Christian Gerhaher Archives - Vancouver Recital Society

Stay Tuned!

Sign up to get free in-depth coverage on up and coming artist and more!

×

PROGRAM NOTES: CHRISTIAN GERHAHER & GEROLD HUBER

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.

 

Franz Schubert

Eight Songs

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.

 

Wolfgang Rihm

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.

 

Franz Schubert

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.

 

Franz Schubert

Four Songs

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.

  

Wolfgang Rihm

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.

 

Franz Schubert

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.

 

Getting to know baritone Christian Gerhaher

Christian Gerhaher on the origins on German Lied (song):
The German Lied was born into quite special circumstances. The composer found himself creating something with no pre-existing format, which in practical performance terms was restricted to a quite intimate situation, which will later become the famous Schubertiade. That means it had a more social than an artistic significance.

On performing:
I mostly perform German language songs, and in doing so have developed an idea of combining the expression of pronounced text and sung music into a personal, meaningful sound.

On favourite composers:
Schubert, Schumann and Mahler – all three in general for their faithful way of combining music and text in an authentic synthesis – all of them in a personal way.

Schubert was not only the great founder of the Lied as a musical category. He displayed in his large oeuvre an immense variety of micro-styles, all deriving from a true and honest attempt to execute the intuition that Schubert seems to have derived from reading a poem. A very special miracle that I notice constantly throughout his multi-faceted oeuvre is that Schubert treats very good poems with the greatest distinction and delicacy. He does not seem to add too much new or of his own to a perfect poem. On the other hand, he really seems to be able to ennoble weak poems, of which he set not a few.

Schumann is my personal favourite (not only as a song composer). Performing his works I like especially his trend-setting innovation of giving at least equal weight to the piano part. I also admire, as I do with Hugo Wolf, his highly delicate and quality-conscious selection of texts. I admire and feel touched by his radical artistic genius.

On Deitrich Fischer-Dieskau:
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in my view, established Lieder-singing as a kind of vocal chamber music. This achievement should not be underestimated (I think this maybe was one of his main merits). The history of Lieder performances reveals an always strongly private and emotional orientation. I would even say that such an approach to singing and interpreting this literature leads to the danger of group sentimentality,

Fischer-Dieskau’s method was, first of all, to take the composer’s intentions seriously. He dispensed, for example, with the tendency to select particular pieces from an entire song-cycle. Secondly, he sang this literature with a well-known, superb technique that combined perfect pronunciation with a helpful, bright voice-colour.

On influential singers:
[Of course,] Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. There was another Lieder singer. His work and not only for me, is a true, dear treasure. Fritz Wunderlich was a wonderful singer. He was and is an inspiration for singers many and varied. His timbre is a perfect example of how much imagination and will are sable to influence the quality and aesthetic value of singing.

LEILA GETZ: ONE OF THE MOST PERFECT CONCERT EXPERIENCES OF MY LIFE

 

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).

Program Notes: Christian Gerhaher and Andras Schiff

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.

Robert Schumann
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.

Robert Schumann
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
Five Songs

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.

 

Top