Mendelssohn seems to have finally hit the big league in this bicentenary year of his birth. Critical reappraisals of his music have confirmed this somewhat elusive composer as an important Romantic figure, and probably the greatest child prodigy of all time. Hyperion’s contribution to the composer’s rehabilitation includes the acclaimed series of Songs and Duets, now reaching Volume 4.
It is remarkable to realize that compositions by a major composer in the Western canon could go unpublished and unheard for more than 150 years, but that was the sad situation with Mendelssohn—until recently. The pianist Eugene Asti has gathered together 46 previously unknown songs from various stages of this composer’s sadly truncated life. Through much of the previous century, his songs were often judged against the example of Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms and found wanting, but Mendelssohn’s aesthetic of song was very different from those of his contemporaries. What the newly published works reveal is a willingness to experiment with novel song 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.
For this disc, Eugene Asti has gathered together a dazzling selection of singers, including some of the most exciting young artists working today. Katherine Broderick, the winner of the coveted 2007 Kathleen Ferrier Prize, has a uniquely beautiful voice, its bloom and agility belying its considerable power.
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It is remarkable to realize that compositions by a major composer in the Western canon could go unpublished and unheard for more than 150 years, but that was the sad situation with Felix Mendelssohn—until recently. The pianist Eugene Asti has gathered together 46 previously unknown songs from various stages of this composer’s sadly truncated life; some are juvenilia that Mendelssohn may never have intended to publish (but which give us valuable added information about his musical development), some were occasional pieces or gifts to friends, and a few were left unfinished for unknowable reasons. Given his high standards, he may have judged them unworthy or been called away from the endeavours by circumstances, never to go back to them. Mendelssohn’s critical fortunes are also implicated in this story of oblivion and revival. Through much of the twentieth century, his songs were often judged against the example of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms and found wanting, but Mendelssohn’s aesthetic of song was very different from those of his contemporaries. What the newly published works reveal is a willingness to experiment with novel song 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.
We begin, however, with a well-known song composed in 1830 and published in Op 9. The poet-politician-literary scholar Ludwig Uhland’s (1787–1862) words for Frühlingsglaube had already been rendered immortal infrom September 1820, but other composers were also drawn to this poem about the regeneration of hope in springtime. Where Schubert found a warm, gentle loveliness in these sentiments, Mendelssohn’s setting fizzes with joy and ricochets back and forth between full-throated exuberance and softer, sweeter anticipation of change to follow upon spring’s arrival. The shifting patterns in the piano part are further evidence of springtime energy renewed and of compositional ingenuity. Der Verlassene, composed nine years earlier in 1821 and subsequently revised over the next several years, is another matter altogether: darkly serious in B minor (a key Beethoven called the ‘schwarze Tonart’, the ‘black key’, for its traditional bleak mournfulness), it was one of the three songs presented to Agnes Rauch (1804–1881), the eldest daughter of the sculptor Christian Daniel Rauch, who later was the godfather of Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel’s son Sebastian, born in 1830. The manuscript came to light only in 2007, when it was sold at auction by Sotheby’s to the Berlin State Library, Preußischer Kulturbesitz. There are two other earlier manuscripts for this song, but we hear the Rauch version of circa 1825, which may constitute Mendelssohn’s final thoughts on this song to an anonymous text. Laments by abandoned women are commonplace in poetic tradition, but abandoned men are another matter; how precocious it was of Mendelssohn to imagine such grief at so young an age. The singer’s first phrase, repeated several times thereafter, evokes in stylized manner tears flowing down the lovelorn man’s face.
Seltsam, Mutter, geht es mir—another song in the Rauch manuscript—is a setting of an arch ‘genre scene’ by Johann Ludwig Casper (1796–1864) that first appeared as ‘Die Bäuerin’ in Johann Amadeus Wendt’s Taschenbuch zum geselligen Vergnügen auf das Jahr 1819—Neun und Zwanzigster Jahrgang. A young country girl confides, albeit with telling gaps that we fill in by means of insinuation, to her mother that she feels ‘strange sensations’ six months after the fair. Has her mother ever felt anything like this, she wonders? Mendelssohn begins with the clearest, limpid motion in C major—music for country matters—but touches lightly on other harmonies in the course of the maiden’s pseudo-naïve wonderment. And Der Wasserfall completes the songs from the Rauch manuscript; a setting of a poem by Mendelssohn’s good friend Karl Klingemann (1798– 1862), who provided poetry for such Mendelssohn gems as Frühlingslied Op 34 No 3, Bei der Wiege Op 47 No 6, Frühlingslied Op 71 No 2, and Herbstlied Op 84 No 2, among others. This song of the waterfall is one of the most harmonically complex and experimental works from the newly revealed songs; its muffled dissonances are marvellously analogous to the roar of falling waters. One of the two manuscript sources includes a ten-bar piano introduction in which broken-chordal waters stream downward from the treble to the bass register; the lovely prelude is included in this performance. Thereafter, the ever-changing face of the pianistic waters—complete with tremolos, rocking octaves, and chordal patterns—foreshadows what Liszt, Debussy, and Ravel would do with water music much later. Glosse is another testament to the merger of music and friendship. The text is by Friedricke Robert, née Brun (1795–1832), a spirited and very beautiful young Jewish woman (Heine hymned her as ‘Venus de Milo’s cousin’ and dedicated ‘Auf Flügeln des Gesanges’ to her) who married Ludwig Robert, brother to Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, in 1822. Mendelssohn composed this song shortly after his trip to Paris in 1825, and it is, by his own designation, a ‘theme-and-variations set’ in song. The poetic theme is ‘pity as torment’, the way in which ‘comforting’ words pierce the heart; one notes in particular the frank admission at the end that any assurance of her former sweetheart’s happiness in love with someone else will only increase her pain.
The Vier Lieder of 1830 are a unique occurrence in Mendelssohn’s song œuvre: this is his only song cycle. He did not designate it as such by name, and it is more contained in size and scope than its illustrious predecessors—Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte and Schubert’s two mammoth cycles. But a cycle it is nevertheless. Here, Felix seems to have done something Schumannian a decade before Schumann’s 1840 cycles: he assembles four poems, three of them by unknown authors, into a narrative sequence of his own fashioning. The first, Der Tag, on a poem by Mendelssohn’s friend Ludwig Ernst Friedrich Robert, is one of this composer’s most extended and dramatic songs, divided as it is into different zones of experience. In the first, the persona recalls the now-vanishing days of childhood happiness; in the second, he mourns the loveless emptiness of his youthful state; and in the third, he remembers first seeing her that very day. Now, he can bid lamentation be silent. In the tempestuous second song, Reiterlied, he literally storms the castle; we ride with him through a forest of octaves and high notes galore (the song is a work-out for both performers). This outburst of ardour is followed by departure in Abschied when the young man is impelled by patriotic duty to go to war. In Mendelssohn’s music, we alternate between military fanfares—the piano reminds us why he is leaving—and tender or impassioned injunctions to his beloved not to weep. Finally, at the end of the cycle, the soldier returns as a beggar (Der Bettler), in company with many real-life soldiers from the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars who came home with no more than their lives and the clothes on their backs. Mendelssohn notated only the first verse of his unknown poetic source and the end of the second; therefore, Waldemar Weinheimer has supplied most of the second verse. In this last song, Mendelssohn refers to the final section of the first song, lest it somehow escape our notice that this is a true cycle, a homecoming that circles back to the start of it all so that life, love and music might begin again beyond the final barline.
Am Seegestad’ inaugurates a trio of songs on poems by Friedrich von Matthisson (1761–1831), all of them also set to music by Schubert. Matthisson’s poetry, first published in 1787 and reprinted many times thereafter, was praised by no less than Friedrich Schiller for its melancholy sweetness and tender descriptions of Nature. The sweetness is artificial, saccharine rather than real sugar, but composers from Beethoven to Schubert to Mendelssohn and many more were drawn to this poesia per musica. Mendelssohn set only verses 1, 2, 4 and 7 of Matthisson’s poem (dating from 1792) in September 1823; Schubert also set it as(Matthisson’s title) nine years earlier in 1814, when he was only seventeen years old. The poem is utterly typical of Matthisson: in the midst of Nature by night, the persona thinks of his beloved and begs her to remember him. There is no desperation here, no seething passion, so our composer sets this strophic gem in an idyllic-pastoral F major tinted with delicate chromaticism; the Mozartian manner in which he extends cadential passages is particularly notable. Mendelssohn’s setting of Durch Fichten am Hügel (Schubert set it as in 1814) exists only as an unfinished draft, with only the first verse of Matthisson’s six-stanza poem from 1792–3 notated; Eugene Asti has opted to repeat the subsequent verses he supplies (Nos 2, 4 and 6) by starting from the beginning each time with the brief, rippling introductory figure in the piano. Adelaïde-like (and that, of course, is another poem by Matthisson), the beloved’s image is imprinted everywhere in Nature, and the persona sings of her with grace-noted grace. Remnants of sealing wax on the autograph manuscript would seem to indicate that Mendelssohn himself abandoned all thought of returning to the song, but we are glad to have this charming miniature. Ich denke dein was by far Matthisson’s most popular poem, one that inspired a whole series of imitations, including Goethe’s ‘Nähe des Geliebten’. Matthisson’s original poem was also a ‘best seller’ with composers such as Carl Maria von Weber, Beethoven, Schubert and Hugo Wolf, among many others; Schubert set it as in April 1814. Each of the first three stanzas ends with the lover’s anxious, tender question, ‘Wann/Wie/Wo denkst du mein?’, and Mendelssohn spins out a quasi-improvisatory melisma in the piano in its wake, followed by silence as we, in company with the lover, wait for an answer. The alternation between minor and major harmonies at the plagal end—a wordless prayer for the desired answer—is economically eloquent.
Tanzt dem schönen Mai entgegen, possibly composed in 1823–4, is the first of a group of spring songs and idylls: one of Felix’s favourite genres. Those who live in northern climes know full well the ecstasy that spring’s arrival brings with it; for this, his earliest spring song, he turned to the poetry of Ludwig Hölty (born 1748, one year before Goethe’s birth, died at age twenty-seven in 1776 of tuberculosis), a member of the Hainbund, or ‘League of the Grove’, a small group of poets in Göttingen who created a new feeling for Nature in their works. The poet of Faunenklage, Salomon Geßner (1730–1788), was a Swiss painter and poet who specialized in bucolic idylls; his paintings have titles such as Arcadian Landscape, and his poems include two volumes of idylls after the model of Theocritus. This poem comes from a longer work entitled ‘Der zerbrochene Krug’ in the Idyllen von dem Verfasser des Daphnis of 1756; here, a sylvan creature laments a broken cup (one keeps Freudian interpretations at bay only with difficulty), bewailing the loss of the stories inspired by the carvings around the rim. Zeus himself, this to a patch of especially lush harmonies, drank from it and never saw one lovelier, the singer declares mournfully. Im Grünen is another of Mendelssohn’s effervescent, irresistible spring songs to a poem by Johann Gustav Droysen (1808–1884), who became the Mendelssohn family’s tutor in 1826 when Felix was preparing for entrance to the University of Berlin; Droysen would later become one of nineteenth-century Germany’s foremost historians, with tomes on Alexander the Great and the history of Prussia to his account. For this Op 8 song, Droysen masqueraded behind the pseudonym ‘J N Voss’, which impelled more careless editors and scholars into thinking that ‘Germany’s Homer’, or Johann Heinrich Voss, was the poet.
The stormy Reiselied of 1831 is on a text earlier set as Nachtreise in the Neun Wanderlieder von Uhland Op 34 of 1818 by Conradin Kreutzer, a song cycle praised by no less than Schubert. The Mendelssohn scholar R Larry Todd has suggested that both Die Liebende schreibt (published posthumously as Op 86 No 3) and this song were composed as the result of Mendelssohn’s separation from the pianist and composer Delphine von Schauroth (1814–1887)—the famous Rondo capriccioso was written for her. King Ludwig I of Bavaria attempted to play matchmaker between the pair in the autumn of 1831, but a flustered Felix backed off, and Delphine, who had studied piano in Paris with Friedrich Kalkbrenner, would marry a clergyman named Edwin Hill Handley in 1833. Only the initial thirty-two bars, which constitute the setting of the poet’s first verse, survive in the autograph; for Uhland’s second and third verses, Eugene Asti has repeated Mendelssohn’s music for verse 1 and added his own cadential chords in the closing two bars to finish the song. The poet of Abschied from the early 1830s has not yet been identified; where one can imagine other composers whipping up a musical frenzy from the references to scudding clouds and roaring sea, Mendelssohn subsumes a subtler grief in poignant chromaticism couched within flowing, broken-chordal streams in the piano, the effect one of restrained brooding rather than passion.
One of the most important German poetic anthologies of the nineteenth century was Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of more than 700 folk poems compiled (and sometimes emended) by Achim [Ludwig Joachim] von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, mostly between 1804 and 1807. One of the oldest folk poems housed in this famous compendium, Hüt du dich, is an arch warning to a susceptible man—to all susceptible men—that the pretty girl he fancies is leading him a dance. No wonder so many composers, all male, have been drawn to this poem, perhaps most famously Brahms in a duet version (Op 66 No 5) and in his Deutsche Volkslieder WoO33 No 40; Charles Gounod and Benjamin Britten would later set this poem to music in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s English translation. Mendelssohn’s delightful setting from circa 1834–5 is every bit Brahms’s equal in quality, with its whiplash-piano figures to get our attention, its comic use of a ‘tragic’ key (G minor), its interior expeditions to brighter major keys, its mock-conspiratorial tone, and its deliciously gossipy, bustling vivacity. Die Nachtigall, composed some fourteen years earlier in about 1821, is a setting of an anonymous text, a circular poem in which we end where we began: ‘And I set out …’. For these words about the song of the nightingale arousing an erotic lament in the persona’s heart, the twelve-year-old Mendelssohn writes a song that is especially beautiful at those brief moments when the right-hand part soars above the singer’s plangent melody. The poet of Gruss, Maximilian von Schenkendorf (or, to give him his full name, Gottlob Ferdinand Maximilian Gottfried von Schenkendorf, 1783– 1817), was best known for his patriotic poetry from the War of Liberation. The poem in two parts (Mendelssohn took the second for his song), was entitled ‘Am 30. September 1813’, and German readers would have known that this was only two weeks before the decisive Battle of the Nations in October 1813 and would have sympathized with the warrior who wishes that he could be with his beloved. Mendelssohn wrote this song in May 1840 for the album of Chérie Couraud, the future wife of Adolphe Adam, whom the Mendelssohns had just met.
One of Germany’s greatest poets, Heine knew the Mendelssohns; interested in music, if not particularly knowledgeable about it, he attended Felix’s momentous revival of the St Matthew Passion in 1829 and later took acerbic note of Felix’s sacred oratorios. The two men were not friends, despite the fact that they had Jewish origins and conversion to Protestantism in common. Heine’s conversion in 1825, a deed undertaken in order to gain what he called ‘the entrance ticket to European culture’, was an act he almost immediately regretted, and his politics were far more radical than Mendelssohn’s. And yet, Heine invoked Mendelssohn’s song Wartend on his deathbed, and Mendelssohn, whatever his feelings about Heine the man, set a number of his marvellous poems to music. One of the poems from Heinrich Heine’s 1827 anthology, the Buch der Lieder, that was most popular with composers was Warum sind denn die Rosen so blass?, Heine’s ‘twist’ on the pathetic fallacy, the notion that anthropomorphized Nature reflects human emotions and fate. Fanny would complete herof this text, but not Felix his version from three years earlier; therefore, Eugene Asti has devised a wonderfully sensitive completion of the musical stanza to two of Heine’s verses, plus its slightly varied repetition to constitute the second half of the song.
Rausche leise, grünes Dach is one of Mendelssohn’s two settings of poetry by Albert Graf von Schlippenbach (1800–1886), whose ‘Nun leb’ wohl, du kleine Gasse’ was set to music by Friedrich Silcher and appeared in many Commersbücher (anthologies of German folk songs, drinking songs, patriotic songs, and popular songs) throughout the century. This exquisite song was probably composed in late 1824 and has much in common with the other Schlippenbach–Mendelssohn Lied,, published posthumously as Op 99 No 2. Both personae sing of death: the ‘green roof’ is on a grave, while a young girl fearing that her mother will die is reassured by her guardian angel in Die Sterne schau’n. Rausche leise is a poignant, wistful thing, its harmonies shading from minor to major and each strophe ending in tonal mid-air. Death in the early nineteenth century is often depicted as a lovely boy, an amanuensis into a comforting realm; we are left at the end of this song poised between a still-living persona and the unthreatening Death-figure who has just appeared.
Erinnerung is Mendelssohn’s name for an untitled and very popular poem from Heine’s Buch der Lieder: ‘Was will die einsame Träne?’ has attracted at least seventy-five composers, including Robert Schumann. Mendelssohn set only verses 1, 2 and 4 of the poem. After the initial stanza about the single tear that lingers in the sorrowful eye, a catalogue of disappearing acts follows: all the other tears in stanza 2, the beloved’s star-like blue eyes in stanza 3, and love itself in the final stanza, with Mendelssohn omitting the third verse.
It was the fashion in nineteenth-century literary circles to revive medieval poetry; for his Op 8 No 7 Maienlied (our fourth welcome-to-spring on this disc), Mendelssohn availed himself of a poem from the Manesse Codex, one of the most important manuscripts of medieval Minnesong. Jakob von Wart (1272–1331)—Mendelssohn writes Jacob von der Warte—is depicted in this lavishly illustrated source seated in his bath with a bevy of lovely ladies attending him: ‘Minne’ (courtly love) indeed. Mendelssohn does not attempt any antiquated musical strains but instead composes a sweetly lively spring song. What follows it in Op 8 is the Andres Maienlied or Hexenlied, perhaps Mendelssohn’s most deliciously virtuosic song. The poem tells of a witches’ coven celebrating the arrival of spring on the Brocken mountain-top, where a gallimaufry of creatures swarms to worship Beelzebub. Mendelssohn found Hölty’s poem in the emended edition by Johann Heinrich Voss, who had known Hölty personally; the entire fifth stanza, in which the demonic is made comic (that draconic grocery-delivery service), is Voss’s puckish invention. For this lighthearted exercise in diablerie, Mendelssohn whips up lightning-bolt arpeggios, drum-roll patterns, grace-noted punched accents, and octave leaps to high pitches for the singer. ‘Did I leave anything out?’ one imagines Mendelssohn asking himself, tongue-in-cheek. No wonder these virtuosic high-jinks are so beloved of audiences and performers alike: this is witchery of the best kind.
Susan Youens © 2009
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