Eugene Asti’s pioneering Mendelsson Songs and Duets series, containing a large number of first recordings and rarities, concludes with this fifth volume, a generous two CDs for the price of one. The contents range from Mendelssohn’s first extant composition of any kind – a birthday song presented to his father by the precocious ten-year-old composer – to settings of the German romantic poets Schiller, Goethe and Eichendorff, which place Mendelssohn firmly in the canon of the great Lieder composers.
These works are performed by a talented group of young singers who will be familiar from other discs in the series, including the winner of the 2008 Kathleen Ferrier prize, Katherine Broderick.
Other recommended albums
Song was one of the foremost genres of the Romantic age, and Felix Mendelssohn was engaged in song composition at intervals from childhood until his untimely death at the age of thirty-eight. His first known song, indeed one of his first extant compositions of any kind, is the Lied zum Geburtstage meines guten Vaters, composed on an anonymous text for Abraham Mendelssohn’s birthday on 11 December 1819 by his ten-year-old son. (Abraham supposedly told a friend: ‘Once I was the son of a famous father [the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn], and now I am the father of a famous son’; it was Abraham who took the radical step of not having his sons circumcised and having them baptized into the Lutheran church in 1816.) This sweet specimen of juvenilia foreshadows Mendelssohn’s love of strophic song thereafter; simple, heartfelt, and straightforward in a hymn-like G major, the song ends with a postlude in which the precocious child experiments with a modicum of chromaticism.
In homage to the taste of their Francophile father, both Felix and Fanny were drawn to the works of Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755–1794), imprisoned for his participation in French republican activities in 1794; although he escaped execution and was released, he died at his estate only a few months later. He wrote fables, romances and idylls in the style of Salomon Gessner (another Mendelssohn poet), as well as the immortal Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un instant; Pauvre Jeanette is a gentle lament for a lass who preferred a shepherd to a king. The young Mendelssohn sets these quasi-folkloric words as an artfully simple plaint in minor mode.
Erster Verlust is the only Mendelssohn–Goethe song on this set; the young musical prodigy spent two weeks at the great writer’s house on the Frauenplan in Weimar in November 1821. ‘Every morning I receive a kiss from the author of Faust and Werther’, Felix wrote to his father, ‘and every afternoon two kisses from Goethe, friend and father’. The poet’s famous words about bygone first love as a rite of passage, a never-to-be-forgotten source of pain, were originally created for the second act of Goethe’s unfinished opera libretto, Die ungleichen Hausgenossen (‘The Dissimilar Lodgers’), and were inspired by the Countess Almaviva’s arias ‘Porgi amor’ and ‘Dove sono’, from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, which Goethe was translating into German at the time. The twelve-year-old Felix brought his sister Fanny’s setting of the poem with him to Weimar and would set it to music himself twenty years later, on 9 August 1841; it was published posthumously with five other songs as Op 99 in 1852. The poem exemplifies Goethe’s art of Erlebnisgedicht, or poetry drawn from life. When Mendelssohn’s persona repeats the rhetorical question/statement, ‘who can bring back the beautiful days of first love?’, over and over, he or she brings to sounding life the mixture of incredulity and resignation in these words; the repetitions enact the ways in which memory renews pain.
Friedrich von Schiller’s (1759–1805) words for Des Mädchens Klage come from Act 3 of Die Piccolomini, the second play in Schiller’s trilogy of dramas about Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein, the Bohemian generalissimo of the Habsburg armies during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), a terrifying creature who was wont to kill all the dogs and cats upon entering a town. Max, the son of Wallenstein’s lieutenant Octavio Piccolomini, and Wallenstein’s daughter Thekla fall in love, despite the enmity between their families; parted from Max, Thekla sings this famous lament. Schubert wrestled with it three times (D6, D191 and D389, the second setting being the most famous), but Mendelssohn engaged the words only once; his harmonically rich song was published posthumously as The Maiden’s Lament in London in 1866.
The words of Sanft weh’n im Hauch der Abendluft come from the eighteenth-century poet Friedrich von Matthisson, whose poems were praised by Schiller for their melancholy sweetness and tender descriptions of Nature. Schubert set this poem to music in 1815 under the poet’s own title Totenkranz für ein Kind (‘Funeral Garland for a Child’), and Mendelssohn’s setting followed seven years later in December 1822. Hearing this song, we remember that infant mortality in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was at rates we can barely comprehend nowadays; the mind shudders away from the statistics. Towards the end of this sensitive, extended setting, we hear the influence of Baroque music when the grief-stricken parents sing of wandering without relief through the world’s chaos; here, the vocal line is like a chorale cantus firmus beneath which the piano sinks by degrees to a hymn-like ending.
Wanderlied Op 57 No 6 is a setting of one of Joseph von Eichendorff’s most famous and emblematic poems: Frische Fahrt (‘Brisk Journey’) of 1810. In this poet’s world, centrifugal and centripetal forces draw his personae either closer to God or further from Him. Poets seduced by the Nature-magic of the world in all its beauty, all its sensual delights, are in particular danger of wandering to their doom; here, a persona lured by springtime’s gleaming beauty sets forth on a journey with no thought of any goal or end. In Mendelssohn’s beautiful setting, chromatic excursions hint at those other places that await exploration, and the occasional slight touches of darkness allude to the dangers of the enterprise. Das Waldschloss is a setting of Der Kühne (‘The Bold Man’), an eerie exercise in Romantic folklore with under- and overtones of Eichendorff’s characteristic religious meanings (he was a dogmatic Roman Catholic). A bold hunter goes above and beyond the limits explored by others in his pursuit of Nature and sensuality; in his sinfulness, he vanishes from all knowledge into the depths of the forest (that age-old symbol of the subconscious) once he declares his allegiance to love. For this quasi-medievalizing poem, Mendelssohn uses the ‘alt-Deutsch’ musical style, full of horn-calls and dotted rhythms, associated with tales of knights and castles in nineteenth-century song. Most of us know Es weiss und rät es doch Keiner in Schumann’s setting in the Op 39 Liederkreis, but Mendelssohn too set this poem to music, possibly in September 1842, as a gift for Antonka Hiller, the beautiful and accomplished Polish-born singer married to the affable composer and conductor Ferdinand Hiller, a friend of Felix’s since 1825. Eichendorff’s poem was first published in Book 2 Chapter 14 of his 1815 novel Ahnung und Gegenwart, following a scene in which the protagonist Friedrich has been embraced by the young ‘boy’ Erwin: actually a girl named Erwine who, Mignon-like, dies young. Erwin/Erwine sings this song ostensibly to herself—but Friedrich overhears her. Mendelssohn divides his beautiful setting of all four verses (Schumann set only three) into a wistful initial zone in minor mode, replete with desire-laden chromatic yearning, and the longer, brighter, motion-filled zone in major mode in which she imagines flying to Heaven itself. Her wish is soon fulfilled.
Charlotte to Werther, on a text by William Frederick Collard, a partner in a London piano manufacturing firm, might have originated during Felix’s first visit to London in 1829. Collard’s poem is an imagined extension of Goethe’s novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774 when its creator was in his mid-twenties and an instant sensation: Napoleon praised it, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein found in it a mirror of his own rejection by those he loved. In letters to his friend Wilhelm, Werther describes his stay in Wahlheim, where he falls in love with the beautiful Charlotte, engaged to an older man named Albert. Towards the end, as Werther and the now-married Charlotte read the Scottish writer James Macpherson’s Ossian poems together, Werther, unable to resist any longer, kisses her; ‘trembling between love and anger’, she cried, ‘this is the last time, Werther! You shall never see me again!’. Shortly after, Werther kills himself with Albert’s pistols. The Sorrows of Young Werther has often been described as the artistic metamorphosis of the young Goethe’s hopeless love for the nineteen-year-old Charlotte Buff in 1772, when he was living in the town of Wetzlar, but the Goethe scholar Nicholas Boyle has rightly asserted that this novel has much more to do with the dilemma of a generation of sensitive souls who felt that Promethean genius was required of any artist. Unable to meet such demands, they are destroyed and rush headlong to death. The ‘Editor’, who narrates the end of Goethe’s tale, says ‘we hardly dare express in words the emotions with which Charlotte’s soul was filled during the whole of this time’, but Collard and others were only too happy to rush in where angels feared to tread. Charlotte’s reproach to the young man—‘How Werther can thy soul endure/To blight a heart so kind and pure’—is breast-beating melodrama, but Mendelssohn’s expressive lament tames the crassness into beauty.
By Mendelssohn’s day, there was a venerable tradition of great composers arranging folk songs: Haydn did it, and so did Beethoven. Only days before his nephew Felix Dirichlet’s death of complications from measles on 17 November 1838, Mendelssohn provided the contralto Mary Shaw (1814–1876) with his arrangement of a familiar Scottish folksong, ‘O dinna ask me’ (it begins, appropriately enough, with a ‘Scotch snap’ rhythmic pattern). The audience loved it, and the publisher Friedrich Kistner then asked Mendelssohn for still more Scottish songs. Despite the family’s grief, Mendelssohn obliged in December with five more, the group of six songs published in February 1839 as Sechs schottische National-Lieder with no mention of Mendelssohn’s hand in the matter. And Romanticism’s fascination with all things Celtic also fuelled the cottage industry in German translations of the works of Sir Walter Scott; in fact, Mendelssohn’s setting of Ave Maria from Scott’s long romance-poem The Lady of the Lake (translated by Adam Storck) precedes Schubert’s famous Ellens Gesang III D839 by five years. Schubert knew the context in Scott’s narrative, in which Roderick Dhu, chief of the Clan Alpine and hopelessly in love with Ellen Douglas, overhears her harp-accompanied song to the Virgin, but the eleven-year-old Felix channels Bach and Handel for his semi-sacred song, set over an octave-reinforced ‘walking bass’ throughout. Raste, Krieger! Krieg ist aus was also set by Schubert as Ellens Gesang I D837; in Scott’s poem, Ellen beguiles the disguised King James V (1512–1542), who has stumbled across the hiding place of the Douglas clan, with this soothing song of a Scottish siren. Schubert’s rondo-Lied is a masterpiece of enchanting complexity; he was in his late twenties, after all, much older than the boy Mendelssohn, who treats a shortened version of the poem, minus its last four verses, as a simpler, sturdier, more folkloric affair.
Next follows a song that is Mendelssohn-in-a-nutshell, its strophic form, warmth and sweetness, and subtle details precisely the characteristics for which this composer is best known in the realm of song. The Volkslied sets a poem by the Scots poet Robert Burns (‘The Ploughman Poet’ or ‘The Bard of Ayrshire’) as translated into German by Ferdinand Freiligrath, famous in his day for his political and nationalist poetry. Mendelssohn’s duet setting of this text, Op 63 No 5, is familiar to many, but the composer also wrote out solo versions in 1842 and in his wife Cécile’s songbook at Christmas 1845.
For his Minnelied Op 47 No 1, published in 1839, Mendelssohn turned to the poetry of Ludwig Tieck, who was one of the founding fathers of German Romanticism. The poem is a lover’s compliment—‘Minne’ is the Germanic version of courtly love in the Middle Ages—to a beloved who outshines all of spring and summer’s beauty. The catalogue of Nature’s beauties begins with a comparison to a stream, and Mendelssohn seizes the opportunity to create a gently chromatic babbling brook in the piano against the backdrop of the springtime key of A major (the key also of Der Blumenstrauss Op 47 No 5, Sonntagslied Op 34 No 5 and O Jugend, o schöne Rosenzeit! Op 57 No 4), transposed to F major for a baritone in the present performance. Es rauscht der Wald, es springt der Quell is an undated setting of another poem by Tieck entitled ‘Der Junggesell’ (‘The Bachelor’). The poem begins as a celebration of Nature and Romantic Wanderlust before modulating into a protest against poverty and against the difficulties of obtaining divorce, all couched within a merry jape about what we might now call ‘male fear of commitment’. Mendelssohn ignores the sociology in the middle and composes the most vivacious song of the open road one could imagine, full of mountain goat-like leaps and grace-noted exuberance for the singer.
The next three songs are linked by poetic content and musical echoes of one another. Frage, to a poem by Mendelssohn’s tutor and friend Johann Gustav Droysen masquerading as ‘J N Voss’, encapsulates in a single page of music all the emotions most human beings feel at the moment when they first realize that their love for someone else just might be reciprocated. ‘Is it true?’ (‘Ist es wahr?’), we ask, and not just once: Mendelssohn’s persona makes the same words evoke doubt, a touch of fear, urgency and sweetness by turns. Mendelssohn was a composition student of Carl Friedrich Zelter, and so in his youth was the actor, baritone and theatre reformer Eduard Devrient, who supplied Mendelssohn with the words for the next song, Geständnis (‘Confession’). (Devrient sang the part of Christ in Felix’s 1829 revival of Bach’s St Matthew Passion.) In this song, the love-struck questioning continues, beginning with the same three-note query as before in the singer’s part, but the temperatures are hotter this time. The cliché of Mendelssohn the coolly classicizing adherent of abstract values is again put to the test by the almost violent expressivity of this song; it packs into one page as many different shades of amorous entreaty as a young, desperate, would-be lover could devise. The familiar words ‘Ist es wahr?’ recur in the next song, Weiter, rastlos, atemlos, at appropriately breathless speed, and no wonder: the beloved ‘Maria’ from Geständnis is now accused of betrayal. The tale of love that began with that shy, ardent question two songs before ends in despair.
The Weihnachtslied was composed in 1832 as a Christmas present for his younger sister Rebecka Henriette (1811–1858), who had married the mathematician Peter Dirichlet in May of that year. Mendelssohn also sent this work to the theologian Albert Bauer on 20 December 1832. Bauer had praised Felix’s revival of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, and this reverential carol, unfurling in part over a Bach-style ostinato, was tailor-made for him. Mendelssohn found his text in the 54 Geistliche Oden und Lieder (‘Spiritual Odes and Songs’) by the pious Leipzig philosopher Christian Fürchtegott Gellert; these poems, combining religiosity with Enlightenment rationalism, were enormously popular with composers including C P E Bach (who set this text as a cantata) and Beethoven.
Von allen deinen zarten Gaben—the poet has not yet been located—was composed on 18 September 1822 during a family trip to Switzerland; Mendelssohn would make three more trips there in later years. For this strophic song Mendelssohn only wrote out the words for the first stanza but clearly intended the remaining verses to be sung as well. In the absence of the complete original poem, Waldemar Weinheimer has supplied two more verses with which to hymn a May day, replete with love and music in the same sweet manner as stanza 1. The Wiegenlied, with its tender inflection from E major to C major in the middle, was composed that same day; it too is strophic, its poet too is unknown, and Waldemar Weinheimer has once again written two additional stanzas to round out the song. We can hear in these two songs that Mendelssohn was working with some of the same musical ideas, such as streams of parallel thirds and linear chromaticism, and that a similar Andante sweetness pervades both songs, although each strophe of the spring song ends with a surge of joy.
For his darkly dramatic song Vier trübe Monden sind entflohn, Mendelssohn set only the first three verses of Ludwig Hölty’s ‘Lied eines Mädchens auf den Tod ihrer Gespielin’ (‘Song of a girl on the death of her playmate’). We do not know when the song was composed, as no autograph manuscript has been located; Louis Weissenborn copied this work, as well as Weinend seh ich in die Nacht, Erwartung, and Lieben und Schweigen. Vier trübe Monden was published in 1882 by the composer Carl Reinecke (teacher to Edvard Grieg, Leoš Janácek, Max Bruch and others), and the version we hear on this disc is based on the Weissenborn manuscript.
Lieben und Schweigen was created in 1840 or 1841 as a gift for a friend, the Biblical scholar Konstantin von Tischendorf, who discovered what was for a time the oldest known copy of the Septuagint in a trash heap at a monastery on Mount Sinai. His single anthology of poetry, the Maiknospen (‘May Buds’) of 1838, is somewhat anodyne, but one sympathizes with the lover in this poem, who, like a shy scholar, never confesses his love. Mendelssohn gives him sweetly eloquent music to express what he otherwise could not. Suleika is a setting of a famous poem by Marianne von Willemer (née Jung); adopted by a Frankfurt banker, she became his third wife in 1814. The couple visited Goethe in Wiesbaden; the great poet, immediately drawn to Marianne, visited them later in 1814, and again in August and September 1815. Although Goethe and Marianne never saw each other again after that, they corresponded until Goethe’s death, and her poems as ‘Suleika’ to his ‘Hatem’ were included in the great poet’s West-östlicher Divan of 1819, inspired by the poetry of the great fourteenth-century Persian poet Hafiz of Shiraz, as if Goethe himself had written them. The truth was not revealed until a few years before Marianne’s death in 1860; Mendelssohn would have thought that this was a poem by the world-famous genius, not by one of Goethe’s most gifted Muses. This undated setting is utterly different from the published setting Op 34 No 4, a fleet creation driven by love’s joyous energies. Here, the song is ushered in by a brief, rising, swelling figure in the piano, beautifully evocative both of the wind’s motion and of passion on the increase.
So schlaf in Ruh! was, so we learn from a copy by Cécile Mendelssohn’s sister Julie Jeanrenaud, composed on 22 March 1838 and is a setting of a poem by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, famous both for his revolutionary poems and his songs for children. No cannon sound in this tender lullaby for a child; in the refrain, we can almost see the child’s eyelids gradually drifting downwards until they close in sleep. The Todeslied der Bojaren (‘Death song of the Boyars’) comes from Act 5 Scene 5 of Die Bojaren, the first play in the trilogy Alexis (1832) by Karl Leberecht Immermann, who fought against Napoleon at Waterloo. (Boyars were serf-owning aristocrats second only to the tsar’s family in feudal Slavic societies from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries.) The older writer and younger composer had met to discuss a possible operatic collaboration; if Alexis did not inspire Mendelssohn to make an opera from it, he did compose this song a few years later, on 13 October 1841, the result perhaps being the most arctic-austere two pages in all of Mendelssohn. And no wonder: in the play it is sung by the boyars Stephan Gleboff, Basilius Dolgoruki and Abraham Lapuchin as they await execution for treason against the tsar Peter the Great (the trilogy focuses on Peter’s only son, Alexei or Alexis, who was tortured and killed on Peter’s orders in 1718).
Erwartung is one of the songs copied by Louis Weissenborn and published by Carl Reinecke in 1882, and it is a mystery: we do not know when it was composed, for what reason, or who the poet might be. This lament in E minor by a woman whose beloved has gone away is so beautiful that one would like to know more. (Mendelssohn seems to have preferred this key for songs of sorrow, including Warum sind denn die Rosen so blass?, Glosse, Schlafloser Augen Leuchte and Winterlied, in addition to Das Waldschloss and the boyars’ death-song.) Each of its three stanzas ends with a hushed plagal cadence in parallel major mode in the piano, perhaps indicative of inner prayers for a happy conclusion to her sorrow or wish-fulfillment fantasies of his return. Und über dich wohl streut der Wind was, like the Tischendorf Lied, a gift in July 1844 to a friend, the pianist Walter Cecil Macfarren, who taught for many years at the Royal Academy of Music and whose brother was the composer Sir George Alexander Macfarren. Each strophe of this miniature song begins and ends in quasi-philosophical resignation to the passing of Time, youth and dreams, but the increasing intensity of the interior tells of grief not yet banished. Weinend seh’ ich in die Nacht, to an as-yet unidentified text, was composed on 22 December 1828 and not published until 1882 with the title Warum ich weine! (‘Why I weep!’).
If some of the songs on these discs are disarmingly modest, Ch’io t’abbandono in periglio sì grande is an elaborate concert aria that puts the singer through his paces. It was composed on 5 September 1825, probably for Franz Hauser (1794–1870), a ‘pretty good bass’, in Felix’s words, and a fellow Bach enthusiast who provided Felix with as yet unpublished works by Bach. The text comes from the opera seria libretto Achille in Sciro by Pietro Metastasio (the pseudonym for Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi), an inventive re-scrambling of Greek mythology in which Achilles’ mother hides her son on the island of Scyros. There, he dons female garb in an attempt to evade the army, but Ulysses spots the disguise and the two depart for Troy. Mendelssohn put together two separate passages from the already outdated textual source—the Mendelssohn scholar R Larry Todd sums up this work as belonging to Felix’s lifelong frustrated quest for suitable opera libretti—to form a dramatic recitative, an Andante con moto lyrical section, and a lengthy concluding Molto allegro and Più presto work-out.
We end with an adage appropriate for this occasion: the Volkslied Op 47 No 4, published in 1839, on a poem by Ernst von Feuchtersleben, a Viennese psychiatrist, philosopher and poet. ‘Es ist bestimmt in Gottes Rat’’ (‘It is decreed in God’s law’) was published in his Gedichte of 1836. After three melancholy verses about Time that robs us of those we love, the song ends with the consolatory words ‘until we meet again!’.
Susan Youens © 2010
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