the four-square phrasing, simple repetitive rhythms and modal harmonies of the original scores, creating variety by setting various sections for different choirs of instruments within the orchestra – a feature mimicked in the piano version. The modern sound of Poulenc’s score comes from his austerely sonorous, widely-spaced chord figurations, replete with 7ths and 9ths, as well as many acerbic ‘wrong-note’ harmonies.
The dances vary in mood, with the lively bransles, fanfare-like Petite marche militaire and celebratory Carillon alternating with the more serene and wistful Pavane, Complainte and Sicilienne.
Le travail du peintre
Poulenc was a keen and enthusiastic observer of visual art. In the journal he kept on a visit to the United States he wrote enthusiastically about the paintings that captured his attention at the museums he visited. The idea of writing a song cycle about 20th-century painters that he admired first came to him after the publication in 1948 of Voir, an anthology of his friend Paul Eluard’s poems about the painters in his life. Eluard was also an art lover and an avid collector, who owned works by all the painters included in the song cycle that Poulenc eventually composed almost a decade later as settings of Eluard’s poems. Le Travail du peintre (The work of the painter) was commissioned by the American soprano Alice Esty, who gave the first performances of the song cycle in 1957 in Paris with the composer at the piano.
Poulenc’s settings are more a reaction to Eluard’s poems than a direct appreciation of the painters they set out musically to describe. Pablo Picasso is iron-willed, filled with invincible energy. The playful fantasy and dreamlike mischief of Marc Chagall is captured in what Poulenc called a “rambling scherzo.” Georges Braque is fondly remembered for his aquatints and etchings of birds in flight, imitated with the zesty chirping of bird sounds in the piano. The carefully composed cubist constructions of Juan Gris find their correlative in the balanced phrases of the song composed in his honour. Paul Klee receives short shrift in a quick song having little, it seems, with the painter’s actual work but inserted because of a need for contrast in the cycle as a whole.
The song devoted to Juan Miró seems fixated on that painter’s treatment of the sky. And finally, Jacques Villon, pseudonym of Gaston Duchamp (brother of the more famous Marcel) is memorialized in a litany of phrases that Poulenc sets with an even, regular pacing as a timeless contemplation of eternal human values.
Schubert is credited with single-handedly transforming the German Lied from its status as a form of home entertainment mostly cultivated by amateurs, and largely ignored by serious composers, into a worthy vehicle for artistic expression at the highest level. Not a bad item on your resumé if you were a mere teenager, as Schubert was when in 1815 at the age of 17 he composed his first epoch-making lieder, Erlkönig and Gretchen am Spinnrade.
What distinguished Schubert’s contributions to the genre was the way in which he brought the full range of musical resources – harmony, texture and declamatory style – to bear on the expression of the poetic text, as the selections on Mr. Keenlyside’s program amply demonstrate.
Using the Romantic literary trope of intimate communion with Nature, the lover in Ludwig Rellstab’s poem Liebesbotschaft (Message of Love) asks the burbling brook, ably represented by the cheerfully flowing figuration of the piano, to take his message of love downstream where his beloved lies daydreaming at the river’s edge.
Alinde is another song combing water imagery and the theme of love’s yearning. Its gently rocking barcarolle rhythm in 6/8 time represents both the lapping of waves at the water’s edge and the lover’s impatience as he waits for his beloved to arrive. An endearing, almost cutesy touch is provided by the small run-up ornaments in the piano.
Standchen (Serenade) is a song drawn from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline. In the scene in which it appears none-too-bright Cloten has crept into the bedroom of Imogen, who lies sleeping, to sing her this artless song with the hope that she will awake, arise, and make him happy in the way that only a young woman in nightclothes can. Cloten’s doltish overestimation of his chances in this regard is underlined by harmonies based on pedal tones and a naively upbeat rhythmic pattern in the piano.
Pity the budding epic poet in An die Leier (To the Lyre) whose musical sidekick, his lyre, has a mind of its own and will only let him sing love songs. Anxious calls to war are conveyed in clangorous dotted rhythms of diminished 7th chords out of which sweet dominant 7ths always seem to emerge to send the music in a more amorous direction.
In Nachtstück (Night Piece) an old man slowly walks into the forest at the close of day to commune with nature and consider his own approaching death. The opening introduction depicts his slow measured gait but more consoling music intervenes when he considers the rest that death will bring.
Similar thoughts on the impermanence of human life motivate An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht (To the Moon on an Autumn Night), a quasi-operatic solo aria, complete with recitative, bound together by a recurring ritornello in the piano. The constant presence of the moon shining down on the singer is evoked by the piano’s frequent echoing of the vocal line.
Herbstlied (Autumn Song) is Schubert’s tip of the hat to the lads and lasses who bring in the harvest. Folksong-like in the simplicity of its melody and its structuring in balanced phrases, it has an almost Handelian sense of quiet dignity and restful lyricism.
The last song in Sir Simon’s selection of Schubert songs is Abschied (Farewell) from the Schwanengesang song collection. This parting song is remarkable for its complete absence of melancholy. The singer is obviously leaving on his own terms and happy to do so. We can just see him, trotting away from town on horseback, the prancing hoof-steps of his mount picturesquely painted in the staccato articulations of the piano accompaniment.
Donald G. Gíslason 2018
The Songs of Robert Schumann
Robert Schumann was a composer steeped in literature. His compositions bear the dual imprint of both German musical and literary Romanticism. Literature was the family business, one might say, as his father, August Schumann, was both a publisher and a bookseller in Zwickau, Saxony, where the composer grew up. He began to write about the aesthetics of music when he was barely into his teens, at the same time as he was composing—an early indication of his future activity as a founding editor of Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, one of Germany’s most important music journals, still published today.
So it was natural that when writing his first songs as a teenager he should try his hand at writing poetry, as well. In Sehnsucht (Longing), written in 1827 to his own song text, is a typical product of German Romanticism, with its heightened awareness of the natural world as an echo chamber of the poet’s inner thoughts and emotions. Many of the features that would become standard in Schumann’s song settings were already in place in his early songs, including the “framing” of the sung text within a musically significant opening piano introduction and closing piano ‘postlude’.
Another early song, Gesanges Erwachen (Song’s awakening) of 1828 is a good example of how Schumann likes to wrap the voice in the attentive embrace of its keyboard companion. In this strophic song the piano also provides instrumental interludes between the verses, and even aspires to the status of a duet partner as it trades melodic phrases back and forth with the voice.
After composing a good dozen songs in the late 1820s it became obvious to Schumann that his real interest was the piano and he wrote for nothing else during the entire decade of the 1830s. The lyrical impulse of song, however, would remain a strong influence on him even during this time, evident in his use of music from his early songs in the piano sonatas Opp. 11 and 22 and in his quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle An die Ferne Geliebte in his Fantasie Op. 17 for piano.
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The year 1840 marked Schumann’s so-called “Year of Song” (Liederjahr), in which he produced over 125 songs, more than half his total output.
The songs from his Liederkreis Op. 39 are based on the nature poems of Joseph von Eichendorff. Waldesgespräch (Forest dialogue) depicts a dramatic meeting between a hunter and the seductive forest spirit Lorelei, who bewitches men and brings them to an early death. The nonchalant postlude of this song, a reprise of the pleasant hunting music of the opening, has the childlike innocence of a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Mondnacht (Moonlit night) by contrast is pure scene painting, untroubled by any thoughts of danger or magical mischief. It depicts the earth and sky as joining together for a lover’s kiss, with the high and low registers of the keyboard as stand-ins for the natural elements. A different kind of scene painting is featured in Schöne Fremde (A beautiful foreign land), with its rapturous depiction in the piano accompaniment of both the wind rustling in the treetops and the poet’s blood coursing through his veins. The last song in this set, Frühlingsnacht (Spring night), features an even more feverish piano accompaniment to convey the unanimous opinion of all forest creatures large and small that the poet’s love life is on a definite upswing. The accompaniment in this song could easily be a stand-alone piano piece.
Dein Angesicht (Your face) explores darker territory, but in a typically Romantic way, combining the innocence of a dream with the fear of losing a loved one. The placid pulse of a gently swaying accompaniment leaves the drama of this text to be conveyed by unexpected changes in harmony.
The songs from the collection entitled Frauenliebe und Leben (A woman’s love and life) Op. 42 all deal with a woman’s emotional life. Concern has been expressed in modern critical circles that “the woman in these poems is really too much of a doormat” to her hero husband, but the tone may well have been an accurate description of the relationship Schumann had with his wife Clara, who was nine years his junior.
Seit ich ihn gesehen (Since first seeing him) describes the ‘blindness’ of a woman in love. The halting pace and low register of the piano accompaniment imitates the tentative steps of a person lost in the darkness. Helft mir ihr Schwestern (Help me, O sisters) describes the excitement of a woman being dressed on her wedding day, with hints of a wedding march throughout that are made explicit in the piano postlude. Nun hast du mir (Now you have caused me my first pain) is an utter contrast in mood, a dramatic monologue of loss and despair as a woman faces burying her dead husband. The tragic chords of the piano provide scant support for the voice, left as isolated and alone in the musical texture as the woman pictured in text.
The songs of Schumann’s Op. 35 take us back to the world of nature. Erstes Grün (First green) is a delicate evocation of the coming of spring, unusual in its play of major and minor tonalities. Sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend (Woodland longing) is an evocation of nostalgia for the woods, birds & streams of the poet’s homeland, richly conveyed in a rolling accompaniment in the low register that won this song the admiration of Brahms. Even deeper and richer in low piano tone is Stille Tränen (Silent tears) with its sustained melody and throbbing chordal accompaniment.
The voice stands in bold relief against the piano, however, in Der Himmel hat eine Träne geweint (Heaven shed a tear) that sees a tear from heaven made into a pearl as symbolic of the love that a lover guards preciously inside. The tone of this song is noble, but with more than a touch of sentimentality. Piano and voice return to a duet texture in O ihr Herren (O you lords) with another accompaniment that could be a piano piece on its own. Herbstlied (Autumn song) expresses the contrasting emotions brought on by the change of seasons. It has a two-part structure: the passing of summer is regretted solemnly in the minor mode with a Bachian contrapuntal accompaniment until the mood brightens with major-mode thoughts of how winter will preserve everything till spring.
The first half of this recital ends with the great Biblical narrative of Belsatzar (Belshazzar), the Babylonian ruler whose jubilant feasting in celebration of his conquest of Jerusalem is interrupted by a the appearance of a mysterious message from the Almighty written on the wall. The score follows the narrated events of the tale with picturesque evocations of the flickering torches, the martial menace of the warriors in attendance, the sounds of riotous banqueting and the shock and awe of the story’s dramatic conclusion.
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The duet Liebesgram (Love’s sorrows) is a serious song, in keeping with its subject: death. The contrast between life and death is played out in the contrast between the major and minor mode, with the piano providing both serious contrapuntal and plangent harmonic comment on the text.
Exquisite delicacy characterizes Schneeglöcklein (Snow drop) which plays on the double sense of the name for the flower with the bell-shaped head that presages the coming of spring, here pictured as both a source of melting “snow drops” and the light tintinnabulation of a tinkling bell, charmingly portrayed in the high register of the piano. Equally cute is the naïve childlike enthusiasm for the arrival of spring in Er ist’s (Spring is here) with its twinkling accompaniment in the high register and imitation of the harp with—what else?–arpeggios.
Harplike sounds abound as well in the Goethe poems of Schumann’s Harfenspielerlieder. The tone of Wer sich der Einsamket ergibt (He who gives himself up to solitude) is serious, with a tortured melody and very little phrase repetition ranging widely over a harmonically restless accompaniment. More sober still is An die Türen will ich schleichen (I shall steal from door to door), which describes with great pathos the slow awkward gate of a wandering beggar.
Scholars are still puzzled by the text of Liebeslied (Love song), which may have been a secret coded message from Schumann to his wife Clara. This song is infinitely romantic, with the piano rapturously enveloping the voice’s voluptuous melody in a luxury of sympathetic swells of harmony and echoing its sighs. A more turbulent relationship is described in Es stürmet am Abendhimmel (A storm rages in the evening sky) that features a meteorological love affair between a cloud and the sun, with the piano vividly portraying the black cloud’s dark billowing presence. An eerie stillness returns in Nachtlied (Night song) with a virtually impassive melody drifting over a solemn succession of chords in the piano. Aufträge (Messages) is another nature song, this time on the theme of “Who will take this message to my love?” Will it be a wave, a bird, or the moon? The piano simply froths with excitement trying to find out.
Die Sennin (The cowgirl) features a gently yodelling melody that with its memorable leaps conveys the expansive feeling of being outdoors. The free and easy feel of this song’s opening is tempered by the bittersweet thought that “all things pass.” Sadness also tinges Meine Rose (My rose), a song which despite its comfortable ‘slow waltz’ pulse manages to rise to an almost operatic level of passion. Requiem is a reverent but passionate tribute to the life of German poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850) with a translated text attributed to the 12th-century abbess Héloïse about her lover, the philosopher-poet Peter Abelard.
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Schumann’s songs take a darker turn near the end of his creative life. In Abendlied (Evening song) we hear both the hope for a better future in heaven and disturbing echoes of life on earth, especially in the piano’s pulsing triplet chords in 6/4 while the singer sings in 4/4. Even more unsettling is the storyline in Warnung (Warning): a bird is told to be silent lest by attracting the attention of the owl it become its prey, an obvious hint at the approach of death. Even more eerie is the way in which the piano and singer seem to inhabit separate worlds, the piano in the underworld, the voice a lonely presence still back on earth.
With Abschied von der Welt (Farewell to the world) we arrive at the last of Schumann’s compositions. The piano plays the role of the orchestra in a dramatic operatic recitative, punctuating the singer’s plangent pleas and its own heartbreaking commentary on the existential questions: What use is the time I have left? Who will remember me? More heartrending still is the very moving Gebet (Prayer), with its implacably stern piano chords and the singer’s increasingly urge pleas for help. It was shortly after completing this song that musical Romanticism’s most sensitive poet, Robert Schumann, attempted to drown himself in the Rhine and was confined to an asylum, where he died three years later.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017
By Christian Gerhaher
This programme of poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe set to music by Franz Schubert and Wolfgang Rihm was conceived as a tribute to the eight great poetic hymns written during the poet’s Sturm und Drang period of the 1770s and 1780s. I had always regretted that Schubert had set only three of these outstanding masterworks—Prometheus, Ganymed and Kronos—and so over a period of several years I developed the idea of having contemporary composers complete the cycle. When I asked Wolfgang Rihm two years ago if he might be interested in working on some of the five remaining texts, his first reply was that he normally chooses his texts himself. Nevertheless, two weeks later I had his setting of Goethe’s Harzreise in my letterbox. This was then the core around which to build the second half of this recital. For coming recitals Gerold Huber is planning to compose the Sturmlied, and I am sure we will find a solution for Wanderer and Seefahrt, as well.
Schlafe! was willst du mehr?
Sleep! What more can you desire?
By listening to the first group of songs it is easy to understand what Schubert’s contemporaries meant when they described his new genre as being not really ‘Lieder’ in the traditional sense. They understood his way of setting poetic lines to music as creating Gesänge, i.e., ‘chants’. In this way of writing, the words no longer simply underlined more or less suitably affective music, but rather this great innovator managed to find appropriate musical equivalents for the texts of the pre-existing poems. This explains why we no longer find music laid out in balanced and symmetrical musical ‘periods’. Instead we hear phrases invented in a semantically ambitious way, following the sense and rhythm of the language, without just cheaply illustrating it.
A good example is Sehnsucht (Longing), in which two poetic themes are intertwined. On the one hand, there is the well-established theme of the distant lover who uses Nature to pass on his messages to the beloved. On the other hand, there is the loving individual who, reminiscent of Zeus, takes on different shapes in the natural environment to tell his love of his longing for her, evoking several epiphanies of being loved in her mind. A strophic solution would never have been suitable to translate this complex and lambent poem into musical meaning. Schubert’s charming, virtuous and metamorphic music, though, definitely is.
Schubert created two successful versions of An den Mond (To the Moon), a poem comprised of nine verses. In his first version, he created a song with four musical strophes of two verses each. In order to fit the poem into the musical form he had to omit one verse. The later version, performed here, once again starts with two double-verses but then resolves the problem by changing the musical form in order to include all of the remaining text. The result is one of Schubert’s most important and best-loved songs.
The following poem, Geheimes (Secret), comes from a later period in Schubert’s lieder production. He adopts here a relatively rigorous framework of musical periods, taking only minimal musical liberties in order to depict a situation from the later ‘classical’ period in Goethe’s oeuvre. Both Goethe and Schubert express themselves clearly but economically, colourfully but moderately, with humour and yet with severity. It is the language that Goethe developed under the spell of the Austrian actress and dancer Marianne von Willemer when writing The Book of Love in Der West-östliche Divan (1819), which Schubert depicted in his own modest, again utterly appropriate language.
It is perhaps understandable only with historical hindsight why Goethe did not appreciate—or perhaps could not understand—how great Schubert’s achievement was in effecting an Archimedean turnaround from baroque-affective restriction to romantic-empathetic deliverance in his vocal music settings. The poet was probably too deeply influenced by his troglodytically conservative friend, the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, and possibly anguished by the might and power of Schubert’s musical language, which seemed to be able to subsume pre-existing poetry into itself, poetry which Goethe may have felt uneasy seeing become only part of a lied.
Even if I am convinced that a lied is not a mini-drama, Nachtgesang could form a subtle exception to this postulation. In five little verse-acts his conviction that her sleep is alleviated and removed from the vulgar world to a better ideal world (with a rhapsodic peripety in the third verse) must give way to the recognition that her alleged sleep (Hypnos) in reality might be its kin: death (Thanatos). Schubert used the refrain at the end of every verse as an opportunity to create a strophic song, whose parts are mystically merged by the fact that the second-last line is always the opening line of the next verse (even the fifth and last one is again the start of the poem in the first verse). With almost no words (there are only ten rhyme words in all) and the most reticent music, it is an enormous challenge to express this horrific progression in an adequately humble way.
The group is concluded by one of the most often misunderstood songs. Schäfers Klagelied (Shepherd’s Lament) is nothing like an idyll, but is rather an expression of complete despair. The abandoned lover is not helped, but terrorized by the elements of the natural setting that surround him. The image of being wounded and helpless depicts the imaginative polar opposite to the depiction in the opening poem and song.
Six Songs from Goethe-Lieder
Zum Erstaunen bin ich da
I am here to marvel at it.
The selection of late Goethe poems in six out of the twelve songs by Wolfgang Rihm shows a very different poet. While not always at his most sympathetic, he at the very least expresses himself in a playful and charming way as the great old Privy Councillor who gives advice for how to lead a reasonable life. He is uplifting, wholesome, and joyful—the latter only with restrictions. As might be expected, the musical setting is not a feast for the senses, but it represents perfectly Goethe’s Gedankenlyrik (his ‘thought-poetry’). I understand Rihm’s early Goethe-songs as a reflection on the underlying poetic thoughts of the texts, and less as independent and compelling contributions to the cause of stirring musical entertainment. The last poem is from Goethe’s late (and slightly wordy) novel Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years (1807-1821), a continuation of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-1796), the significance of which earlier work can hardly be overestimated, especially in the influence it exercised over German vocal chamber music throughout the entire nineteenth century.
Gesänge des Harfners
Possibly the most utterly touching, but nevertheless most cryptic figure in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship is the Harfner, the harp-player, the tragic and incestuous father of enchanting young tomboy Mignon. The Harfner is the only character in this Bildungsroman (novel of character development) who does not evolve. He simply cannot survive the heartbreaking sorrow that overwhelms him. Especially notable is Goethe’s harsh play with and interconnection of the words Einsamkeit (solitude) and Alleinsein (aloneness), which he uses to deliberately and cynically evoke people’s compassion.
Aufwärts! Umfangend umfangen!
Aloft! Embracing embraced!
Goethe was young, radical and—in his own opinion—perfectly capable of explaining the world in a new and natively German way when he joined with other poets of his generation in the literary movement known as Sturm und Drang (storm and stress). Not all of his fellow travellers in this literary fashion would move on to adopt a more classical style, as he and Schiller did, but the inner drive to create ambitious works, to strive for perfection in search of the absolute achievement motivated many writers of the movement. The eight hymn poems written by Goethe stand out for their sheer hilarity, their radiance, and their powerful juvenility.
In Mahomets Gesang, for example, the life of the prophet Mohammed is narrated by comparing him to a growing stream, which gathers all waters around, becoming in the end an ocean. This wonderfully meandering, but sadly unfinished song is surrounded by a brace of the most important of Schubert’s songs: Prometheus and Ganymed.
Prometheus presents the unlimited aspiration of pure Genius, with its disrespect and scorn for the Creator made proverbial in drama by Goethe’s play Götz von Berlichingen (1773) and Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell (1804), as well as by authors of the Sturm und Drang period, who found its themes very much in line with their own pretensions. The idea behind Prometheus is conveyed in theGoethe-coined expression Verselbstung (selfing). By contrast, Entselbstigung (de-selfing) is the ruling principle of its companion poem, Ganymed, which tells the Greek mythological story of the handsome youth taken up into heaven on a cloud to become the cupbearer of Zeus. Schubert does not represent the poem’s action in terms of a dialogue between the two characters of the drama, but I can hardly imagine a more perfect depiction of the process of euphoric emanation.
An Schwager Kronos (To Coachman Kronos) bears in reality no clear relationship to actual Greek myth, but rather exemplifies how in classical thought, Nature and the world have the same meaning: reason enough for the perceptive young man of the poem to assimilate and to enter into its everlasting patterns. In this poem the aspiring young, thirsty and impatient passenger urges his coachman to go ever faster and faster (Chronos being the god of Time). He seems to hold his entire lifetime in his hands and in this overview he includes and already embraces his own death. But what a death, with important and heroic figures such as Orcus gathered in the underworld awaiting him with delirious applause. This is the young Goethe’s alluring prospect of his own life. One can hardly imagine a song more powerful and demanding than this.
Harzreise im Winter
Then comes Harzreise im Winter (Winter Journey Through the Harz Mountains). Barely comprehensible at a first glance, this poem tells a story out of Goethe’s own life. The fortunate poet is leaving a hunting party and puts himself in danger by leaving the secure path at the foot of the snowy mountain known as the Brocken, the highest peak in the Harz mountain range of central Germany and home of the witches’ Walpurgisnacht. He seeks the track of a sensitive young man—like Werther, the protagonist of one of his novels—who has become a despiser of the world. Here the subject of this poetic hymn becomes clear: it is Love, which has the duty to conciliate bliss and harm. The last scene ends on the summit of the Brocken in a euphoric expression of thanks. This poem is the last from this cycle, and the least radical. It evokes in me the connotation of a lucky version of the Way of the Cross and this I feel to be ideally represented by Wolfgang Rihm’s musical setting. Nearly a cantata, it wonderfully blends narrative with meditative and dramatic elements, totally in the service of the text’s meaning, but with tremendous sensuousness when compared with the first six songs.
Willkommen und Abschied
Du gingst, ich stund und sah zur Erden…
You went, and I stood looking down…
The earlier Sturm und Drang poem Willkommen und Abschied (Greeting and Farewell) finally shows Goethe the young lover, who frequently left a trail of passionate women behind him in his travels. Like love-corpses, they could never after manage to overcome the impression he had made on them: including his own sister, Charlotte von Stein, and Friederike Brion, the parson’s daughter whom he met and left near Strassburg, during his idyllic time in Sesenheim in the early 1770s. The disturbing thing is the poem’s first version (quoted above) in which it is not he who is leaving but she. Perhaps it means that she was leaving the departing rider, but it could also express resistance to the young and reckless lover’s guilt.
Franz Schubert: Die Winterreise
The art songs of Franz Schubert lie at the foundation of the lied genre itself, and at the pinnacle of Schubert’s lieder output stands Die Winterreise, a song cycle remarkable for its vivid musical portraits of the human heart smarting from the pains of love lost, and stoically resigned to the approach of death.
Conceived as a journey into the cold of winter, it sets to music a selection of poems by Wilhelm Müller published in 1823 and 1824 under the title Seventy-Seven Poems from the Posthumous Papers of a Travelling Horn-Player. Unlike the composer’s previous song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin (set to texts by the same poet), Winterreise presents more of a slide show than a plot, as all of the important action has taken place before the narration begins. The narrator- singer is heard in conversation with his own heart, by turns reflective, questioning, ironic, and finally resigned. In this speculative frame of mind, he drifts fluidly between the world of his dreams and the bitter reality he faces.
At issue is a love affair gone wrong. The wanderer’s beloved has broken off their relationship to marry a richer man, leaving him despairing and alone with his thoughts, which travel through dark territory as he traverses village and country settings after leaving her house.
The work was composed in two separate parts in 1827, the year before Schubert’s death, making the terminal illness from which he was suffering one obvious point of reference. But the poems from Wilhelm Müller’s collection provide apt imagery for such a presentation of moods, with their recurring themes of loneliness and isolation, watchwords of the emerging Romantic movement in art.
The cast of characters with whom the narrator interacts are elements of the natural landscape (sun, wind, trees and leaves, flowers, rivers and snow, crows and ravens), elements that form symbolic company for his journey. Schubert’s achievement in setting these poems is to give musical life to these images, not only in the contours of the singer’s melody, but especially in the pictorial vividness of the piano score. The piano serves as more than mere accompaniment: it often acts out the role of the external surroundings through which the singer travels.
And yet a paradox pervades this piano score. It is both richly allusive and unusually austere. Benjamin Britten, in discussing Schubert’s artistry, outlines the performers’ challenge in these terms:
One of the most alarming things I always find, when performing this work, is that there is actually so little on the page. He gets the most extraordinary moods and atmospheres with so few notes. And there aren’t any gloriously wishy-washy arpeggios to help you. You’ve got to create the mood by these few chords. He leaves it all very much up to the performers.
GUTE NACHT (Good Night)
“A stranger I came, a stranger I depart.” Beginning his lonely journey at a walking pace, our wanderer bids farewell to the house of his beloved, slipping off into the night accompanied only by the shadow of the moon. “Love wanders willingly,” he notes, with irony.
DIE WETTERFAHNE (The Weathervane)
The piano imitates a weathervane spinning atop his beloved’s house as the singer wonders about those inside. Do their affections also change with the wind? Why should they care about him, when their daughter is marrying a rich man?
GEFRORNE TRÄNEN (Frozen Tears)
To the drip-drip sounds of the piano, he asks how his tears can have frozen to his cheek so soon. They were hot enough to melt ice when they poured from his heart. Alternating major & minor harmonies evoke both the warmth of feeling and the chill in the air of this scene.
Stunned by the loss of his love, he searches frantically for any piece of green grass beneath the snow to remind him of happier times. But all is dead around, like his frozen heart. The agitated piano accompaniment portrays his inner turmoil, while the avoidance of cadence at the end paints his inability to let her memory go.
DER LINDENBAUM (The Linden Tree)
As a chill wind blows in the fluttering piano accompani- ment, he passes by a tree into which he once carved words of love. Once the emblem of his happiness, it now offers him eternal rest beneath its branches. The simple tuneful- ness of this melody has made it into a well-known German folksong, Am Brunnen vor dem Tore.
WASSERFLUT (Flood Water)
He muses on how the snow will absorb his tears, then thaw in the spring and flow with them into the stream. The flow of this stream will feel their warmth once again as it passes his beloved’s house.
AUF DEM FLUSSE (On the River)
The ice covering the river, on which he has carved the story of his love affair, is like his heart: it rages with a torrent beneath. Near the end, the piano pulses with signs of his inner torment.
RÜCKBLICK (Looking Backward)
Pursued by crows as he breathlessly escapes, the wanderer casts a nostalgic glance back at the town he is leaving, once so pleasant to his memory. And looking back, he still longs to stand in front of her house once again.
IRRLICHT (Will o’ the Wisp)
The flickering light of a will o’ the wisp, imitated in the piano part, leads him astray into a mountain chasm. He has no worries, though, for as rivers lead to the sea, so human miseries, like the will o’ the wisp, are but a game, all leading to the grave.
Pausing from the fatigue of his journey, he shelters in a little hut, but this bodily respite from the cold and wind only allows him to feel more keenly the burning sting of jealousy in his heart.
FRÜHLINGSTRAUM (Dream of Spring)
Lost in a happy dream of springtime, our traveller is awakened by the rooster’s call and the shrieking of crows. Drifting between a dream state and harsh reality, he longs to feel once again the warmth of love. The piano score paints in turn the sudden shrieks of birds and the torpor of his drowsy eyelids.
He travels on his way, lonely as a cloud drifting over the tops of the trees. The stillness in the air, the brightness of the scene, are no help to his pain. When storms raged he was less miserable than this.
DIE POST (The Post)
The gallop of horses’ hooves and the triadic call of the posthorn sets the second half of the song cycle in motion as our wanderer’s heart leaps with the arrival of the mail coach. Does it bring a letter from her?
DER GREISE KOPF (The Old Man’s Head)
The frost on his head has made him look like an old man, a welcome thought. Then horror sets in as he realizes he is still young, with so very far yet to travel to the grave. The sparseness of the piano part creates a chilling stillness as sonic backdrop to these dark thoughts.
DIE KRÄHE (The Crow)
Circling overhead, a crow, wonderfully imitated by the piano, has been following the wanderer. Is it waiting to feast on his carcass? Will this crow, unlike his beloved, stay with him till he dies?
LETZTE HOFFNUNG (Last Hope)
The traveller identifies with a lone leaf hanging on a barren tree, waiting to fall. If it falls, so too do his hopes fall to their grave. The piano paints a vivid picture of leaves falling all around him.
IM DORFE (In the Village)
As he passes through a village, dogs growl at him, rattling their chains. Everyone is in their beds, dreaming. Why should he stay with these dreamers, when his own dreams are all over?
DER STÜRMISCHE MORGEN (The Stormy Morning)
With the courage of desperation, the traveller faces an early morning storm that tears the heavens apart. Raging in the cold of winter, it is the very image of his own heart.
He sees a light dancing in the distance, which might be a warm house with a loving soul inside. In the dream world he inhabits, even an illusion brings him some comfort.
DER WEGWEISER (The Sign Post)
Avoiding the busy byways, he heads for wild and desolate places, ignoring every sign post but one: the one leading him to a place from which no one returns.
DAS WIRTSHAUS (The Inn)
A liturgical solemnity pervades the scene as the traveller stops at a cemetery filled with garland-bedecked graves that beckon him like a welcoming inn. All its rooms, however, are taken and he is turned away, so he resolutely resigns himself to continue on his journey.
A plucky spirit overtakes him, as he dispels defeatism to face wind and weather, feeling like a god on earth. Major and minor tonalities embody the difficulties he faces and the courage he uses to face them.
DIE NEBENSONNEN (The Sun Dogs)
He sees three suns in the sky, and stares at them. He, too, had three suns once, but having lost the two he cherished most (her eyes), he now has only one, and he wishes that would go dark, too.
DER LEIERMANN (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man)
A drone in the piano announces the forlorn figure of an old organ-grinder playing with numb fingers, barefoot in the cold, his begging plate lying empty as dogs growl at him. This is the only human being the traveller meets on his winter journey. Shall he go with this strange man? Will the organ-grinder play his songs?
Notes by Donald Gislason.
Last night I had one of the most perfect concert experiences of my life. I have been attending a conference of music managers and presenters in Budapest. I discovered that baritone Christian Gerhaher was singing an all-Schubert song recital in the Vienna Konzerthaus. It was sold out, but after 33 years in the concert presenting world, I was able to pull strings and, to my utter astonishment, I became a guest of the Konzerthaus. So, I hopped on a train and headed back to Vienna (where I’d been just the week before) to hear the performance. The distance between Vienna and Budapest seems similar to the distance between Vancouver and Seattle. Except that, of course, one just sails through borders from one country to the next.
The Konzerthaus was packed to overflowing. There were 750 seats filled in the hall with an additional 50 seats on stage. I know this because I asked the Intendant of the Konzerthaus. I also enquired about their wonderful piano and he told me that they select and rent a new Steinway from the factory every two years.
I am guilty of over-using the word “extraordinary”, but there is simply no other word to describe Gerhaher’s voice (or voices, as he seems to have so many of them). He inhabits the text and the music he is singing. He simply delivered what Schubert intended when he wrote the songs. Nothing more and nothing less. His regular pianist is Gerold Huber and the two of them together are as one. Right down to the tiniest nuance. I can understand why Andras Schiff has chosen to invite Gerhaher to Carnegie Hall for his “Perspectives” Series. And of course, we, at the VRS are the beneficiaries of this collaboration. We jumped at the opportunity when we heard about it.
If you are a serious, discerning music lover you must not miss the Gerhaher/Schiff performance at the Chan on May 14. Don’t expect a larger than life personality like Bryn Terfel (nothing wrong with him!) but expect the most perfect delivery of song you will experience for many, many years to come. It is both deeply gratifying and humbling at the same time.
Leila (en route from Vienna to Budapest).
Ludwig van Beethoven
An die ferne Geliebte
Adelaide, Op. 46
An die ferne Geliebte, composed in 1816, stands proudly at the beginning of Christian Gerhaher’s recital as the first important song cycle from any composer, that is, a series of songs in which the constituent numbers are linked together by a theme or narrative of some sort to form a cohesive whole. The six songs of An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved) are set to poems by a minor poet named Alois Jeitteles (1794-1858). A solitary lover seated on a hillside gazes into the distance and longs for the object of his affection. The lover’s thoughts turn to blue mountains (the second song), a brook (the third), clouds (the fourth) and the glories of springtime in May (the fifth) as he thinks of love filtered through these images of pure, unspoiled nature. The final song brings the listener full cycle, with passages of both text and music from the opening stanza returning for a fulfilling close. The songs are heard without breaks, and piano transitions link some of them. The cycle is further unified by a tonal scheme centered around E-flat major.
“Adelaide,” which closes the program, was Beethoven’s first important song and dates from 1795 or 1796, about the time he was writing his first piano trios and piano sonatas. The text is by Friedrich von Matthisson (1761-1831), a much admired German poet in his day. The song is an expansive, impassioned outpouring of emotion as a man wanders about a garden and sees in his beloved Adelaide as a manifestation of the beauties of nature.
Dichterliebe, Op. 48
Schumann composed more than half of his total song output in a single year, 1840. His love affair with Clara Wieck, who was to become his wife in August, provided fertile soil for serious attention to love lyrics. Concurrently, Schumann was beginning to recognize that the larger musical forms (symphony, sonata, string quartet) were not developing in the direction he had expected, and he was prepared to look elsewhere for the full flowering of romantic music. This “elsewhere” became the Lied (song in German). Furthermore, Schumann recognized that the piano could play a highly significant role to play in vocal music – not mere accompaniment, but an equal partner.
Schumann composed Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love) in the space of about a week in May. In these sixteen songs, Schumann perfectly captures the psychological atmosphere of each poem. The piano writing, as in Schubert, is of great importance in defining the mood of each song. In Schumann, these moods are often carried to their greatest expressive heights in the piano postludes. All but two of the Dichterliebe songs end with postludes, some of them nearly half the length of the song itself. Another remarkable aspect of these songs is the vocal declamation. The music, with few exceptions, is perfectly welded to the words of the text with regard to metre, observation of punctuation and emphasis on the right word or syllable.
In the opening song, beautiful weather, flowers and birds are all part of the poet’s blissful reverie on love. But this love affair is doomed from the beginning, and the cycle traces a progression of regret, pleading, reconciliation and forgiveness. By the final song, the poet is so disconsolate that he prepares to drown his love, his sorrows and his dreams in a coffin in the deep sea.
Gesänge des harfners
The nine songs of 98a are all settings of lyric poems drawn from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1821/1829). Schumann undertook these settings in 1849, the centenary of Goethe’s birth. Of the nine songs, four are sung by the mysterious waif Mignon, one by the promiscuous actress Philene and four (the even-numbered ones) by the Harper, an itinerant musician and a strange, confused, half-crazy, tragic figure who turns out to be Mignon’s father (the mother was the Harper’s sister), though neither character learns this traumatizing fact until late in the novel. One can surmise already that the story is filled with repression, frustration, loneliness, bitterness, withdrawal and skeletons in the closet. So too are the Harper’s songs, aside from the opening Ballad, which he sings “with free, declamatory expression” (as Schumann marked in the score) before a royal gathering.
Franz Joseph Haydn
Haydn was almost fifty before he first turned his attention to song. The reason for this late start is simple: he had had no requests or impetus to write anything of this type. But in 1781 he brought out a set of twelve, some of which were expressly meant to show a certain Leopold Hofmann, Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna (Haydn referred to him as a “braggart”) that Haydn could do a much better job at setting the same texts than Hofmann. A second set of twelve followed a few years later. These early songs in German reflect the simple melodic and harmonic style of the Singspiel (German-language stage works with spoken dialogue interspersed with tuneful, folklike songs) and are always strophic in design (two or more verses set to the same music.)
Not until 1794-95, during his second London visit, did Haydn return to song-writing. Again, he produced twelve (this time two sets of six each, published in 1797). These are the English Canzonettas. Here the writing is more chromatic, there is more ornamentation, and the emotional range is greater. “The Wanderer,” for example, is a gloomy but beautifully etched setting of an Anne Hunter poem, with the image of wandering unmistakably portrayed in the piano. “Content” is the only one of the five Haydn songs on this program in a major key and the only one not concerned with loss, despair, death or the afterlife.
“The Spirit’s Song,” is a single, independent number Haydn wrote to another text by his London friend Anne Hunter. Stark in tone, dark in color, its text concerned with lonely ghosts, “The Spirit’s Song” nearly takes on the feeling of a dramatic recitative from an opera.
Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule. Where are you today?
I’m in Hamburg right now, singing my first Verdi role in the opera “Don Carlos” at the Hamburgische Staatsoper.
When did you realize you wanted a career in music?
I was inspired at the age of 17 by my teacher and by classical music that I discovered. I always sang when I was a kid, but only in school and children’s productions, and I never thought at that time about becoming an opera singer. I guess it’s very rare to hear an 8 or 9 year old child say “I want to be an opera singer!”! I was lucky enough to study as an actor of musical theatre where I received voice, ballet, and acting coaching, and also some training in acrobatics. Honestly, at first I was disappointed because there was too much ballet, and we were dancing three times a week. I started thinking that I was maybe in the wrong place; not because I didn’t like ballet, but because ballet didn’t like me! One day I remember saying to my friend that I wish I could break a leg, and I ended up doing just that within two weeks (not on purpose of course) which enabled me to concentrate on my voice lessons. This gave me such joy and I discovered the depth and beauty of classical music.
Who are the great influences in your life and in your music?
My family, my friends. In music; composers, my colleagues…
How does your approach to singing and characterization differ when performing a recital versus performing in an opera?
When you sing a concert you are alone on the stage, you don’t have any costume for the character, no set design, no light design; basically you have to create an atmosphere for the piece on your own and make it believable and contagious. In an opera production it involves hundreds of people, everything works for the story, and everything helps you to create the right atmosphere. The Director helps to create the character of the role, the conductor – the musical character. Meanwhile in recital you have to do it by yourself. The singer is expected to sing with more colour, nuance and more detail in concert, especially when you sing with a piano. Sometimes the orchestra doesn’t give you this opportunity, and everything should be a little bigger. I think it helps your operatic roles a lot when you sing recitals, and visa versa for your recital experience after singing in opera productions. I like both disciplines!
What can you tell us about your Vancouver program?
It’s quite an eclectic program, combining different time periods from 17th-20th century, different languages and styles. It’s a pot-pourri: a little Russian music, of course, some ancient music, and it finishes with ‘Largo al factotum’, from Il barbieri di Siviglia. Figaro is one of my favourite roles, and it’s actually very hard to find a piece for lyric baritone that makes a good end to the programme. I’m also singing Poulenc’s comedic Chansons Gaillards, which is very rarely done, but it goes down well with the audience. It’s based on troubadours’ songs – young guys singing songs all about sex to the girls. The music is incredibly beautiful and serious, but the words are full of double entendres. I have to try to keep a straight face!
Many in your Vancouver audience likely will hear you for the first time. For those who are not familiar with your singing, how would you describe your performances and concert experiences? (or: for those who are not familiar with your singing, what is the one most important experience you wish to convey through your performance?)
I usually try not to think about the result, and just try to enjoy the process and share with the audience the beauty of this music of such great composers, and to tell the story. It’s my hope that someone will find something in common with the stories being told.
What is the concert experience like for you, as the performer?
As an opera singer it’s good to do recitals. It allows you to be flexible with your technique. And sometimes you get tired of opera and you want some more intimacy with the audience. There is no decoration, no movement, no costume, no orchestra – you have to create characters on stage all by yourself. For me as an artist it is always important to find a contact with audience. I like this phrase: “You don’t step on stage to eat, you go there to be eaten”.
What influence does your Russian heritage and language have on your interpretations and choice of repertoire?
Of course it will be the primary influence in Tchaikovsky’s songs and in Onegin’s aria, with all the depth of Tchaikovsky’s music and Pushkin’s poem Eugene Onegin. And it gives me an in-depth understanding of the text.
You are much in demand, and no doubt you travel a lot and often alone. How do you manage to find a balance between the demands on your professional life and your personal life?
It’s not easy, but I try not to lose my personal life while pursuing my career. In the end the bigger the personal experiences in life, the more it influences you as an artist, so you have to grow in both directions, personally and professionally.
What are your concert highlights in 2012?
Musically, I’m most looking forward to singing the Antique arias, Barber, Poulenc, Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Rossini, Korngold and some Zarzuelas; which makes up the body of the majority of my recital work.
Thank you for participating in our interview. We are very much looking forward to hearing you in Vancouver on February 26, 2012.
Rodion Pogossov will perform with pianist Mikhail Senovalov at the Kay Meek Centre on Sunday, February 26, 2012.
Alessandro Stradella: “Pietà, Signore”
Orphaned at the age of eleven, Alessandro Stradella went on to lead one of the most colourful lives of any composer who ever lived. He was involved in Mafiaesque schemes, had a reputation for womanizing, got himself wounded by pursuing avengers, and was eventually murdered. In between all this he found time to compose. Alas, the only piece by Stradella that has his name attached to it, and that has any degree of circulation today, “Pietà, Signore” (a heart-rending plea to the Lord for mercy in suffering), was actually written by someone else, possibly the Italian Rossini, possibly the Belgian historian-theorist-composer François Joseph Fétis, or possibly the Swiss-born composer and pedagogue Louis Niedermeyer.
George Frederick Handel: “Ombra mai fù”
The recitative and aria from Handel’s light and elegant opera Serse (or Xerxes, London, 1738), “Frondi tenere e belle … Ombra mai fù,” is not only the most famous number from Serse, but it may well be the most famous vocal number from any of Handel’s forty-plus operas. In mock-heroic terms, Xerxes, King of Persia addresses an affectionate tribute to the foliage of a plane-tree in the garden of his residence at Abydos, located on the southern shore of the Hellespont.
Antonio Cesti: “Si mantiene il mio amor”
Antonio Cesti’s life was scarcely less tumultuous than Stradella’s. Like Vivaldi, he trained for the priesthood. However, he couldn’t keep his hands off the ladies, and in 1658 got himself released from his vows. Rumour has it that he died by poisoning. Most of his output was for voice, and his magnum opus was the huge, five-act, 24-scene opera Il pomo d’oro (The Golden Apple), produced in 1667 on the occasion of a royal wedding.
“Si mantiene il mio amor” is a dolorous aria from Cesti’s first opera Alessando, vincitor di se stesso (Venice, 1651). It is sung by Efestione, a general in the army of Alexander the Great. Efestione is in love with Campaspe, but he has been promised to Alexander’s sister Cina, and he dares not risk offending the powerful Alexander. “My love survives on pain, sorrow and distress,” he sings. “I love, even without hope.”
Samuel Barber: “Un cygnet”
While many other composers of the mid-twentieth century were jumping on bandwagons, afraid to be left behind by the latest fad, ism or experiment, Samuel Barber remained true to his inner conviction of writing music founded on tonal centers, emotional expression and traditional values. His music breathes lyricism, heartfelt emotions, nostalgia, and, in some cases, highly dramatic gestures.
“Throughout his life, Barber was never without a volume or two of poetry at his bedside,” writes pianist John Browning. “Poetry was as necessary to his existence as oxygen.” The Mélodies passagères (1950-51) are settings of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and constitute the only songs Barber set to verses in a foreign language. They were first performed in Paris in 1952 by two of France’s preeminent musicians, baritone Pierre Bernac and composer Francis Poulenc, who also recorded the songs. Barbara Heyman, in her monograph on Barber, observes that the Mélodies passagères are close in style to the French art song “not merely because of the texts, but primarily because of their semi-parlando vocal lines, fluid piano accompaniments marked with gentle syncopations, and expanded tonal language.” The haunting “Un cygne” (A Swan), third of the five Mélodies passagères, is imbued with the gliding quality we associate with this bird, but also with a pervasive darkness and gloom. The meaning of the text, like that of the other “passing melodies,” is enigmatic, even elusive: “A swan moves over the water surrounded by itself… a whole moving space. And draws near, doubled … on our troubled soul.”
Francis Poulenc: “Chansons Gaillardes”
Francis Poulenc was unquestionably one of the greatest composers of mélodies in the twentieth century. Numbering nearly 150, they were written across a 42-year span, Poulenc’s entire adult life. For the most part the songs are tonal, tuneful, concise, and use texts from some of the best French poets of the twentieth century, among them Guillaume Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, Paul Éluard and Max Jacob. For the Chansons gaillardes (1925-1926), however, he turned to anonymous texts from the seventeenth century. They deal mostly with earthy, even risqué subjects in an often satirical, playful or flippant manner. Even the songs about death and fate do not take themselves very seriously. The first is about a fickle mistress, the second is probably the most lugubrious drinking song ever written, the third a paean to a beautiful girl, the fourth a promise to love forever (subject to the will of the Fates!), the fifth a salacious comparison between wine and women, the sixth a variant of poet Robert Herrick’s admonition “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may” (the most lyrical of the songs), the seventh an exuberant recommendation to remain single and never marry, and the last praise for womanly charms.
The great French baritone Pierre Bernac gave the first performance on May 2, 1926 with the composer at the piano. As Poulenc was a highly accomplished pianist, he wrote lively parts for his instrument.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen”
Korngold’s middle name was well chosen (he added it himself), for in precocity and fluency, he rivaled his namesake of years before, Mozart. He wrote his first major orchestral work at fourteen (premiered by that titan of the podium, Arthur Nikisch, with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra) and two one-act operas at eighteen (premiered by Bruno Walter at the Munich State Opera). Korngold was not yet 24 when his full-length opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) was first heard on December 4, 1920. Initially, the opera was so popular that some eighty theaters produced it.
Die tote Stadt is adapted from Georges Rodenbach’s novel Bruges – la Morte (1892), a dream-tale suffused with images of death and decay, and descriptions of a sleepy, stagnant, deserted city. Paul imagines that the young dancer he has met (Marietta) is actually the re-embodiment of his late wife Maria. The acting troupe of which Marietta is a member shows up in Act II. Among them is the character Fritz, who plays the role of Pierrot in the troupe. Marietta asks him for an impromptu song, one that “makes you dance and sway, dream sweetly in the moonlight’s ray, a song that lures and beguiles.” The music Korngold wrote for Fritz fulfills these demands perfectly. Further, the words to his song (“My yearning, my dreaming, returns to the past, the days of young love …”) allude to Paul’s own situation vis-à-vis Marie and her stand-in, Marietta.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: “Papagena, Papagena, Papagena”
Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) was Mozart’s last opera, premiered on September 30, 1791 just a few weeks before his death. Virtually unique in the annals of opera, it combines low camp with high morals, the comic and the serious, the ridiculous and the sublime, plus generous doses of mischief, satire, theatrical effects, Egyptology and Masonic symbolism in a work of unsurpassed genius. The aria we hear tonight comes from near the end of the opera. The birdcatcher Papageno, one of the flightiest yet most likeable characters in all opera, is at the end of his rope – literally. He has despaired of ever finding a sweetheart and is about to hang himself. He thought he had found one in Papagena, but no, he’s been stood up. Or so he thinks. All turns out right just after his “suicide aria” ends.
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky: “Kogda by zhizn’”
Tchaikovsky’s approach to opera was highly personal. He tended to avoid spectacular battle scenes, marches, exotic locales, large contingents of supernumeraries and other trappings of “grand” opera. “Give me a subject in which the human element will predominate: love, jealousy, ambition,” he wrote. I search for powerful, yet intimate drama, based on a conflict of situations which I have experienced and that I feel.” These words offer a custom-made prescription for Eugene Onegin (1879), Tchaikovsky’s fifth completed opera and the best known. It received its first professional production on January 23, 1881 (a student production had been given two years earlier).
Tatiana is in love with Onegin, to whom she pours out her feelings in a long and famous letter. But the next time they meet, Onegin advises her that he is not the marrying type; he is not even the type for warm affection. It is best that she know this now, he tells her, before any more emotional damage is done. The story comes from Pushkin, but it fit Tchaikovsky’s own life to a T. If ever there were a case of art mirroring life, this is it, for less than two months earlier, the composer had found himself in a very similar situation.
Tchaikovsky: three songs
Tchaikovsky wrote more than one hundred songs spread more or less evenly across his entire creative life, but only a few are well known. In these songs, writes his biographer David Brown, “Tchaikovsky probed directly into the human soul to expose its desires and passions, its joys and sorrows, its tenderness and its vulnerability. … he favoured verses concerned with strong, personal feeling.”
The Op. 38 songs were published in 1878, the year of the Violin Concerto. “Amid the Din of a Ball,” set to a poem of Alexis Tolstoy, is steeped in nostalgia and is one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular. A young man reflects wistfully on the vision of a beautiful woman he spies in a crowded ballroom. Set to the waltz rhythm, the image calls to mind similar scenes in Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique (also a waltz), and Roméo et Juliette.
“Why?” comes from Tchaikovsky’s first set of published songs, Op. 6 (1875), which also includes his most famous, “None but the lonely heart.” Set to a poem of Heinrich Heine, it asks eight questions, each beginning with the same word and inquiring about some aspect of nature. The music moves forward relentlessly, culminating in a fortississimo outburst of anguish for the final question, “Why … did you forget me?” The piano postlude suggests resignation.
In “Don Juan’s Serenade,” another A. Tolstoy setting, we find the same lilting metre that Don Giovanni used in his serenade in Mozart’s opera (Tchaikovsky adored Mozart), but in place of suavity and elegance we find in Tchaikovsky the Don’s legendary arrogance and bluster. There is no mistaking the piano’s imitation of a furiously strummed guitar.
Federico Moreno Torroba: “Amor vida de mi vida”
Like Vaughan Williams, Moreno Torroba has a non-hyphenated surname, though one sometimes sees it also spelled with the hyphen. Moreno Torroba made his fame, both as a composer and a conductor, mostly through music for guitar and through zarzuela, the traditional Spanish version of comic opera. He is credited with a large role in making zarzuela known to international audiences, but he also wrote serious operas, of which the last, El Poeta, written in 1980 at the age of 89, starred Plácido Domingo in the title role.
The aria “Amor, vida de mi vida” (Love, Life of My Life) comes from the zarzuela Maravilla, premiered in Madrid in 1941. The story involves the classic love triangle with a complication from a family member: Raphael loves Elvira, who is having an affair with Faustino, who is the manager of Elvira’s mother Marvilla, who is an opera singer who will be Raphael’s partner in the next production. Such is the fame of Rapheal’s poignant aria that it turned up in Three Tenors concerts, sung by Domingo.
Gioachino Rossini: “Largo al factotum”
Great operatic comedies are far less plentiful than operatic tragedies. The Barber of Seville (1816) indubitably stands at the very pinnacle of this small repertory, and year after year ranks as one of the Top Ten most frequently performed operas of any kind, not surprisingly in view of its irrepressible high spirits, rich humor and wealth of great tunes. The barber of the title is Figaro, the same Figaro as in Mozart’s opera. Here he is about ten years younger and not yet employed as a servant in a royal household. His role, which he hugely enjoys, is the crafty, resourceful, clever citizen of Seville ever-ready to assist anyone and everyone with anything. Figaro is fully aware of his popular standing in the community, and shows no inhibitions in boasting about it. This he does in his enormously exuberant entrance aria, “Largo al factotum” (I’m the factotum).
Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.
Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule. How did the New Year start for you?
The New Year started with a Messiah concert in Zurich and then 5 days skiing with the kids and friends in Vorarlberg. That‘s a very good start!
Who are the great influences in your life and in your music?
In my life the influences are too many and too complex to mention. However, in music the dominant influences would be (conductor) Nikolaus Harnoncourt and (Dutch bass-baritone) Robert Holl. They are the ones I consider to be masters.
You are well known for your performances of music by Schubert and Schumann. What does this music mean to you as an artist?
In Schubert and Schumann I find the union of poetry and music very strongly to be a language I understand and speak.
Your Vancouver program is built around the poetry of Heinrich Heine, as set to music by Schubert and Schumann. For you, are music and poetry equal partners, or do you consider poetry first when putting together a program, as seems to be the case for your Vancouver recital?
When I put programs together, most of the time I read the poetry first.
Many in your Vancouver audience likely will hear you for the first time. For those who do not familiar with your singing, how would you describe your performances and concert experiences? (or: for those who are not familiar with your singing, what is the one most important experience you wish to convey through your performance?)
I do not know exactly what I am going to do in my recitals. The interesting thing for me is to be open and sensitive enough to take the inspiration of the moment, and tell a story or a feeling as if it was for the first time. So it sometimes ends up being pretty much freestyle in proportion to the discipline.
For you, what is the role of the piano and the pianist in German art song? Does working with different pianists influence your interpretations and performances?
I see the singer and accompanist as equal partners. I even consider myself the accompanist to the pianist. Each and every pianist brings their own individual influence to the recital. Also, the same pianist will bring new or different ideas on different days. It is like playing ping pong – one serves and, if lucky, someone plays back!
What can you tell us about your collaboration with Roger Vignoles, your pianist for the Vancouver recital?
Roger is one of the greatest accompanists in the world, and he’s also my friend. He is a fantastic pianist and musician with enormous experience and flexibility, and he is always open for something new. It doesn‘t get much better really.
What is the concert experience like for you, as the performer?
Having the freedom to express myself to an audience, and to be myself in the context of a recital performance. I consider it to be a great privilege. I always discover some place I have not been before.
You are much in demand, and no doubt you travel a lot and often alone. How do you manage to find a balance between the demands on your professional life and your personal life?
One tries! I have a smart wife and a smart manager, that helps a lot.
What are your concert highlights in 2012?
Ask me that in 2013… it could be vancouver!
Thank you for participating in our interview. We are very much looking forward to hearing you in Vancouver on February 19, 2012.
Florian Boesch will perform with pianist Roger Vignoles at The Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Sunday, February 19 at 3pm.