Liederstrauss Heine Lieder (1878)
Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), whose name, alongside Goethe’s, is almost synonymous with German art song, has been prodigiously set by Lieder composers. Schumann composed 41 songs to his poetry, and there are wonderful settings by Brahms, Robert Franz, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schubert, and Strauss. He has also attracted composers from an astonishing array of non-German-speaking countries, such as Norway (Grieg), Russia (Balakirev, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky), France (Meyerbeer), America (Ives, Macdowell, Griffes) and England (Maude Valérie White) among many others. Almost all these songs were based on poems from Heine’s Buch der Lieder (1827), a collection in a variety of guises that expresses the tortured feelings of a jilted lover. Hugo Wolf set Heine more frequently than any of the above-mentioned composers with the exception of Schumann and Franz, and yet these fine songs are rarely programmed. The seven Heine poems of the Liederstrauss were composed in quick succession in the spring and early summer of 1878, and were not published during his lifetime.
This bouquet of songs, unlike Schumann’s cycles, is not bound together either musically or thematically. The opening song, “Sie haben heut’ abend Gesellschaft,” is an astonishing achievement for an eighteen-year old. The waltz-tune of the dance, at which the tormented and jilted poet looks on, is heard in the prelude. The dotted rhythmic figures and the horn-call motive lend it a jaunty character, and at the outset the singer seems to sing in harmony with it. But during the course of the song, Wolf changes the rhythm, melody and harmony to convey the singer’s bleak inner world – unloved and unnoticed by the woman. The postlude takes up a quarter of the entire song, and clearly represents an attempt on Wolf’s part to emulate those Schumann postludes that rewrite the poem.
“Ich stand in dunkeln Träumen” was immortalized by Schubert in his posthumously published Schwanengesang. Wolf’s setting betrays his debt to Schumann in the way in which he develops the chromatic motives. “Das ist ein Brausen und Heulen” begins and ends with wild octaves and violent syncopations to depict the storm in nature and the despair in the heart of the lover, who cannot find his sweetheart.
“Aus meinen grossen Schmerzen,” though little known, is a delicious miniature for piano solo, a sort of moto perpetuo, to which the singer contributes his neutral vocal line of limited range. Wolf always had the ability to create a song with two distinct voices – here, the small songs that warble their way sweetly and ineffectually from start to finish, and the poet’s tortured utterances, characterized, with the exception of one indignant phrase (“Und klagen, und wollen nicht sagen”), by a uniform neutrality.
Dream sequences are commonplace in Heine’s Buch der Lieder, and the beginning of Wolf’s setting of “Mir träumte von einem Königskind” bears a striking resemblance to Schumann’s “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet” from his Dichterliebe: both dispense with a piano introduction, both share the same 6/8 meter, and both declaim the first four notes on a single repeated pitch. Wolf’s general dislike of Brahms is well known, and it’s interesting to compare their versions of “Mein Liebchen, wir sassen beisammen.” Brahms called his song “Meerfahrt,” and perhaps its most striking feature is the succession of anguished forte dissonances which depict the lovers’ failure to reach the beautiful island. In Wolf there is no such anguish: the exquisite accompaniment suggests the murmuring sea and plashing oars, recalling a prelude by Chopin, a composer he greatly admired.
The final song of the Liederstrauss, “Es blasen die blauen Husaren,” needs some explanation. The poem is the second of a pair from Heine’s Die Heimkehr. “An deine schneeweisse Schulter” is the opening line of the first poem (not set by Wolf), and against that snowy shoulder the poet rests his head. But his happiness is short-lived, for as he hears the bugles ring out, he realizes that her feelings are elsewhere. They nonetheless spend the night together before she goes off to join her soldier. The second song begins with a military march which announces the return of the soldiers. Despite her infidelity, the poet goes out to meet his sweetheart, until in the second stanza his disgust gets the better of him, as he realizes – Heine’s phrase is typically lubricious – that many soldiers have enjoyed her.
© Richard Stokes
Lied ohne Worte in D Major, op. 109 for cello and piano (1845)
Mendelssohn wrote for the duo combination of cello and piano at different points throughout his short life. The Variations Concertantes, heard last year on this series, is the first such example, composed in 1829 when he was ten years old. The last contribution to the genre is the Lied ohne Worte, written in 1845 near the end of the composer’s life. It is dedicated to Lisa Cristiani, one of the few women cellists of the time.
Despite bearing the name Song Without Words, this piece is not related to his set of lyrical piano pieces which share the same name. Mendelssohn used this title to describe instrumental works which were song-like in character. Mendelssohn’s friend, Marc-André Souchay, was tempted to put words to Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words due to their lyrical nature, but Mendelssohn was opposed to this idea, stating: “What the music I love expresses to me, is not thought too indefinite to put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.” The lyrical nature suggested by the title permeates Song Without Words. Despite being rather short and consisting of a single movement, the piece encompasses a wide range of moods and expression.
©Ryan Turner (2015)
Michelangelo Lieder (1897)
The three settings of the Italian Renaissance painter, sculptor, and poet Michelangelo were the last songs that Wolf wrote before the syphilis he had contracted nearly 20 years earlier took its final toll. In their intense seriousness, their themes of resignation and human futility, and the final cathartic peroration, these mighty songs, written for bass or low baritone, recall another vocal swansong, written just a year earlier: the Vier ernste Gesänge of Brahms. Quoting the text of the first song (“Wohl denk ich oft”) in a letter to his close friend, the Mannheim judge Oskar Grohe, Wolf wrote that the verses were addressed by Michelangelo to a friend, adding: “The music, which begins with a mournful introduction and maintains that tone to the penultimate line, takes on an unexpected robust character.”
While the opening song moves from brooding, depressive chromaticism to its final diatonic clarion calls, the second, “Alles endet, was entstehet,” is almost unrelievedly bleak, touched momentarily by the human warmth of E major (after the prevailing c-sharp minor) at “Menschen waren wir ja auch”— “We too were once men.” Wolf wrote about this song: “It is really something that might drive one crazy, yet at the same time it has an amazing, truly classical simplicity… I’m literally afraid of this composition, for it makes me apprehensive about my own sanity”—ominously prophetic words.
The opening of the last Michelangelo song, “Fühlt meine Seele,” is also saturated with gloomy, drooping chromaticism. But as the music rises from the depths, the mood gradually grows more ardent as e minor gives way to E Major. The questioning first theme returns at “Mir zeigt es wohl.” But the image of the woman’s eyes, and their promise of redemption, inspires a radiant apotheosis of the E major love theme.
© Richard Wigmore (2015)Mendelssohn
With the exception of a childhood trio composed in 1820, the Piano Trio in d minor is the first of only two piano trios by Mendelssohn. Composed in 1839 during a very prolific time for him as a composer despite his obligations as chief conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, the piece stands out for its formal completeness and clarity, all the while evoking a tumultuous and passionate character.
The trio begins with a cantabile yet aching melody played by the cello amidst a backdrop of restless syncopations in the piano, leading to the second theme in the violin. The piano soon steps to the forefront in both turbulent virtuosity and tenderness. The poetic Andante brings a light warmth reminiscent of his Lied ohne Worte. The Scherzo, as described by Herbert Glass, is “prototypical Mendelssohn faerie music, but with extra punch, the sprites having buffed up since those of the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture.” The weightier Finale begins in an understated tone that is driven by the intensity of the rhythm. The tension is finally released by a long overdue fortissimo, only to return to the subdued, understated tones of the Finale’s opening phrases. Similar to an impending storm, the movement continues in bursts and gusts, giving way to a broad, melancholy melody. The movement closes back in the unsettled tension that pervades the entire trio.
©Ryan Turner (2015)
November 1, 2015
Sechs Gesänge, op. 34 (1837)
The latest research indicates that at least 106 Lieder, 13 vocal duets and 60 part-songs by Mendelssohn have survived. It is remarkable to realize that compositions by a major composer in the Western canon could go unpublished and unheard for more than 150 years, but that was the sad situation with Mendelssohn—until recently. Through much of the previous century, Mendelssohn’s songs were often judged against those of Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms and found wanting, but Mendelssohn’s aesthetic of song was very different from those of his contemporaries. In addition, his songs were intended to be sung and enjoyed around the piano at home rather than subjected to public scrutiny. His songs reveal a willingness to experiment with novel forms and highly expressive harmonies, some of which go beyond the graceful and vocally grateful melodies, limpid textures, and strophic forms for which he is best known. The opus 34, Sechs Gesänge, was published in 1837, although many of the six songs date from earlier.
Intermezzo for String Quartet in E-Flat Major (1886)
Given the brilliance of his many Lieder, it is not surprising that Wolf’s small number of instrumental compositions are mostly overlooked. The sunny Italian Serenade is by far the most frequently performed of Wolf’s chamber works, but that popular piece is predated by two rarely-performed and much more substantial works for string quartet. At the age of 18, Wolf composed an epic, dark, four-movement string quartet in d Minor, and in 1886 he completed his Intermezzo in E-flat Major. Originally titled A Humorous Intermezzo, the work begins congenially in E-flat Major with a beautiful melody that is passed back and forth conversationally between the violins. Many quirky episodes ensue, but this original melody keeps returning, giving the work a large, rondo-like form. Although rooted in E-flat Major, the ensuing episodes venture into quite remote harmonic territories, at times stretching tonality to its limits, far beyond what one would expect for a piece written in the 1880’s. Wolf, whose over-the-top criticism of the music of Brahms is well documented, was a devoted proponent of the progressive harmonic practices of Wagner and Bruckner. What separates Wolf from many other composers of that aesthetic camp was his musical wit and humor. The Intermezzo is stocked with melodic invention, harmonic exploration, and moments of contrapuntal rigor, but these progressive tendencies are always tempered with a light-hearted wit that makes this work an attractive contribution to the string quartet repertoire of the late Romantic era.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan (1819) combined the Persian influence of the fourteenth-century poet Hafiz with Goethe’s own Germanic literary heritage. The result was a synthesis of symbolism and multivalent meanings that Goethe himself doubted could be effectively portrayed in a musical setting. More important than the use of Persian references is the way in which Goethe combines the identities of East and West: the lovers Hatem and Suleika play out the private emotional dialogues of Goethe (1749-1832) and his lover, Marianne von Willemer (1784-1860). To match the splendor of this poetry, in which the heart and intellect are so uniquely blended, its depth and range of thought, its wisdom, and its beauty - here was a test Hugo Wolf could not decline. Wolf focused on the works of Goethe from October 1888 to February 1889 and emerged from the challenge with a volume of 51 Lieder spanning a large breadth of Goethe’s poetic works.
In addition to the intellectual and artistic challenge Wolf faced in Goethe’s poetry, he also had to consider the large number of Lieder that already existed based on the poetry of Goethe. It was Wolf’s practice to not challenge a satisfactory musical setting of a poem by another composer. Though Wolf’s standards for an acceptable Lied were high, he encountered Schubert’s, Schumann’s, and other composers’ legacies to a greater extent with Goethe than with any other of his chosen poets.
This approach includes many aspects of Wolf’s standard compositional style: avoidance of text repetition, regularity of phrase length, the use of motives with associated meanings, and the independent roles of voice and piano. The vocal lines in the Goethe-Lieder tend to be more speech-like and often have free Wagnerian declamations, in contrast with the more lyrical moments in the Mörike Lieder heard on this series last year. The freedom of the vocal line is enabled by the use of piano to establish the meter and phrasing. The piano also provides an opportunity for Wolf to allow different interpretations of the text, as Goethe often uses double meanings.
String Quartet No. 1 in E-Flat Major, op. 12 (1829)
Mendelssohn left us with six mature quartets. Two (Op. 12 and 13) were composed in his late teens, three in his late twenties - in the midst of a remarkable career as composer, pianist, teacher, conductor, and watercolorist - and his last was a testament to the foreboding he felt after having lost his beloved sister Fanny. He himself died two months after completing the quartet, at the age of 38.
The two early quartets are in some ways the most remarkable, particularly because of their innovative forms. The E Flat Quartet, op. 12, shares with its partner (the a minor Quartet, op. 13) an ingenious organic quality due to motivic consistency, and the return of first movement themes in their last movements. Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven often used short motives to tie four-movement quartets together. But Mendelssohn seems to have been the first to bring back large musical sections – complete themes and their settings -- from previous movements. They are varied and often lengthened, but they represent dramatic homecomings. The first and last movements of op. 12 end identically. In his op. 13 quartet, the introduction to the first movement is brought back at the very end of the last movement, creating a poetic apotheosis that is rare in classical quartet literature. These nostalgic returns are found more often in pro grammatic orchestral tone poems, and occasionally in symphonies (e.g Brahms’ Third) and sonatas (e.g. Franck’s A Major Sonata).
While the op. 13 quartet is dramatic and intense throughout, with obvious nods to both Bach and Beethoven, the op. 12 presented here is essentially lyrical and less obviously referential. Its introduction may evoke the ethos of Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet (op. 74 – also in E Flat Major), but overall, it is a remarkably confident and original work. Mendelssohn employs the pleasing deception of beginning the first movement’s development (mid-) section with a seemingly typical repeat of the opening of the movement, but soon one realizes that this is rather a portal into the new music of a wide-ranging variation.
The scherzo (here a second movement instead of normal third) begins and ends with relaxed, serenade-like music in g minor which serves as bookends for a quicksilver, elfin romp in G Major, not unlike similar movements in his Octet and Midsummer Night’s Dream, composed in the years before. The slow movement, in B Flat Major, is essentially an aria (with recitative-like passages) for the first violin.
A scampering tarantella in g minor constitutes much of the last movement. Towards the end, a desperate climax in c minor changes the mood and rhythmic character of the movement, but as it ebbs, E-Flat Major returns along with the warm themes of the first movement. All the keys of the quartet are closely or obliquely related to the home key of E-Flat, whose return with the opening theme of the first movement is particularly satisfying, after the whole quartet’s Odyssey into other keys and characters.