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Mezzo-soprano Eva Nikolovska has curated an intriguing recital program of songs composed in the forty years between 1865 and 1905, a selection that highlights the changing styles of music emanating from three important centres of music-making.
From Vienna there are the contrasting voices of the traditionalist Brahms and his aesthetic adversary Hugo Wolf, from France the varied sound-pictures of Debussy and Ravel, and from Boston a small sample of the astonishing output of the first successful American female composer, Amy Beach.
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Wie Melodien zieht es mir Op. 105 No. 1
Lerchengesang Op. 70 No. 2
Der Gang zum Liebchen Op. 48 No. 1
Ständchen Op. 106 No. 1
Brahms’ compositional concern with structure and form made him a leading proponent of absolute (i.e., non-programmatic) music, and thus an unlikely contributor to 19th-century European art song, with its story-driven texts and pictorial modes of expression. And yet from his early twenties to his final years Brahms was a prolific composer for the human voice, publishing no less than 190 lieder for solo voice and piano, now staples of the recital repertoire, as well as numerous works for other vocal ensembles.
Like his instrumental works, Brahms’ lieder feature diatonic melodies supported by a strong contrapuntally-conceived bass-line that structures functional (not coloristic) harmonies. But his overriding ideal is really the direct expressiveness and guileless simplicity of traditional folksong which he imbues with an elegance of construction designed to please his audience of Viennese amateur singers. While written for an indoor urban audience, the aesthetic frame of reference of Brahms’ lieder, as with his Hungarian Dances, is the wide outdoors and the life of the country village.
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Wie Melodien zieht es mir (It moves like a melody) features a teasingly abstract text, with a recurring reference to an unexplained “it” (es) that periodically moves the singer but the feeling doesn’t last. “It” wafts away like scent (Duft) when melody calls “it” forth. “It” vanishes like the greyness of mist (Nebelgrau) when captured in words or print. Only in the germinating bud (Keime) of lyrical poetry (Reime) is “it” (the poet’s message) revealed to the moistened eye of the receptive soul. A continuous flow of 8th notes in the piano accompaniment and constant small inflections in the harmony express both the singer’s free flow of thoughts and the way those thoughts evaporate soon after they appear. The piano’s cascading arpeggios most often move in contrary motion to the melody line, as does the bass line, in keeping with good contrapuntal practice.
Lerchengesang (Song of the larks) is utterly magical in the vividness of its tonal imagery. The “ethereal distant voices” (ätherische ferne Stimmen) of the lark’s song, brilliantly evoked by a delicate two-note figure in the high treble of the piano, envelop the singer in a delicate haze of remembering as she closes her eyes to recall twilights “pervaded with the breath of spring” (durchweht vom Frühlingshauche). The splendid isolation of the singer’s musings is highlighted by intermittent silences from the lark (i.e., piano), allowing the melody line to suddenly stand out alone. The separate realities of the bird and its solitary listener are conveyed in cross-rhythms, with four 8th notes in the piano matched against triplet quarter notes in the singer’s melodic line.
Der Gang zum Liebchen (The walk to the beloved’s home) is an actual folk song text that Brahms found in a collection of Deutsche Volkslieder and his setting is eminently folksong-like in its use of recurring rhythmic patters and melodic motives. The text describes the worries of a lover as he makes his way to the home of his beloved, tortured by anxious thoughts of her unfaithfulness or even her death, all under the watchful eye of the moon. The flickering changes in mode between minor and major reflect the lightning mood swings of the quickly pacing lover, but there is a fair bit of irony at play, as well. The piano’s dance-like accompaniment (reminiscent of the famous accelerating passage of Chopin’s C# minor waltz Op. 64 No. 2) might easy represent the lover’s racing thoughts, but equally well conveys the piano’s twinkling sly suggestion that he frets for nothing because merriment aplenty awaits him upon his arrival.
Ständchen (Serenade) presents a very realistic depiction of a natural setting, with the moon shining brightly onto the mountainside, as three students play a serenade with a pretty girl nearby as their audience. Their instruments are a flute, a fiddle and a zither, the strumming of which is evident from the crisp arpeggiated chords of the piano’s opening. We, as listeners, are witnesses to this scene, hearing how the pretty girl floats off into a reverie — to swirling piano figuration in the middle section. She daydreams of her fair-haired lover, whispering to him “Forget me not!” (Vergiss nicht mein) just before she wakes up with the final “zither strum” from the piano.
Ich sagte nicht Op. 51 No. 1
Three Browning Songs Op. 44
The Year’s at the Spring
Ah Love but a Day!
I Send my Heart up to Thee
Amy Beach was the first American woman to achieve widespread professional success as a composer of art music. Born Amy Marcy Cheney in 1867, she displayed prodigious talent while young as both a pianist and composer. At 18 she married Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach, a wealthy Boston surgeon some 25 years her senior, and henceforth published under the name “Mrs. H. H. A. Beach”. Comfortable in the large-scale forms of orchestral, choral and chamber music, she was best known for the 117 songs for solo voice and piano that she published between 1880 and 1941.
Her harmonic idiom was the chromatic language of late Romanticism, with Liszt and Wagner as major influences, and her scores feature a wealth of chromatically altered chords and expressive modulations. She was particularly adept at creating restless, long melodic lines smouldering with lyrical intensity and crowned with impassioned climaxes. As an idealistic Victorian of Wagnerian sensibilities, she was acutely sensitive to the voluptuousness of music, but aimed to use it for a higher societal purpose. Impervious to the violent cross-currents of cultural upheaval transforming the early 20th century, she persisted throughout her career to believe that “the true mission of music is to uplift.”
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The German text of Ich sagte nicht (I didn’t say) from 1903 paints the scene of two lovers blissfully staring into each other eyes, neither of them thinking or needing to say “I love you” (Ich liebe dich). Mrs. Beach’s Wagnerian inspiration is clear from the score’s creeping chromatic voice-leading and long appoggiaturas that recall a similar love-delirium in Tristan und Isolde.
In The Year’s at the Spring, the first of Three Browning Songs (1900), the heaving bosom of a Victorian matron bubbles over with excitement at the change of seasons, symbolized in a continuous chatter of piano triplets, while ecstatic upward leaps of a 4th in the melody line lead in mounting excitement to the famous concluding line: “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world!”
A more serious note is struck in Ah Love but a Day, which deals with the subject of a wife’s distress at her husband’s losing interest in their marriage. The soulful pining quality of the melodic line as the song opens evokes the kind of wistful pathos that Gershwin would later incorporate into Porgy & Bess. But minor turns to major in the second half of the song as hope springs eternal in the breast of a faithful wife, musing over the thought: “The world has changed, look in my eyes, wilt thou change, too?” The very last phrase, with its melody line intoning an unchanging 5th note of the scale, is a brilliant touch of dramatic tone-craft.
The rapture of true love returns in the third song of the set, I Send my Heart up to Thee! with a surging piano accompaniment that paints the welling up of tender feelings in the singer’s heart and the waves of the sea that symbolize these emotions in the text.
Trois chansons de Bilitis
In 1894, Debussy’s friend Pierre Louÿs enacted a hoax on the French public. Seeking to drum up enthusiasm for the virtues of pagan sensuality – a fin de siècle fascination of the time – he published what he claimed were his own translations of newly discovered poems by Bilitis, a supposed contemporary of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho from the famously girl-friendly isle of Lesbos. I undressed to climb a tree – writes Bilitis, in a mood for sharing as she voluptuates in her own contours – my naked thighs embraced the smooth and humid bark.
The poems were his own, of course, and stimulated (if that is the right word) Debussy to set three of them in his Trois Chansons de Bilitis of 1897-1898. Using modal scales, especially the Lydian mode with its raised 4th degree, he paints a vivid sonic picture of the ancient world, setting this trio of poems in free-floating speech-like declamation, the melody line often sitting on a single pitch or moving in small intervals. His harmonies are impressionistic, sometimes based on the whole-tone scale, with parallel 5ths in the bass a frequent device for rapidly shifting tone colours.
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La Flûte de Pan (Pan’s flute) presents a scene that Mrs. Beach would hardly consider edifying. As the piano imitates a relaxed strumming of the strings of a lyre, a young woman, who has carelessly let slip her belt, wanders off wide-eyed, alone and belt-less, into a lush natural setting to look for it. There she meets a young man of pedagogical inclinations who kindly offers her a place on his knees for a kind of lap-dance music lesson so that she might learn to play his syrinx, or pan pipes. The wax that binds together the stiff reeds of the instrument, she notes in passing, is as sweet as honey on her lips. In a bid to improve her embouchure, the young man joins her in blowing into the instrument and the two of them remain cheek-to-cheek until their lips meet. As the evening draws on, frogs from a nearby pond are heard in the piano accompaniment, lending a chorus of amphibian approval to the young girl’s sexual awakening.
In La Chevelure (The Tresses of hair) the piano intones a blurry ostinato, preparing us to hear the viewpoint of the young man himself. He has had a dream, he tells the young woman, in which her tresses had coiled round him like a necklace, and mouth-to-mouth they had been united, like two laurel trees that share a single root. (The piano accompaniment perks up considerably here and rises to a surging climax.) Untangling their limbs as they recover from this insight into forest ecology, the pace slows, the piano returns to the dream-like pulsing of the opening, and it’s all over but for the tender staring into each other’s eyes.
Le Tombeau des naïades (The Tomb of the naiads) commemorates the death of the mythological gods of the forest. A winter frost has overtaken the landscape as the young woman wanders in a daze, her hair caked with icicles and her sandals laden with snow. The young man informs her that the cloven footprints of the satyrs she is following lead nowhere. The satyrs are all dead, and with them the nymphs who once frolicked nearby. (An echo of their laughter is heard in the piano accompaniment.) Breaking off a piece of ice from the now-frozen spring, he holds it up to gaze through it at the paleness of the sky.
Auf einer Wanderung
Hugo Wolf brought a new level of expressive intensity to the German lied. Obsessed with making his musical setting correspond to the poetic text in every dimension – melodic contour, harmonic colouring, voice-piano relationship, etc. – he stands as a miniaturist adherent to the Gesamtkunstwerk (total art work) ideal of Wagner, whom he adored, and a precursor to similar experiments in ‘absolute control’ carried out by serialist composers in the early 20th century.
In little more than 20 years he contributed a unique body of songs to the repertoire, grouped for the most part in collections focusing on a single poet or a single anthology of folk poems. His settings expanded the psychological dimensions of these texts but often went far beyond the intentions or even imaginings of the original poets.
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Nachtzauber (Night magic) comes from a collection of poems by Germany’s pre-eminent Romantic poet of nature Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857), whose recurring themes of wandering, nostalgic longing, and the passage of time are reflected in the text. Eichendorff paints a night-world made magical by an awareness of its mysteries. These he itemizes with a sense of awakening wonder tinted with intimations of the sublime.
A burbling spring is evoked by a murmuring ostinato in the piano as the song opens, an ostinato that will remain an unsettling presence in the harmonic texture throughout, despite a bass-line that often supports the melody with the standard moves of functional harmony. The singer’s melody line wanders chromatically in dream-like fashion, sensually describing the scene: the solitary marble statues beside the lake, the wondrous gleam of the valley as night falls – sights that prompt memories of flowers “that blossomed in the moonlit valley,” and the song of nightingales. But the pain of love is recalled as well, and the steady march of time. The song ends nevertheless in ecstatic defiance of all that has come before: Komm, o komm zum stillen Grund! (Come, oh come to the silent valley!)
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Another collection of Wolf songs sets the poems of Eduard Mörike (1804–75), a Lutheran minister and utterly unclassifiable German poet with a list of literary interests that included erotic poetry. Mörike’s Nimmersatte Liebe (Insatiable love) is not the sort of thing on which to base a Sunday sermon. Indeed, its sado-masochistic text would quite likely require the application of smelling salts to the fainting frame of Mrs. Beach, should she find herself in the pews listening to spiritual guidance of this kind.
The playful opening gestures in the piano establish a tone of mischievous mockery before the singer introduces us to the notion that trying to satisfy Love with kisses is like trying to fill up a sieve with water. For such is Love (So ist die Lieb’). To the syncopated off-beat interjections of the piano accompaniment, the singer allows as how kisses lead to bites until, like a lamb to the slaughter (Wie’s Lämmlein unter’m Messer), the girl’s eyes will say (with a dramatic octave leap downwards in the melody line): “Do go on, the more it hurts the better!” (nur immer zu, / Je weher, desto beßer!).
The song closes with the self-justifying thought that even wise King Solomon made love this way, to a musical setting that Wolf himself described as “a right old student’s song, damned merry.” While Mörike might well have been sending up these laddish sentiments in his poem, we can’t really be sure of Wolf, whose first sexual experience in a brothel when he was 18 gave him the syphilis that eventually drove him insane, and resulted in his early death at the age of 42 in 1903.
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There is no doubt, however, of the sincerity of the joyous sentiments expressed in the last Wolf song in this recital, his setting of Mörike’s Auf einer Wanderung (On a walk). Here a pleasure-seeking hiker passes through a small town, its “streets aglow in the red evening light” (In den Strassen liegt roter Abendschein). From across the rich array of flowers on a window sill comes a voice like a choir of nightingales (Und eine Stimme schient en Nachtigallenchor). With a spring in his step and utterly besotten, he leaves through the town gate, his heart stirred by the Muse with a breath of love (O Muse, du hast mein Herz berührt / Mit einem Leibeshauch!)
Numerous colourful modulations document the miraculous changes in mood of the visitor as he passes through town. The piano’s joyous skippy accompaniment, as in many of Wolf’s songs, lives in a completely separate world from that of the singer, but one that nonetheless here complements the singer’s experience perfectly.
The 1907 premiere of Ravel’s nature documentary in music about four birds and an insect was an outright scandal. A major part of the pearl-clutching was occasioned by Ravel’s defiance of tradition in setting to music the prose poems of Jules Renard’s Les Histoires naturelles (1896) rather than choosing verse poetry from the French literary canon. Setting fans even faster aflutter, he had abandoned the aristocratic rules of pronunciation according to which a silent ‘e’ at the end of a word was considered a separate syllable, as it is, for example, in the French version of O Canada: Ter-re de nos aïeux. This, to the French salon set, sounded like the language of the street, or worse, the musical hall.
Renard’s lighthearted anthropomorphizing of common wildlife makes delightful reading, and even more delightful listening in Ravel’s wittily conversational renderings. While caricaturing the poses and manners of these animals, the composer still retains a measure of sympathy for the guileless sincerity with which they live out their lives.
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Le Paon (Peacock) is blissfully ignorant of how silly he looks as he gets stood up at the altar, still dressed in all his finery. Ravel doubles down on the humour by giving him a strutting French overture kind of piano accompaniment, as if he were Louis XIV, the Sun King himself.
The busy housekeeping chores undertaken by Le Grillon (Cricket), magically evoked by Ravel’s clockwork ticking accompaniment, make him out to be so adorable, you just want to pet him.
The pictorial representation of water, a trademark of impressionist musical imagery, is brilliantly accomplished in Le Cygne (Swan).
Le Martin-Pêcheur (Kingfisher) is the only one of the set in which the human is the animal being observed, wondrously captivated by the appearance of a wild bird on the end of his fishing rod.
La Pintade (Guinea fowl) is hilariously painted as the bully of the aviary world, disturbing every other creature with its loud cackling and enforcing its own pecking order on surrounding hens and turkeys.
Donald G. Gíslason 2021
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
FRANZ SCHUBERT (1797–1828)
About the Composer
Franz Schubert established the German lied as an important art form and then set a standard of excellence that no one since has quite matched. Schubert created more than 600 songs in a prodigious outpouring that sometimes saw him composing five songs in a single day. However, it is not the sheer number that matters, but rather the songs’ extraordinary quality and enormous emotional range. At the heart of Schubert’s genius lay his unrivaled gift for melody, whether it be the perfect melody to cover all verses in a strophic song or a theme for the piano that is even more crucial to the song’s emotional color than the singer’s line.
About the Works
No less an authority than Johannes Brahms called “Suleika I” of 1821 “the loveliest song that has ever been written.” The poem for this song and its companion, “Suleika II,” is often attributed to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe since it can be found in his compilation West-östlicher Divan, inspired by Goethe’s fascination with the work of 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz (Suleika is one of Hafiz’s characters). However, it was actually written by Marianne von Willemer, an Austrian actress who had a brief but intense relationship with Goethe, who edited the poem for his collection. Written while Willemer was traveling in 1815 from Frankfurt to Heidelberg to meet Goethe, it is a song to the East wind that blows on her outbound journey. The wind is heard in the piano’s opening measures before a whirling ostinato takes over, conjuring both the carriage’s motion and Willemer’s agitated heartbeat. Near the end, the tempo eases, a new three-note motif rings softly, and the key moves from B minor to a brighter B major as the singer anticipates meeting her lover.
The Friedrich Rückert poem to which “Lachen und Weinen” (“Laughing and Weeping”) is set portrays the instability of an adolescent’s emotions, oscillating rapidly between laughing and crying. Schubert adds a tenderly sympathetic touch at the words “Bei des Abendes Scheine” as the flightiness briefly falters and the harmonies slide to minor. Setting a true Goethe poem, the wonderfully concise song “Wandrers Nachtlied II” (“Wanderer’s Nightsong II”) is an example of Schubert’s sublime simplicity in capturing a poem’s mood, which, in John Reed’s words, is a “progression from outward calm to inner peace.” Written in 1816, “Seligkeit” (“Bliss”) sets one of Schubert’s favorite poets, Ludwig Christoph Heinrich Hölty. An uncomplicated strophic song, it is a giddy little waltz that perfectly matches the mood of uncomplicated joy.
SAMUEL BARBER (1910–1981)
Hermit Songs, Op. 29
About the Composer
From an early age, Irish poems and tales fascinated Samuel Barber, who was partly of Irish descent himself. In the summer of 1952, he finally traveled to Ireland, and while visiting sites connected with William Butler Yeats during a trip to Donegal, he found Yeats’s grave to be surrounded by tombstones belonging to people with the Barber name. When Barber returned to the United States, his research turned up some texts in old Gaelic written during the early Middle Ages by anonymous Irish monks and hermits. Their pithy power and earthy expressiveness captivated him.
About the Works
In a note Barber wrote for the publication of his Hermit Songs, he described them as “written by monks and scholars, often on the margins of the manuscripts they were copying or illuminating—perhaps not always meant to be seen by their Father Superiors. They are small poems, thoughts, or observations—some very short—and speak in straightforward, droll, and often surprisingly modern terms of the simple life these men led, close to nature, animals, and to God.”
With a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation, Barber wrote his 10 Hermit Songs between November 1952 and February 1953. A painstaking text setter, Barber carefully selected translations; dissatisfied with the versions of two of the texts, he asked W. H. Auden to prepare fresh ones. Barber was considering various famous international singers to debut the Hermit Songs, until he heard the young Leontyne Price—then completely unknown—in her teacher’s studio. Barber and Price performed the premiere at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, on October 30, 1953. It was the beginning of a long creative partnership between Barber and Price, culminating in Antony and Cleopatra.
A Closer Listen
From the 13th century, “At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory” is a pilgrim’s tormented song as he travels to Loch Derg (Red Lake) in County Donegal, a place of pilgrimage for centuries. The pianist’s left hand measures out his relentless steps while the right hand’s bell motif suggests the spiritual solace awaiting him. As with most of the songs, Barber establishes no meter, allowing the singer freedom to follow the irregular rhythms of the words.
The 12th-century “Church Bell at Night” is one of the aphoristic songs in which Barber captures the blunt speech of the monks. A shimmering bell chord irradiates the song. Attributed to Saint Ita of the eighth century, “Saint Ita’s Vision” is one of the loveliest of the Hermit Songs. A broad narrative recitative leads to a rocking lullaby as the saint experiences her mystical vision of the infant Jesus nursing at her breast. Attributed to the 10th- century’s Saint Brigid, “The Heavenly Banquet” is another joyful vision in which denizens of Heaven appear as ordinary human beings at a celestial banquet. The piano’s racing scales fuel the singer’s delight.
“The Crucifixion” comes from a 12th-century anthology, The Speckled Book. The piano’s fluting high motif mimics “the cry of the first bird.” The singer’s phrases evoke pain and grief powerfully but without exaggeration. The final twist is the shift of focus away from Christ’s suffering to the suffering of his mother, Mary. Marked “surging,” “Sea-Snatch” is a panicked cry to Heaven by sailors drowning in one of Ireland’s wild storms. Equally brief, “Promiscuity” is a bit of sly gossip told by piano and singer with the same caustic sing-song melody.
From the eighth or ninth century, “The Monk and His Cat,” translated by W. H. Auden, is the cycle’s most infectious song, as it describes the contented partnership between the scholar and his cat, whose frisking movements are heard in the piano’s two-note motif. It is also the only song with a fixed meter: a relaxed, lilting 9/8 beat. Also translated by Auden, “The Praises of God” (11th century) is a wild, dervish-like dance with eccentric rhythmic stresses and cross rhythms.
“The Desire for Hermitage” (eighth or ninth century) seems to be the personal expression of the composer, a man who indeed craved solitude all his life. The stark beginning of the song is a repeated G that first sounds in the piano, then joined by the singer; this single note represents the state of aloneness, as well as the surrounding hush. Gradually, the piano and vocal lines become more active, even ecstatic, culminating in a passionate piano interlude that seems to proclaim the joy of solitude.
GABRIEL FAURÉ (1845–1924)
Selections from La chanson d’Ève, Op. 95
About the Composer
In 1905 at age 60, Gabriel Fauré was appointed director of the Paris Conservatoire, a revered establishment of French music. In a period of upheaval at the Conservatoire—culminating in the scandal of Maurice Ravel (Fauré’s student) being refused the institution’s top award, the Prix de Rome—Fauré was chosen because he was considered to be a trusted outsider able to bring reform. Not a product of the Conservatoire himself, Fauré had been trained instead at the smaller and less hidebound École Niedermeyer.
This heavy responsibility, however, did not keep Fauré from pursuing his composing career. In fact, he was about to embark on a radical transformation of his musical style from the limpid, lyrical mélodies that had characterized much of his earlier songwriting. Having already made a shift in his previous song cycle, La bonne chanson, Fauré would now develop a late style that de- emphasized melody in favor of vocal and piano music combining an almost austere simplicity with extraordinary sophistication, particularly in the harmonic realm.
About the Works
On a trip to Brussels in March 1906, Fauré became acquainted with the poetry of Belgian symbolist Charles van Lerberghe. In 1904, Lerberghe published a volume of 96 poems, La chanson d’Ève, which imagined Eve coming to life in the Garden of Eden without Adam, giving human meaning to nature’s magnificent creations, of which she is a part. Lerberghe had been inspired to create this work by a glorious garden outside Florence, and Fauré—also a lover of gardens—had matched this by beginning his composition near another sumptuous garden at Lake Maggiore. Fauré reduced the cycle to 10 songs, written off and on between 1906 and 1910 while he was simultaneously creating his opera Pénélope.
The narrator of the cycle is Eve herself, a wondrous creature who is mortal and very feminine, and at the same time a representation of all Creation. In his definitive analysis of Fauré’s songs, pianist Graham Johnson describes the implied time scale as immense: “as if Eve is born and dies at opposite ends of the same cosmic day—a day perhaps encompassing millennia.” Omitting the very long first song, “Paradis,” Ms. Bullock sings six of the 10 songs in the cycle on this evening’s program.
A Closer Listen
“Prima verba” (“First Word”) is La chanson d’Ève’s second song, in which Eve realizes her first words bring the souls of everything in nature to life. The piano and vocal lines initially seem bare and static—in Johnson’s words, “like an empty void.” But they soon flower into extraordinary harmonic complexity as nature takes on a new dimension. Eve’s identification with the rose permeates the cycle, as we hear in “Roses ardentes” (“Ardent Roses”). The pantheistic vision of poet and composer reaches an apotheosis at song’s end as the previously restricted vocal line climbs joyously toward the sun, the “supreme force.”
Far from the traditional imagery of a white-bearded old man, God shines as the young creator embodied in his world in “Comme Dieu rayonne” (“How God Radiates”). As Johnson writes, “the third verse weaves a glorious light- filled tapestry of sound,” as the piano shimmers around the increasingly ecstatic vocal line. “Veilles-tu, ma senteur de soleil” (“Are you watching, my scent of sun”) combines the sights, sounds, and scents of nature into one rapturous whole. “In this song, sunlight … is uncontainable: With Fauré’s help it searches out and pervades every nook and cranny of harmonic possibility” in the extraordinary piano part.
Composed in June 1906, “Crépuscule” (“Twilight”) was the first song Fauré composed, even before knowing it would spawn a cycle. Until this point in the cycle, the songs have been filled with joy and sensual pleasure. Then Eve hears a cry of pain, a sigh in the night that portends sadness. She has by now tasted the forbidden apple that gives knowledge, and she realizes that she, like all natural things, will die. The rising chords of the piano introduction are a recurring theme that represents Eden, now being disturbed. The cycle’s final song, “O mort, poussière d’étoiles” (“O death, dust of stars”) brings the presence of death. Always at one with nature, Eve does not fear it, but instead welcomes her dissolution into all of creation. Fauré’s son Philippe described this stark, uncanny song as “a sort of funeral march toward an open-armed nirvana.”
ALBERTA HUNTER, CORA “LOVIE” AUSTIN, BILLIE HOLIDAY, and NINA SIMONE
Four Women of Blues and Jazz
In the final section of this evening’s program, Ms. Bullock pays tribute to some of the leading African American musicians who shaped American jazz, blues, and popular song throughout the 20th century. First we hear the sultry blues ballad “Driftin’ Tide” from 1935, which was closely associated with renowned jazz singer Alberta Hunter. The infectious, up-tempo “You Can’t Tell the Difference After Dark” also comes from 1935 and was frequently sung by Hunter. It was composed by Maceo Pinkard, one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance and a highly successful composer, lyricist, bandleader, and music publisher.
Cora “Lovie” Austin was a formidable jazz pianist and the founder and leader of her own popular band, the Blues Serenaders. Based in Chicago, she specialized in accompanying the leading blues singers of her era, including Hunter, with whom she wrote one of the greatest of all blues classics, “Downhearted Blues,” the lament of a woman who loved the wrong man. We also hear “Frog Tongue Stomp: A Lovie Austin Tribute,” a solo piano piece written by one of today’s prominent jazz pianists, Jeremy Siskind, saluting the legacy of Austin’s flamboyantly distinctive style. With the exception of “Revolution,” which Ms. Bullock will sing a cappella, Siskind arranged all of the songs in this section of the program.
This evening’s program concludes with two iconic African American singers, whose fame has never faded: Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. Born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, Holiday renamed herself and was also dubbed “Lady Day” by her music partner Lester Young. The tragedy of Holiday’s life added to the power of her artistry, but her serene love song “Our Love Is Different” shows her at her romantic best. Renowned as the “High Priestess of Soul,” Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, originally aspired to be a classical pianist. When she was turned down by the Curtis Institute of Music, undoubtedly for racial reasons, her career took a different trajectory. Discovering her voice as well as her keyboard skills, Simone became one of the most compelling musicians of the Civil Rights Movement and joined the Selma to Montgomery marches. Ms. Bullock has selected Simone’s famous Civil Rights anthem “Revolution,” as well as her provocative song “Four Women,” in which women of various skin tones protest the Eurocentric beauty standards imposed on black women.
—Janet E. Bedell
© 2018 The Carnegie Hall Corporation
It is a fact of musical life that there are commonly accepted ‘right’ ways (and even more ‘wrong’ ways) of performing the great works of past. These works arrive on our music stands embedded with notions of ‘stylistic correctness’ that guide our first attempts at interpretation, serving the same function as the lines in a colouring book beyond which aspiring daycare Dürers and kindergarten Caravaggios, crayons in hand, are admonished not to stray.
In the musical world such stylistic guidelines have massive inertia, acquired through the respect that a long performing tradition grants, and so shifting them is not a task for dull minds. And yet, it has been done. Glenn Gould sent powder flying from the wigs of the Baroque establishment with his startling new vision of how Bach should be performed. More recently, fortepianist Robert Levin has attempted to liberate Mozart from the plaster cast of ‘elegant prettiness’ in which he believes this composer has been mummified since the Romantic era.
And now something similar may also be happening to Schubert.
Schubert has always been thought of as a ‘nice’ composer, the sort that you could bring home to meet your mother and tell her you were taking up with, without awakening the kind of worries that an interest in, say, late Scriabin might provoke in the mind of a fretful parent. No, rosy-cheeked Schubert, the composer of blithe and radiant mood, has always remained a kind of Julie Andrews avant la lettre, whistling a happy tune in the face of the challenging circumstances of his life. Was there a care in the world that the soothing balm of the G flat Impromptu could not dissipate? A reversal of fortune that the Ave Maria could not banish from present thought? Generations of Schubert venerators have thought not.
Yet if ever there were a work to challenge the view of Schubert as a composer of buoyant good spirits, light but not deep, it is his song cycle Winterreise, which, with its themes of lost love and the imminent approach of death, would be hard to mistake for a pep talk from a Rogers & Hammerstein musical. Its dark psychological probings and often sombre tone truly shocked the group of Viennese friends before whom Schubert first performed these schauerliche Lieder (horrifying songs), as he called them. And it still has the power to shock us today.
Few musicians have taken their interpretive flashlights into its dark corners quite so fearlessly as Ian Bostridge has done. He stands apart from the crowd of Winterreise performers for the degree of modern anxiety and psychological urgency that he pulls from the score, an approach that has even caused his interpretation to be called ‘expressionist’.
Bostridge performs these songs in heightened psychological relief, as it were, and this approach has much to recommend it, for while simple melodies in balanced four-bar phrases are not lacking in this collection, more striking and memorable by far are the dramatic declamatory monologues that approach in psychological intensity the Sprechstimme of Pierrot Lunaire.
It should not be surprising, then, that shades of Samuel Beckett, Arnold Schoenberg and other modernist innovators haunt Bostridge’s interpretation of this work. He brings notes of biting sarcasm and palpable anger to the score, as well as an occasionally rasping quality of voice not typically found in ‘art song’. And by so doing, he expands our idea of the range of real, intense, lived emotions which this composer was capable of expressing.
Those wishing to gain a deeper understanding of this work through Ian Bostridge’s extensive historical research into its origins and meaning, may wish to consult his newly published tome entitled Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession (Faber & Faber, 2015).
Conceived as a journey into the cold of winter, Schubert’s Winterreise is a musical setting of poems selected from those published in 1823 and 1824 by German Romantic poet Wilhelm Müller under the title Seventy-Seven Poems from the Posthumous Papers of a Travelling Horn-Player. The narrative thread is sketchy, at best, resembling more a slide show than a plot, since all the important action has taken place before the narration begins.
We know that the singer’s journey is prompted by a love affair gone wrong but one of the more vexing questions bedevilling this musical slide show is that of the singer’s status within the house from which he announces his departure as the cycle opens. He leaves in the dead of night, while everyone else is sleeping. What, enquiring minds will ask, was he doing in the family home of his beloved so late at night? Here Ian Bostridge steps forward with a brilliant suggestion that finds much resonance in the social customs of the time: our protagonist is a private live-in tutor of low economic status who had developed feelings for, and perhaps even an understanding with, his young student. (Schubert had at one time been employed as just such a live-in tutor.) Marriage, we learn from the text of the second song, was a live possibility until the young woman’s mother switched her allegiance to a wealthier potential son-in-law.
In the course of the work, 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. Despairing and alone with his thoughts, he travels through dark emotional territory, traversing a wide range of village and country settings before finally encountering the forlorn organ-frinder at the end of his journey, symbolic of the death that awaits him. The poems from Wilhelm Müller’s collection provide apt imagery for such a bleak journey, with their recurring themes of loneliness and isolation, watchwords of the emerging Romantic movement in art.
This 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. 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 writing, in a score that is both richly allusive and unusually austere.
Gute Nacht (Good Night)
Our traveller’s grim journey begins at an even walking pace, punctuated by recurring sudden off-beat accents in the piano, emblematic of his inner turmoil. The narration drifts between his present unhappy state (in the minor mode) and happier thoughts (in the major). The poetic theme tying the song cycle together, alienation from emotional fulfillment and earthly existence, is summarized in the very first line: “A stranger I came, a stranger I depart.”
Die Wetterfahne (The weather-vane)
The piano imitates a weather-vane spinning atop his beloved’s house as the singer wonders about those inside. Do their affections also change with the wind? The musical texture is brilliantly evocative, with unisons between piano and singer making you feel the bitter chill in the air and trills evoking the wind blowing the weather-vane around on its spindle.
Gefrorne Tränen (Frozen tears)
This song mixes an eeriness and daintiness, anger and irony. Against a steady backdrop of drip-drip sounds
in the piano, often punctuated by a sudden sforzando accent, the singer 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. In this strange take on the classic Petrarchan figures of fire and ice, the agitated piano accompaniment portrays the protagonist’s raging inner turmoil.
Der Lindenbaum (The linden tree)
We hear the first intimation of death in this song. As a chill wind blows through the fluttering leaves evoked by the piano, 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. Bostridge has pointed out that the linden tree was popular meeting place for townsfolk, giving this song a resonance of German nationalism. It is not surprising, then, that this simple tuneful melody lives on outside of Schubert’s song cycle as the well-known German folksong, Am Brunnen vor dem Tore.
In this eerily calm, almost stately song, the protagonist 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. Here we find a classic example of the ‘pathetic fallacy’ in Romantic poetry, in which Nature is imagined as reflecting and experiencing human emotions.
Auf Dem Flusse (On the river)
The strange tiptoe pace of this song gives it an aura of mystery, or perhaps merely tentativeness. 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. Changes from minor to major and back again are chilling, and near the end, the piano pulses with signs of his inner torment.
Rückblick (A backward glance)
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. Like many of the songs in this cycle, this one is divided clearly into major- and minor-mode sections.
The flickering light of a will-o’-the-wisp, imitated in the fast repeated notes in the piano, leads him astray into
a mountain chasm. He has no worries, though, for as rivers lead to the sea, so human miseries, like will-o’-the- wisp, are but a game, all leading to the grave.
A drowsy opening piano introduction finds him 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. The concentration of thought that has overtaken the singer is conveyed in an often speech-like, un-’melodic’ vocal line.
Frühlingstraum (Dream of Spring)
In one of the happiest of Schubertian melodies, we find our protagonist lost in a dream of springtime, then 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. The change of mode from major to minor at the very end conveys his hopelessness. When will the ice-flowers in the window turn green? When will he hold her in his arms? The answer to both questions is: never.
The slow trudging pace of the piano’s opening paints his despair as he travels on his way, lonely as the cloud drifting overhead above 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 mail-coach)
The gallop of horses’ hooves and the triadic call of the post-horn 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? The upbeat tone of this song is an ironic set-up for emotional travails to follow.
Der Greise Kopf (The hoary head)
Eeriness returns in a song shrink-wrapped around the text rather than arranged in stanzas. 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 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? The piano, brilliantly imitating the circling path of the crow, twinkles and wafts above the singer, who stoops very low in his range, creating a pictorial image in music of the two figures, one in the sky, the other walking below on the earth.
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. There is so little rapport between the piano and the voice, the piano seems so convincingly exterior to the singer’s concerns, that one thinks of the tone and texture of Pierrot Lunaire.
Im Dorfe (In the village)
As he passes through a village, dogs growl at him from the lower regions of the piano texture, 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. Unisons between piano and singer again evoke the blowing of the wind and bitter chill in the air.
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 a delusion brings him some comfort.
Der Wegweiser (The signpost)
Avoiding the busy byways, he heads for wild and desolate places, ignoring every signpost but one: the one leading him to a place from which no one returns. Here is another foreboding of approaching death: the path indicated to him is one “from which no one returned.”
Das Wirtshaus (The inn)
Liturgical solemnity, combined with a grim determination, 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. Quick changes between major and minor tonalities from phrase to phrase embody the difficulties he faces and the courage he uses to face them.
Die Nebensonnen (Phantom suns)
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 organ grinder)
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? The symbolic resonance of this final scene is quietly shattering.
Donald G. Gíslason © 2015
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The earliest German lieder we have in the concert repertoire come from the more than 30 works that Mozart wrote between 1768 (at the age of twelve!) and his death in 1791. His mature songs reflect his skill as an opera composer in their sensitive treatment of the text, bolstered by large-scale structural key modulations and delicate pictorial touches in an independent piano accompaniment.
Needless to say, it was not ever thus. The publishing tradition from which these songs emerged was much less expressively rich with composers pursuing the ideal of folksong-like simplicity in scores often consisting of a mere two staves. The keyboard player – who, in amateur performance, might well be the singer – was expected to play along with the top-line melody while improvising a suitable harmonic accompaniment from the bottom line, perhaps joined by a cello for a bit more ‘oomph’ in the bass register. Haydn’s 12 Keyboard Lieder of 1781, for example, were published in this way.
By the 1780s, however, Mozart’s reflexes when writing vocal music tended instinctively to the multidimensional sphere of the operatic. Each of his songs in this recital deploys its vocal and instrumental resources to create a mini-drama, a comic cameo or a psychological scene, much in the manner of the Romantic generation of composers who were to follow.
Das Veilchen (The Violet) is likely the most famous of Mozart’s songs. The text, by Goethe, is from the singspiel Erwin und Elmire (1773-74), which tells of how a young woman coldly tramples on the affections of a sincere young suitor, only to realize her mistake and be united with him in the end. She sings this song in recognition of her mistake, the violet being a metaphorical stand-in for the crushed and crumpled young man who nonetheless remains true in his feeling for her.
Mozart, in setting this text, creates a different mood for each verse. Notable is how the tripping steps of the young woman are evoked in the piano at the words mit leichtem Schritt und munterm Sinn (light in step and merry in mood).
The accompaniment of Komm, liebe Zither (Come, beloved zither) was not written for the piano at all, but rather for that miniature monarch of the sub-balconic serenade, the mandolin (which the piano arrangement ably imitates). In a foreshadowing of the later appearance of this instrument in the Don’s aria Deh vieni alla finestra from Act 1 of Don Giovanni (1786), this song features an aspiring lover who shares his girl troubles with his plucky little instrument, hoping that as his Leoporello it will do all the fretting for him and pull strings to win him the object of his heart’s desire. What is a rather ordinary poem, on a fairly standard theme, gets transformed in Mozart’s hands into an engaging duet between a sentimental young man and his chatty instrumental servant.
The term ‘explicit’ is not a word that normally comes to mind when describing Classical-era lieder, but An Chloë comes as close as one would wish to deserving the epithet. Setting prudish fans a-flutter to cool the blushing cheeks of maidens and matrons alike is this read-between-the-lines scene of serious hanky-panky, hidden behind a verbal screen of fairly transparent meaning.
Mozart plays the innocent here. Setting this ‘wink- wink’ text in the style of a simple, whistle-able folksong melody, he loads the score with all the sigh motives and dramatic pauses of an operatic love scene. While not quite as rhythmically and randily realistic as Richard Strauss’ Rosenkavalier overture, Mozart’s setting nevertheless leaves us in no doubt that by the end our ‘exhausted’ horizontal hero is reclining snugly next to his love interest, and probably having a cigarette.
Bringing us back down to earth is Abendempfindung (Evening feeling), an elegiac meditation on death. When composing this work in June of 1787, Mozart likely had death very much on his mind. His father Leopold had died just the previous month, and he and his wife Costanze had already lost two infant children in their young marriage.
The flow of the text is given a dramatic quality by the way in which the smooth cantabile vocal line of the opening alternates with a simpler, more direct recitative style of delivery to give the impression of emotions that interrupt the singer in mid-thought.
Ludwig van Beethoven
If there were action comic books for classical composers, there would surely be one for Beethoven. Few composers can lay claim to the super-hero status that this rebellious symbol of liberty and humanitarian values has become in popular and political culture around the world. Was there really any competition in the choice of the Ninth Symphony for the concert to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989? Surely not.
And yet the 80 or so songs of this composer reveal a side to him quite different from that of the heroic and high-minded herald of freedom and democracy. Without the bullhorn in hand, he reveals himself to be witty, affectionate, and just as likely as any adolescent to fall victim to a pretty face and an alluring smile.
His mid-career Lied aus der Ferne (Song from afar), published in 1810, addresses the familiar problem of what to do when you are here, and she is not. At such times, words like Sehnsucht (yearning) come spontaneously to the mind of your average 19th-century young man of sensitivity and feeling, who will inevitably head off for a walk in the upland forested regions of the German countryside to find suitable poetic parallels for that expansive swelling feeling in his chest that tells him he is alive.
Beethoven brings the scene to life for us in a setting that gives a picturesque musical description of the successive scenes capturing the young man’s attention. A lengthy introduction replete with piano trills in the high register informs us that aviary wildlife is warbling nearby and the dance-like rhythm of the vocal line gives plausibility to the toe-tapping upswing in his mood.
The accompaniment changes for the second verse in imitation of the rhythm of his footfall as he trudges uphill while the third verse lets us hear the bout of tachycardia that afflicts him at the top of the hill. The rosy-cheeked optimism of the first verse then returns to round out our brief excursion into this Grouse Grind of the human heart.
Der Kuss (The kiss) finds Beethoven in a more jocular mood. Here we meet up with the ever-attractive girl-about-town Chloë – fresh from her engagement in the previous song by Mozart – beset once again by the attentions of a male suitor with conquest on his mind. Part of the joke here is the way the poem repeats the pursed-lip front-vowel ü sounds in the words Küss (kiss) and Müh’ (effort), forcing the singer into a visual gag by making him adopt the facial configuration of a kiss.
Reckoning it easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission, our young swain makes bold to initiate the much-desired lip-lock. Chloë, he is not surprised to learn, turns out to be one of those girls who in mock annoyance and disingenuous discouragement is wont to say: “I’ll give you exactly two hours to get your hand off my knee, or I shall write a letter.” Beethoven makes the punch line (that she didn’t scream then, but oh boy did she scream later) into a series of Benny-Hill-style elbows in the ribs, with numerous text repetitions for leering comic effect on the last page.
More characteristic of Beethoven in a straightforward lyrical mood is Ich liebe dich (I love you), in which melody flows unimpeded over an evenly uniform accompaniment pattern, untroubled by sudden dramatic inflections or intruding thoughts: a perfect embodiment of the poetic sentiments of the text.
The picture of love presented in Beethoven’s early song Adelaide from 1794-1795 is the idealized one of unattainable love – a theme that was to repeat itself in Beethoven’s personal life. (No one, apparently, took the trouble to introduce him to Chloë.)
Adelaide offers many poetic parallels to the scene presented in Lied aus der Ferne: a lovelorn swain wanders alone in a garden where he experiences the presence of his love interest in every natural feature of the landscape, calling out her name in ecstasy at regular intervals. The uncertain, searching mood of the piece is evoked by the 2-against-3 pattern of the piano opening, indicative of the complex emotions swirling in the singer’s heart. The piano writing, unusually assertive for the time, supports the depth of feeling expressed by the singer.
Six Songs on texts by Heinrich Heine
Mendelssohn, like Mozart, began writing songs as a child and continued for the rest of his life, with rarely a month that didn’t produce a new song from his pen. And yet this composer’s song output has suffered in comparison with that of other Romantic-era composers such as Schubert and Schumann who typified more intensely in their music and in their lives the dark psychological and emotional concerns of this age – concerns which Mendelssohn seemed to float above with a blithe cheerfulness.
Consider a song such as Neue Liebe (New love), with a text that evokes a supernatural sighting of forest fairies returning from the hunt with a load of stag antlers as their catch. The singer is torn between thinking he is intercepting a sign that could either be foretelling romantic bliss, or his own death. Spooky stuff, this, halfway to ghoulish, even. But while Schubert in his setting of Erlkönig paints the aspect of real danger in such a fairy encounter, Mendelssohn presents the scene, musically, from the fairies’ point of view, with a light, airy, scampering rhythm much akin to the mood evoked in his famous scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Typical of the un-neurotic approach of this composer to his poetic subject matter is the miniature Gruss (Greeting), which paints in a few short breaths, the sheer exhilaration of the arrival of spring.
More psychologically complex is Morgengruss (Morning greeting), in which poet Heinrich Heine sends up the cliché of a lovers’ farewell at daybreak. The young man looks up at her window for a last farewell, a parting gesture which doesn’t come. ‘No matter,’ he thinks, making the best of a bad situation, ‘it’s probably just because she is dreaming of me.’ Mendelssohn tones down the savage irony of Heine’s text, but still gets the message across with a grinding forte dissonance on the word mir (‘she dreams of me-e-e-e’), suggesting a subtle ‘Yeah, right!’ from the composer.
Darker in tone, with a tumultuous piano accompaniment to match, is Allnächtlich im Traume seh’ ich dich (Each night I see you in my dreams). Here the mode is minor and the deep disturbance in the night-dreamer’s psychology realistically presented. Exceptionally ingenious in Mendelssohn’s word setting is the harmonically inconclusive way that way the vocal line ends, leaving it for the piano to cadence definitively in the home key, a musical representation of the dreamer’s bewilderment and disorientation when he awakens from his dream.
Auf Flügeln des Gesanges (On wings of song) features one of Mendelssohn’s best known melodies. In typically Mendelssohnian fashion, it eschews a literal painting of the text (set in the exotic locale of India) to concentrate on its purpose as a drawing-room seduction poem. And seduce it does through a perfectly balanced melody lovingly constructed with contours that symmetrically rise and fall, and a floating arpeggiated drawing-room accompaniment reminiscent of Schubert’s Ave Maria.
Reiselied (Travelling song), by contrast, is definitely not meant for performance in the amateur drawing room, with its story of high drama and virtuoso piano accompaniment to match. Similar to Schubert’s Erlkönig, it features a breathless horseback ride by night, with the wind and racing horse hooves painted by a moto perpetuo pattern in the piano that almost overshadows the vocal line. Light and dark, danger and relief alternate in this song as the worrying piano figuration in the minor mode changes to a lighter, more buoyant major-mode oom-pah-pah pattern when happier thoughts pass through the mind of the rider, a young man racing to see his beloved.
Six Songs on texts by Heinrich Heine
These six songs come from the final period in Schubert’s life. Composed to a set of poems by Heinrich Heine, they were published posthumously in a collection entitled Schwanengesang (Swan song) in 1829 and it has been suggested that their bitter irony and tragic cast of thought make them a logical continuation of Die Winterreise, Schubert’s song cycle of the lonely wanderer treated harshly by the world which ends with a desolate picture of the lonely and lamentable Leiermann (hurdy-gurdy man).
Those who think of Schubert as a composer of ‘light’ Viennese melodies that paint the delicate flutterings of the human heart will be thrown back against the wall by the majestic grandeur and symphonic conception of Der Atlas. Atlas is the mythological figure who, after losing in a war involving the Titans and Zeus was punished by the father of the gods by being made to hold up the skies eternally. The distress of this fallen hero is symbolized by whirling tremolos in the piano, his staggering under the immense weight he bears by the two hammer-stroke octaves that begin in the first bar and continue throughout.
Ihr Bild, a song of irretrievable loss, is as spare and sonically undernourished as Der Atlas is stormy and overbearing. The bare unisons bespeak utter desolation and the numbness of loss while intervening passages in chordal harmony evoke happier days that will never return. Throughout, the steely gaze of the singer’s persona is utterly chilling.
A much less emotionally complex tone is struck in Das Fischermädchen (The fisher maiden), a barcarolle of guileless simplicity that paints the scene, musically, from the young girl’s point of view, although the narrator is a cynical seducer, trying to convince the girl to ‘trust him as she trusts the waves’. Heine’s subtle irony is toned down in Schubert’s more buoyant setting of the scene.
Desolation returns in Die Stadt (The town) as the poet sits in a rowboat heading for the town where his disappointment in love began. The boatman’s oars are rhythmically sketched in the tremolo pattern of the piano accompaniment, and the misty shapes of the town in the distance by impressionistic overlay of harmonies over top. This imaginative conception of the scene in sound, painting the poet’s despair so starkly but with so few gestures, is far in advance of its time.
A mysterious chord progression begins Am Meer (By the sea), painting a scene of mysterious calm. There seems to be nothing these two estranged lovers can say to each other. The music depicts both the shadow of their former happiness in eerily placid passages in the major mode that alternate with chromatically tortured tremolo passages emblematic of their pain.
Der Doppelgänger is the pendant piece to Der Leierman from Die Winterreise: a lonely figure standing in the middle of human society but utterly alienated from it by his inner pain. Schubert gives the scene a tragic dimension of fateful inevitability by placing the singer’s vocal declamation – it could hardly be called ‘melody’ – over a recurring passacaglia pattern low in the piano accompaniment, as mournfully dark as anything out of Mussorgsky.
Six Songs on texts by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Auf dem See (On the lake) likely dates from sometime around 1817 and recounts a boat trip taken by Goethe with friends in 1775 while on vacation. The goldne Traüme (golden dreams) of the second verse is likely a reference to a young girl that Goethe was infatuated with (and trying to forget). The rocking rhythm which Schubert creates in the piano accompaniment is not only astonishingly evocative of the movement of a boat bobbing among the waves, but also a perfect foil for the wide-ranging melody that it supports above.
More philosophical concerns stand at the centre of Grenzen der Menschheit (Limits of Mankind), composed in 1821. The poem dates from 1775, when Goethe was grappling with the concept of Fate and its role in human existence. Schubert’s setting reaches for the sublime in confronting the poet’s thought in music: the stern and implacable chord progressions of the piano accompaniment evoke the majesty of the gods while the low range and unadorned declamatory style of the vocal line lends prophetic heft to the text. The extreme dynamic range (from ff to pp) in this work stands witness to the stark divide that separates human and divine destinies.
Appreciation for the young male form is present, as well, in Ganymed (Ganymede), Goethe’s evocation of the ancient Greek legend of Zeus bringing the most handsome of men, the young Ganymede, up to the heavens on a cloud to become his cup-bearer. The sensuality of the scene is matched by Schubert’s rapturously arching phrases and the ever-increasing pace of the action conveyed through increasingly lively figuration in the piano.
Erlkönig (The Elf King) was published as Schubert’s Op. 1 and along with Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) counts as one of the founding works in the development of the Romantic lied. This macabre story, cast in the popular and sensationalist genre of the strophic ballad, derives from a terrifying night ride actually undertaken by Goethe in 1779 with a seven-year-old boy, the son of a close friend, in the saddle in front of him. The demonic energy of the ride is conveyed in the pianist’s (incredibly difficult) battery of octaves that pulse throughout, a dramatic foil to the four distinct voices heard within the poem: the narrator, the boy, the father, and the lurid, luring voice of the Elf King himself, whose ‘desire’ for the young boy is fraught with a menacing hint of pedophilic lust.
Wanderers Nachtlied II (Wanderer’s Night Song 2), the second poem by Goethe with this title, derives from a mountain hike that the poet undertook in 1780 into the beautiful forested mountains of Thuringia where, struck by the peace and calm of the view, he etched this poem into the wall of the hut where he was staying. Visiting the hut again, fifty-one years later on his eighty-second birthday in 1831, he teared up at reading his words still visible on the wall: Warte nur, balde ruhest du auch (Just wait, and soon you, too, will be at rest). Schubert captures the hushed, contemplative atmosphere of the scene in this famous setting, sung pp throughout, with simple harmonies and placidly even tone colour to create a mood of absolute serenity.
An Schwager Kronos (To Coachman Kronos) combines Greek legend and human life in the extended metaphor of the coach journey. Kronos the Titan was father of Zeus and often identified with the figure of Chronos (Time). In this poem, the poet declares, with the bravado of youth, his desire to go down in a blaze of glory at the peak of his powers rather than submit to a humiliating decline in old age. Schubert here composes with a muscular aggressiveness not normally associated with him but admirably suited to this text evoking the invulnerability of youth.
Donald G. Gíslason © 2014
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.
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.
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.
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).