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Johann Strauss: Her die Hand

My second “Song of the Day” stems from nostalgic memories of my time in Europe. After spending a summer with the Lehar Festival in Bad Ischl, Austria, I gained a newfound appreciation for operetta as a genre – particularly for the attitude and energy it takes to make operetta bubble and float. Something I love about this profession is the travel, getting to spend time immersed in different places and cultures. What’s more, I have found that performing works so steeped in national identity – you can’t get more Austrian than a Strauss operetta – pushes my understanding much deeper into the words and music on the page. Austrians are fiercely proud of their musical tradition.  Singing Die Fledermaus to audiences for whom operetta is such an integral, beloved part of their history unlocked a kind of artistic experience that is difficult to describe but could definitely be felt.

The second reason for my choice lies in the extensive amount of time I spent visiting and living in Hungary.  In Hungary, practically every dish is served with fresh paprika (dried chili) which many people carry around in their pocket wherever they go, just in case their meal isn’t spicy enough. Many Hungarians will say that paprika not only exists in their dishes, but in their blood and spirit, too.  Austrian operetta meets the passionate, fiery Hungarian spirit in “Her die Hand, es muss ja sein” from Johann Strauss’s Der Zigeunerbaron, sung in this recording by Hermann Prey.

P.S. I should mention that I’m writing this blogpost from the Johann-Strauss Gasse in Vienna!

Robert Schumann: Die alten, bösen Lieder (Dichterliebe, Op. 48)

When I was sixteen, I began taking formal voice lessons in Philadelphia. I found a teacher via a wonderful book on Mario Lanza I received for my birthday. I had just recently discovered him and was inhaling every book and record I could get my hands on. In this particular book, there were a number of testimonials from people who knew Mario, worked with him, or were inspired by his voice. One of these was written by Enrico Di Giuseppe, a wonderful tenor who enjoyed a long and productive career with the Metropolitan and NYCO from the 60s-80s in a variety of roles. At the conclusion of his chapter, he stated that he was teaching voice privately in Philadelphia. Inspired, I wrote him a lengthy letter requesting lessons. He called me one evening and we set up a trial lesson for that week. I brought him ‘Amor ti vieta’ from Fedora because “it’s short and only goes to an A”… his reaction was pretty priceless. After I bellowed my way through the aria like the sixteen year old baritenor I was, he handed me the “24 Italian Hits” and we started working together. He was my teacher for the next six years until his passing and in that time, he became very much like a grandfather to me.

A few months into my lessons, I told him I was studying German in high school. His eyes lit up and he leapt from the piano and over to his bookshelves. He handed me a couple books to take home and begin studying: they were Schubert’s ‘Die schöne Müllerin’ and Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’. I fell in love with them immediately. To this day, the music of Schubert brings back beautiful, simple memories of driving to and from lessons in South Philadelphia in the passenger seat of my mother’s car, or traveling around Germany in the summer of 2001 as an exchange student. It may seem strange that a teenager who was in a rock band and played sports had Schubert as the soundtrack to his high school years, but the music is inextricably linked to some very special moments that shaped who I am today.

I put German lieder aside for a number of years, focusing instead on standard operatic arias and American art song. When I moved to Europe to start my career there, the music understandably made its way back into my life. My first assignment as a member of the Young Singers Project at the Salzburg Festival saw Herr Schubert make a return. A year later, when I joined the Junges Ensemble at the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, it was Herr Schumann’s turn. Each ensemble member was tasked with planning a full-length recital. I chose to sing ‘Dichterliebe’ for the first half. When I first studied this cycle, both my musical and German skills were not quite mature enough to comprehend the depths of these songs, each of them individual masterpieces. I remember exactly where I was when I translated the texts for the first time. I sat in a Starbucks a few paces from St. Stephen’s cathedral, slowly approaching the final song of the cycle. I remembered learning it in high school, but dismissing it as another ‘wimpy’ song where the narrator is again whining about his profound pain. This time, I listened intently. I thought about everything that had preceded this song, not just textually, but also musically.

Die alten, bösen Lieder. Die Träume bös und arg. Die laßt uns jetzt begraben. Holt einen großen Sarg

All of the old songs and dreams. Just bury them. And that coffin?? It’d better be %#$&@ huge..

(that’s an “Andrew translation”, mind you)

The narrator goes on to specify that the coffin should be as large as the great Heidelberger Fass, a massive wine vat located in the cellars of the Heidelberg Castle. The death bier upon which it should be placed must be longer than the bridge to Mainz. And to carry it, fetch no fewer than twelve giants, each of them with the strength of St. Christopher. They should drag it out and sink it deep into the sea, because a coffin of this magnitude deserves such a grave.

The music at this point just collapses into a slow and brooding pace. It’s as if the narrator has reached the height of his anger and frustration and smashed a mirror with his bare fist. He now stands completely still, catching his breath, and we get the kicker..

Wißt ihr warum der Sarg wohl
So groß und schwer mag sein?

Do you know why this coffin is so damn heavy and large??

It’s set deep in the range of the singer, be it a baritone or tenor, almost to forcibly prevent him from singing this hushed section too loudly or forcefully. Then the vocal line leaps up an octave, as the narrator just sinks to the floor crying. Mind you, this is not a loud, ugly cry.. this is an eyes-squinted-shut, mouth-agape-but-no-sound-coming-out cry here.

Ich senkt’ auch meine Liebe
und meinen Schmerz hinein…

I sank along with it my love and my pain…

I sat in that Starbucks, covered my mouth with my hand and, contrary to the narrator’s experience, actually DID ugly cry. Even in rehearsals, my voice broke every single time I came to this final phrase, and at the performance, the ‘-ein’ of ‘hinein’ did not even phonate. The most challenging part of the entire cycle was keeping completely still during the absolutely beautiful piano postlude that follows.

So this lengthy post is basically to tell you that today’s song is ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’, the final song in Robert Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’. I’ve chosen the wonderful Hermann Prey, in a video performance of the entire cycle made late in his career. Though past his vocal prime, Prey does a remarkable job conveying the emotions I described above. He embraces the silence and stretches out those final phrases, really twisting that knife.

Hermann Prey

Carl Loewe: Erlkönig

It’s January 1996 at the 92nd Street Y in NYC. The great German baritone Hermann Prey is rehearsing a recital devoted entirely to songs by Carl Loewe (just weeks before The Schubertiade, the celebrated 10-year examination of Schubert’s works, which Prey had masterminded since 1987). I’m a young music publicist at the Y and completely enthralled by the animated 6-foot tall Prey and his voice, which could go from ferocity to gentle and vulnerable—and back again. (Prey’s voice was so unique—I’ve never heard anything like it since).

Prey loved to talk about Carl Loewe, a neglected German composer who was born just a few months before Schubert, and who Prey championed with all his might. He certainly convinced me of Loewe’s brilliance, and I fell in love with the songs (which was easy, given Prey’s gifts—he was a born storyteller, an incredible communicator of words, and he did it all with that voice and his eyes).

But one song stood out among all the others: Erlkönig, based on the poem by Goethe. Schubert’s version of Erlkönig was much more famous, but after Prey’s interpretation of Loewe’s setting, with the pianist Michael Endres creating the galloping horses, I was swept away. He brought to life the characters of the poem in a way that was enthralling and even frightening.

Anthony Tommasini reviewed the recital for the NYT, and he agreed: “The performances, with the superb pianist Michael Endres, were revelatory. Loewe’s neglect never seemed more inexplicable.” Tommasini went on: “In Mr. Prey’s vivid performance, Loewe’s ‘Erlkonig’ seemed as musically imaginative as Schubert’s astonishing version of Goethe’s famous poem, the tale of a frantic father on horseback rushing his son, terrified by the voice of an erl-king, through a dark, wind-chilled forest. Whereas Schubert evokes the frantic ride in obsessively repeated piano octaves, Loewe conjures the scene in eerie, shimmering piano tremolos. He also makes greater musical distinctions between the characters: the stolid reassurances of the father, the wispy, seductive melodies of the erl-king, the pitiable cries of the boy.”

Have a listen. Here is a 1995 recording of Prey singing Erlkönig in Germany, just months before that Y recital, with Endres at the piano:

For an even more intense version, here is a recording from 1962, with a much younger Prey:


And if you’re interested, check out the poem by Goethe below (not for the faint of heart).

I was so sad to hear that Prey died just 2 years after that 92Y recital. I am forever grateful to him for introducing me to a composer I probably never would have encountered, certainly not in such a revelatory way.

Erlkönig by Goethe

Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

“My son, why do you hide your face in fear?”
“Father, do you not see the Elf-king?
The Elf-king with crown and cape?”
“My son, it’s a streak of fog.”

“You dear child, come, go with me!
(Very) beautiful games I play with you;
many a colorful flower is on the beach,
My mother has many a golden robe.”

“My father, my father, and hearest you not,
What the Elf-king quietly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
Through scrawny leaves the wind is sighing.”

“Do you, fine boy, want to go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing to bring you in.”

“My father, my father, and don’t you see there
The Elf-king’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey.”

“I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you’re not willing, then I will use force.”
“My father, my father, he’s touching me now!
The Elf-king has done me harm!”

It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with great difficulty;
In his arms, the child was dead.

Song of the Day: December 2

Paul-Appleby1-PhotoCredit-Frances-Marshall-500x330This week we welcome Schubert/Beatles cast member and longtime friend of NYFOS Paul Appleby to Song of the Day!  You can hear him with NYFOS on Tuesday, December 8th at Merkin Concert Hall (Get tickets here).  And don’t miss his solo recital at Carnegie Hall on March 16, 2016 (tickets here)!

from Paul Appleby:

I am not a scholar.  I realize that this sentence is painfully obvious to you, my #nsisfu friends, but I just want you to know that it is equally obvious to me.  I am a performer, and everything that I read, think, say, or write about music, songs—most things really—are at the service of that calling.  I am writing this disclaimer because the whole thrust of my interpretation of Schubert’s “Die Taubenpost” is pretty specious. The point I would like to make—but it is also a question I’d like to raise to all of you—is that as a performer, I find that I have to find a personal connection or pathway into a song and discover a distinct interpretation based on that mental journey in order to perform it successfully.

Not everyone will agree with this including audiences and other performers. For example, I recently listened to an interview with Mark Padmore—an artist I greatly admire and one who has devoted his career in large measure to performing art song—in which he argues at the 15” mark about performing lieder that “the job really is to present the music and present the piece to an audience for them then to make up their minds rather than to do an interpretation that tells them that ‘you must understand it in this way.’”  I appreciate his point and the deep respect for the music that undergirds this philosophy.  I can’t, however, execute this approach in performance because I am never not an audience of the song myself.  I don’t wish to force my view of the song on anyone, but I also choose not to be an empty carafe to convey the score from its source to its consumer.  My carafe is half-full (optimist that I am) and what gets poured out into the audience’s cup is a blend of the song and me.

And this is the special responsibility that I have to myself and to my audience when programming a song recital.  I must only program songs that resonate with me and to which I have something to offer.  For example, I really love Britten’s Winter Word and I long to perform it, but I haven’t figured out a way to stand up and sing “Before Life and After” and mean it. And I love the song! I just haven’t been able to put what I have viewed as a misanthropic worldview in my voice and not be untrue to myself.  The earnest yearning of Britten’s setting doesn’t leave room for irony or distance. My views are evolving, though, and I think I might be able to get behind this song someday if I do enough yogic meditation.  But I won’t perform the cycle until I can resolve the dissonance between myself and the message I perceive in those words and music.

But sometimes a song such as “Die Taubenpost” strikes me in a powerful way that I can’t quite explain to myself.  This is often when my imagination kicks into gear to provide the narrative or intellectual hook that I can grab a hold of before shoving offshore into new waters with a song. (Sometimes I turn into Peter Grimes and the song is my apprentice—too much thinking can destroy a song.) To find that hook, I sometimes invent shit.  So what?

One such invention is that I imagine Schubert and Mayrhofer were lovers. Ok, well if it makes you more comfortable, maybe more like in a Sebastian and Charles.
Of course there is no documentary evidence of such a relationship and it was as likely (or more likely, I’ll concede) as not that anything approaching romance between the two existed. But whether this notion is fact or fiction is immaterial to me as a performer and certainly will not inhibit me from drawing on the imagined complexity of these two artists’ personal relationship to inform my emotional and intellectual understanding of Schubert’s settings of Mayrhofer’s poems. Maybe it’s a tool for me to project my own feelings into their songs and poems. All the better if it enriches the life of the song inside my own mind and subsequently inspires my musical and textual presentation.  I am not going to write anything remotely suggesting this imagined romance in something as serious as a program note, nor would I admit to it to any gentiles (i.e. those who don’t read this blog). But for whatever reason, I imagine these two massively talented, somewhat volatile young party boys brimming with passion for life and art and politics and each other’s creative efforts until the inherent instability of such a relationship tears them apart.

But joking aside, Schubert’s setting of Mayrhofer’s “Abschied,” for example, coincides chronologically with Mayrhofer moving out of the flat they shared, and in my imagination this was because they broke up.  What else could account for such a reluctant, mournful farewell as this?

Well, Graham Johnson’s typically assured and well-researched take could.  But when I stand on stage and sing this “Abschied,” I am Schubert and I am Mayrhofer singing to one another as they go their separate ways.  No one in the audience knows that (and please don’t tell Graham Johnson) but I am able to tap into something specific and palpable that makes the experience of the song meaningful and personal to me. Isn’t the pursuit of such an experience why we listen to songs in the first place?

In my early, more casual days of listening to Schubert, I had heard “Die Taubenpost” several times and I always found it lovely, pleasant, and extremely well-written.  But I didn’t conceive of it as the overwhelming emotional powerhouse that I did after I encountered this version of it:

By the end of this seemingly munter and froh song, Hermann Prey had me absolutely balling my eyes out, overwhelmed with sadness.  Of course I rushed to learn more about Hermann Prey and what sadness might have been inside him, but more importantly what sadness he connected to in this song.  So I read up on “Die Taubenpost” and discovered it was the last song Schubert ever completed, and he likely put the double bar lines on it within days of his death. No wonder there is such an undercurrent of mourning.

To get to the nut of what was going on in this song I had to determine two things: 1. Who or what is the pigeon? 2. Who is the “Liebsten” that the pigeon visits on the personas behalf? What is important in answering these questions is that the poet, Seidl, and Schubert may have different answers to this question, so let’s assume that Seidl meant what he writes and the pigeon is a metaphor for this idea of Sehnsucht.  What Sehnsucht is would make for at least another five blog posts so I’ll let the dictionary definition suffice for now.  But knowing Schubert’s circumstances when he wrote it, and knowing how carefully and deliberately he chose the texts he set to music, this text must have been of major importance.  I’ll let my imagination tell me that this poem somehow summed up Schubert’s sense of his entire life.  Of course, given the elaborate relationship arch I have created between Schubert and Mayrhofer, a thought I had was that perhaps the beloved in question is Mayrhofer himself, or maybe Schubert’s soul mate, his one true love.  Perhaps it represented all those he loved in his life: friends, family, lovers.  Maybe he meant life itself. Perhaps Schubert sees himself already on the other side of death and the distance his tireless bird flies is between the two realms.  AH HA! There’s an idea, Paul! In this case, the bird can easily function as its stated metaphor of longing tinged with nostalgia and regret for a loved one lost, or for the very past itself. But to me, I think it is something more too.  I believe that the pigeon for Schubert was his very music itself—of course since this is my imagination and my fantasy, the bird is his songs.  A bird sings, after all.  Schubert, despite mourning the loss of his still-young life, found something jangly in G major that spoke to the hope that he would live on through his music.  His gift was his trusty friend all his life through happy times and sad, health and sickness.  I like to think of this song as a thank you note to whatever that gift in him was.  I am getting moved just writing these ideas out! Is that what Schubert wanted to say?  I don’t know, but that’s what I hear, and that’s what I sing.

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