Art Songs: Kunstlieder and Mélodie
Saturday Evening, 21 September 2019
As you can see by the first page of our programme, the main emphasis of this recital is on songs by Franz Peter Schubert, one of the – perhaps THE – most beloved, prolific and often-performed composers of the Kunstlied (in English, art song).
There is no such thing as a classical singer who has not sung a Schubert song. Schubert is
the mainstay, the source, the bottomless fund of the search for more repertoire. He is the yardstick against which all other song composers are measured.
Schubert wrote more than 600 songs in his short life. He was 31 years old when he died in 1828. The songs vary from the ditties he wrote to sing with his mates down the pub, to the sublimely exquisite, heavenly, most sophisticated vocal jewels. (Someone asked me how he had time to write all those songs. I replied, How did he have time to have mates?) He must have had time for normal human pursuits and still produced so many songs, not to mention seven complete symphonies, sacred music, operas, incidental music and a large body of piano and chamber music. That’s genius.
Heidenröslein was the first Schubert song I ever learned, at age 17. At the time I was having what were generic ‘music lessons’ with the wife of the high school band director. This was a panic response to my imminent entry into university the next year as a music student. Schubert was 18 when he wrote Heidenröslein, which shows a sweet simplicity and a clear, sharp bite. Of course, he had some help from the poet, Goethe.
The next song on the list tonight, Daß sie hier gewesen, is at the opposite end of the sophistication continuum. Written in 1823, it presents a poem with very little what we might call concrete, or intellectual content, but with an entire world of feeling. It is three lines long. Readers of the poem have asked, “Yes, but what does it really mean?” and the singer
Then we have two songs which represent the deep fantasy world of passionate love lost, one French, by Gabriele Fauré from 1878, and the other by Schubert, from 1828, the year of his death. Only 50 years between them. They are both wildly dramatic. Schubert is supposed to be a composer of the Classical period (between the Baroque and the Romantic), but as he edges closer to the Romantic we can see the fraying of the Classical techniques of control, laying bare the extremes of emotion, chord progressions more free of convention, and in Der Doppelgänger, exposition of fear, great pain and loss, direct and undeniable.
Après un Rêve is said to be the most frequently performed song of the French Impressionist period. It also describes a wild fantasy, but in this case, with joy and delight. The let-down – the awakening, literally – comes right at the very end, with two phrases of hysterical begging.
The next four songs are various representations of how the poet sees his world. Ici-bas! is the first French song I ever learned, at university, aged 18. It immediately opened a whole new sound world to me and I loved it and still love it madly. The sound of the chords and the French language – what lush and abundant generosity had come my way.
The text of Aufenthalt is a fairly representative example of a poem from the late Sturm und Drang period. Sturm und Drang, usually translated from the German as “Storm and Stress”, is a late 18th-century German literary movement characterized by works containing rousing action and high emotionalism that often dealt with the individual’s revolt against society. It exalted nature, feeling, and human individualism. Goethe and Schiller began their careers as prominent members of the movement.
Self-discipline was not a tenet of the Sturm und Drang, and the movement soon exhausted itself.
The poet directly compares his feelings with things that are happening in nature: the waves come one after the other as his tears are constantly renewed; his heart pounds without ceasing like the branches of the trees whipping in the wind; his pain is as constant as the ancient
The Romantic connection between emotion and nature is never clearer than in this song. The natural state – “Nature” – was considered to be pure and noble, and it was a grand poetic idea to compare oneself with the natural world. In fact, Aufenthalt illustrates such a pure and noble mental state that the poet Rellstab never sees fit to tell us why the singer is in such trouble. The poor man – today he would be given Prozac and we would have missed out on a wonderful artistic experience.
As is usually the case with Schubert, the accompaniment also interprets the poem. For example, the rapid triplet figure represents the rauschender Strom (rushing stream), Welle an Wellen (wave upon wave) and fließen die Tränen (the tears are flowing). On the other hand, the dotted figure in the piano’s bass represents the rocks, impervious to the triplets in the right hand (the restless waters).
Voici que le Printemps and Au bord de l’eau are two wonderfully descriptive settings about nature and love – hopeful, positive and full of light.
And An die Musik speaks for itself. Let us be grateful.
I worked on Susanna’s aria for two years with my teacher, from whom I learned all that is important about vocal technique, the beloved Madeline Sanders. Two years. And that occasioned a remark that was the nicest thing anyone ever said to me. When I performed the aria in the presence of Eleanor Steber (the star of the Metropolitan Opera in 1940s and 50s, who sang Mozart, Strauss, Wagner and Puccini, among others, at Bayreuth and the other great European opera houses), she remarked that I had a “perfect Mozart line” – a vindication of my teacher’s hard work.
Negro Spirituals are all about freedom, spiritual and physical, and about escaping to freedom from slavery in this life.
Spirituals are songs that have become some of the mainstays of concert and choir singers
all over the parts of the world where a Western ecclesiastical and concert repertoire is practiced.
They have come to be Art Songs today even though they were folk songs to begin with. There is a lot of precedent for this: many of the Schubert songs about which we’re so intense and serious were written for his aforementioned mates at the pub. Beethoven wrote arrangements of folk songs, including a set of Schottische Lieder (Scottish Songs) in which “Down by the Sally Gardens” figures. Britten and Dvorak used folk songs in their output, never intended to be sung by folk singers in a folky way, of course. Brahms even wrote two original sets of songs that he called, “Volkslieder”, even though they weren’t, really.
In 1619 a Dutch vessel landed twenty African natives at Jamestown, Virginia. This was the beginning of the slave trade in the American colonies.
No one knows precisely how these slave songs were sung originally – we know them only from
arrangements that have come down to us. In the second half of the 19th century the historical Negro universities in the US such as Hampton University, Atlanta University, Tuskegee Institute and other southern universities formed choirs and singing groups to perform this repertoire in harmonized form. The first to introduce the Spirituals to the public, and the most famous, were
the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. From 1871 to 1875 they gave many concerts in the US, and made two tours of Europe, including England – singing in the presence of Queen Victoria – and Scotland.
One of the first to undertake the work of arranging Spirituals for soloists was the famous
composer Harry Thacker Burleigh. His grandfather, who had been a slave, sang the Spirituals to him and he is thus our connection to an authentic historical voice.
Why do these songs move audiences so much? The attraction is perhaps in the way in which the words and the melodies combine. Unlike folk songs, Spirituals are composed in the same way as Art Songs – that is, the words are specific to the melodies. Since they were an aural
repertoire and were only written down later, one can find that a song might vary by one or two words, or certain verses are standard in certain regions, but there are never interchangeable tunes and words, such as occurs in church hymns, for instance.
Finally, we can identify with the Spirituals because they timelessly portray the human condition. They are an overwhelming testimony to the strength and resilience of the human spirit.
The words of the Spirituals often had double meanings. These “codes” are related to the desire to escape to freedom. For example, “home” is a safe place where everyone can be free. So, “home” can mean Heaven, or, covertly, a safe place in the northern anti-slavery states. The “Beautiful City” is the New Jerusalem, or Heaven, or one of the Northern cities that were the goals of the runaway slaves, such as St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati or New York.
The song “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” is literally about destroying the walls of the city of Jericho, but also about bringing down the barriers of slavery.
Water, in spirituals, is often a reference to baptism but “Wade in the Water” is clearly about the crossing of the Red Sea. The Red Sea is symbolic for the several bodies of water which had to be crossed before getting to freedom – the Mississippi River, the Indiana, Ohio, Wabash, or the Mississinewa. But the crossing of the Red Sea has another symbolism. It represents the escape of a whole people, the Israelites, from bondage in Egypt, and at the same time, the liberation of the nation of slaves.
In the Spiritual “Deep River”, “my home” is said to be “over Jordan” – that is, over the Jordan River, or in Heaven. Now every American child who shares a connection with the pioneer
ancestry, or who has read, or seen films about the West or the American Civil War, knows that when you’re travelling, or when being pursued, for safety’s sake you always cross a river before making camp, never stopping on this side, but always going over the river. “Going over into campground” signifies the final crossing of the last river, arriving at safety either over the border in the North, or in Heaven.