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Václav Jan Křtitel Tomášek wrote numerous songs and short piano pieces, genres in which his works predate those of his rather more famous near contemporary Franz Schubert by some years. Quite why they are so neglected today is a mystery as this enthralling new album from Renata Pokupić and Roger Vignoles unfolds twenty-eight songs of a rare appeal. Perhaps we should not be surprised: Tomášek was one of the very few composers of Goethe settings to meet with the great poet’s (relatively) undivided approval.
Between 1845 and 1850, Tomášek published his autobiography in six issues of the periodical Libussa, where we learn that he was born in Skuteč (Skutsch), the son of a flax-weaver, and became a chorister in the Minorite monastery in Jihlava at the age of thirteen. He studied law in Prague, where he may have had a few piano lessons with the virtuoso performer and composer Jan Ladislav Dussek. Seeing Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Prague in 1790 was a formative experience for Tomášek; ‘Mozart was always his ideal’, his student Eduard Hanslick wrote. Tomášek’s ballad-opera Leonora of 1806 led to a position as music instructor for Count Jiří Buquoy von Longueval’s family; his employer, who knew Goethe, granted him latitude to travel extensively in Austria and Germany.
The final instalment of Tomášek’s autobiography is devoted to the most momentous event in his life: his personal encounters in 1822–3 with Goethe. In 1815, the composer must have found the new three-volume Viennese edition of Goethe’s poetry by Bernhard Philipp Bauer; only there do we find the three songs from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre given as Mignon’s Sehnsucht, Das Geheimnis and Die Nacht—the titles Tomášek used for his settings. Four letters between poet and composer (29 June 1818, 1 September 1818, June 1820 and 18 July 1820) inspired Tomášek to complete a Goethe collection he had already begun in 1815; the result was forty-one Goethe songs privately printed in small volumes (as Opp 53–61), the seventh of these (Op 59) dedicated to Goethe himself. He wrote the songs, so Tomášek told Goethe, ‘to hear just how effective German classical poetry would be when accompanied by a Bohemian lyre’, and Goethe responded by asking for a meeting. On 6 August 1822 Goethe travelled from the spa town of Franzensbad, where he was taking the waters, to the nearby town of Cheb (Eger in German). There, at a home with a fine piano, Tomášek played fifteen of his Goethe songs for the poet, beginning with Heidenröslein; Trost in Tränen particularly moved Goethe, we are told. The last in the series, Mignon’s Sehnsucht (‘Kennst du das Land’), inspired Goethe to say: ‘I cannot understand how Beethoven and Spohr could have so misunderstood the spirit of the poem when they wrote their settings of it.’ Tomášek, however, had understood it, Goethe declared. No wonder the composer treasured the memory of this occasion for the rest of his life. The following year, Goethe and Tomášek met again in Marienbad, with Tomášek being assured that he had many friends in Weimar because of his music to Goethe’s words. This was their last encounter.
The strophic song Mailied is a perfect introduction both to Goethe, for whom Nature was of central importance, and to Tomášek, in a vein reminiscent of Mozart or early Schubert. Tomášek’s shepherd in Schäfers Klagelied (Goethe’s parody of the folk song ‘Da droben auf jenem Berge’) begins by playing an improvisatory-seeming air over a rustic drone, the air becoming frothier as it progresses, before launching into his lament. For each verse Tomášek varies the accompaniment, with especially colorful harmonies for the rainbow over the sweetheart’s house. Goethe wrote Rastlose Liebe for Charlotte von Stein, a married lady-in-waiting at the Weimar court who dominated his life from 1776 to 1786; here the need for rest is synonymous with the need for greater self-understanding. This poem’s dynamism made it an irresistible challenge for composers, met by Tomášek’s agitated chromatic turbulence. In Goethe’s influential novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, the flirtatious actress Philine sings Die Nacht (‘Singet nicht in Trauertönen’) as a rebuke to too much rehearsal time spent on Hamlet, and Tomášek gives us a graceful strophic air, simple but with an occasional vocal flourish that conveys Philine’s vitality.
Goethe wrote Auf dem See in 1775 when he was on holiday at Lake Zurich; here, the poet’s own sensibility is a living thing cradled and nourished by Nature, the final image that of ripening fruit mirrored in the waters. Tomášek gives us water-music and the pull of the oars at the start, and then (as Schubert also does) registers the moment of uncertainty before the poet’s renewed determination to live fully in the golden present moment. An die Entfernte is in part the record of Goethe’s breach with Charlotte von Stein upon his return from Italy in 1788. Tomášek’s setting depicts frantic despair, the opposite of Schubert’s better-known study in quieter, contained grief. The words of Wandrers Nachtlied (‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’) were written, the manuscript tells us, ‘On the Etterberg hillside. 12 February 1776’; its persona pleads to be done with Faustian striving and find peace. Tomášek’s gently flowing plea is interrupted by musical darkness and dramatic lamentation at the words ‘ah! I am weary of striving!’. Tomášek’s clip-clopping horse in Erlkönig (Goethe was mildly displeased by this feature, as he told someone other than the composer) is a gentler steed than Schubert’s by far, but this setting has its felicitous features: the gasping child, the duplicitous Erlking with his cradle-rocking figuration, and a darkly dramatic ending. Our composer was clearly proud of his version of Heidenröslein: it is the opening song in the first volume of his Goethe settings (Op 53), and it was the first song he performed for the poet. Two stanzas to the same charming, graceful music are followed by a brief passage of minor-mode drama as the ‘impetuous boy’ breaks the meadow flower before the final dying-away refrain.
The ‘mystery’ that cannot be revealed in Das Geheimnis (‘Heiss mich nicht reden’), sung by the tragic adolescent Mignon in Wilhelm Meister, is her vow to the Virgin as she was being kidnapped: she would never tell her story and would live and die in expectation of divine intervention. We hear the force of her resolution in the forte octaves tossed back and forth between the pianist’s hands in the introduction and the portentous, majestic double-dotted harmonies that tell of Fate’s power. Die Spröde and Die Bekehrte are paired poems/songs (Tomášek marks them attacca, the second to follow without a break) in which a shepherdess first rejects her lovers’ advances and then, having once surrendered to one of them, longs for him when he deserts her: these are mock-pastoral pieces. Tomášek’s ‘So la la’ refrains, which tell of the shepherdess’s indifference to Thyrsis and her other suitors in the first song, turn to a wistful minor mode in the second song, with ‘heartbeat’-like chords to accompany the remembered seduction. In Sorge (Care is also a character in Faust, Part II), the poet pleads with the allegorical figure of Care to depart; when she does not, he wonders what to do and then asks her to make him wise if she will not allow happiness. Similar sorrowful passages in the minor mode frame the self-questioning recitative at the centre of this little song.
In Am Flusse, the singer bids the river carry his past love-songs (they are ‘beloved’, not she) into oblivion: he is willing to let the water wash away her scorn as he closes that chapter of his life. Tomášek’s setting tells of residual gentle melancholy at the thought of bygone love. The symbolic associations between ‘women’s work’ of spinning thread and Life or Fate itself are very old; the Gretchen-like persona of Die Spinnerin ‘breaks’ the thread of her life when she succumbs to a young man’s wiles and becomes pregnant. In this wistful song, Tomášek breaks the thread of the vocal line at the words ‘riss entzwei’ (‘snapped in two’) and traces a sad chromatic descent as the girl (no more a maiden) bends over the pond to wash the cloth.
In Tomášek’s Bohemia, two ethnic groups—Germans and Czechs—lived side by side, with Germans generally of higher social rank than Czechs. Tomášek, whatever the importance of his Austrian and German affiliations, was an ardent Czech patriot, and specifically Czech themes, texts and historical events peer out on occasion from his songs. Even before meeting Tomášek in person, Goethe was interested in him because of his Six Bohemian songs, settings of poetry taken from a literary hoax organized by one Václav Hanka, a philologist who founded a society for the cultivation of the Czech language. In 1817, Hanka claimed to have discovered manuscripts of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Bohemian poetry in the town of Königinhof an der Elbe and, later, still more at Castle Grünberg near Nepomuk. These ‘medieval’ Czech poems were almost certainly written by the novelist and poet Josef Linda (1789–1834) and the translator and linguist Josef Jungmann (1773–1847), the latter a leading figure in the Czech National Revival. Despite heated polemics about the authenticity of the manuscripts almost from the start, the forgery was not fully exposed until 1886; some two centuries on, it is hard to see how anyone could have thought these texts to be products of the Middle Ages.
In Die Nachtigall, the bird most symbolic of love issues melodious advice to maidens (‘do not trust the man of the woods’); the right-hand part in the piano introduction alerts us in advance to bird-like acrobatics. As the gently moralizing bird warms to its task, it begins hopping and trilling above and below the vocal line to harmonies that tell us why Gustav Schilling, in his Encyclopädie der gesammten musikalischen Wissenschaft (‘Encyclopedia of collected musical knowledge’) of 1838, lavished the autodidact Tomášek with high praise for ‘his harmonic richness, learned but without dry pedantry, effortlessly original, novel in his thematic workings, energetic, fiery, strong and pure melodically, full of imagination and grace’. The swirling figures in the piano interludes and postlude of Das Lebewohl, an agitated lament for lovers parted for ever, hint at Czech folk song (we hear such evocations throughout the set), but the chromatic descending bass line we also hear on three occasions is a lamento pattern with a long history in European music. The seasons come and go in Wehmuth, from its wintry beginning, to remembered May-time love, to autumn pallor and desiccation. In the outer sections, a plangent melody sounds above gently oscillating figuration in the piano, as if this melancholy character was rocking back and forth in grief; the more agitated middle section features trills, grace-noted bass pitches, and considerable dark chromaticism.
In the language of flowers, violets connote modesty and maidenly purity; the narrator of Das Veilchen asks the flower-maiden why it hides itself away when spring brings new life to the earth, and does so in sweetly melancholy minor mode. Tomášek had a gift for evocative piano postludes; one imagines the violet sinking downward in humility through the stages of a gentle descent. Nothing is gentle about Rache, in which the composer brews a tempest of spurned love’s misery. We hear sound-and-fury in the piano’s almost non-stop rolling chords and the stamping gestures in the left hand. At the end, a single minor harmony rises in palpable anger in the right hand. Die blauen Augen begins lightly and gracefully, with a paean to the sweetheart’s blue eyes, but sighing figures and touches of darkness tells us that these lovers are parted.
In the early 1820s, Tomášek met Michael Ebert, councillor to the noble Fürstenberg house; Tomášek subsequently married Ebert’s oldest daughter Wilhelmine, an excellent singer. Her brother, Karl Egon Ebert (1801–1882), enjoyed considerable approbation in his day as a writer; Felix Mendelssohn would set his poems Das erste Veilchen and Reiselied to music. Des Greises Trauerlied is Ebert’s variation on Goethe’s Harper in Wilhelm Meister; an elderly minstrel remembers when he turned his thoughts of love’s joy and sorrow into song that made all who heard it weep. Now he is old and alone and laments his condition. Tomášek, who was a fine pianist, unleashes virtuoso harp-like figuration on the piano. Schubert, Tomášek, and others who set Das Lied (‘Es ist so angenehm’) to music, thought that these words, from the Taschenbuch für Damen (‘Ladies’ pocket-book’) for 1809, were by the great Friedrich Schiller, but he is not named in the anthology, and the attribution is dubious. The Schubert scholar Otto Erich Deutsch guessed that Schiller’s patron Karoline von Wolzogen actually wrote this poem about a woman who has at long last found love in a man’s fiery kisses. Before, the whole world seemed sad, she proclaims; two dramatic pauses and a low bass trill render emphatic the announcement of love’s triumph at the end. In the little genre-painting that is Lied eines Alpenmädchens, a shepherdess hears the bells ringing for Mass in the valley below, bells that Tomášek sounds with insistent repeated tones, sustained chimes and lower, more complex sounds. Because the shepherdess cannot leave her flock to attend Mass, she begs her guardian angel to go in her stead and bring the holy word back to her. Juliane Glaser, the poet of Ständchen, was Tomášek’s sister-in-law; her brother by marriage graces her classic serenade, in which song itself is the ideal emissary of love, with a winsome, lilting melody.
The first of the three songs of Op 92, In die Ferne, to a poem by Hermann Kletke (friend of the famous novelist Theodor Fontane), shows off Tomášek’s melodic gifts. The descending line in the piano, with its softly rolled ‘harp chord’ echoes, to accompany the repeated refrain ‘Ah, my heart longs to be abroad’, is a notable detail, and so too is the minor-mode episode for Ebert’s third stanza, with its north wind that batters barren rock. Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns was popular with German Lied composers: Mein Lieb is a setting of the patriotic German writer Ferdinand Freiligrath’s translation of Burns’s famous poem ‘O, were my love yon lilac fair’, with two verses flipped in the German to give us the rose before the lilac. Was it a puritanical decision on Tomášek’s part to eliminate Burns’s/Freiligrath’s image of the lover lying on the sweetheart’s breast all night, like the dew on the rose? Burns was often quite frank about erotic matters. Tomášek marks this song Innig, and it prefigures Schumannesque Innigkeit (warmth, sincerity, inwardness, but without sacrificing vitality) with its lightly tripping right-hand part and its descending chromatic lines expressive of longing. Both this opus and this recording end with Burns’s most famous poem, ‘My heart’s in the Highlands’, here entitled Mein Hochland. In the midst of hunting-horn motifs at the start, Tomášek’s use of hollow sounds to evoke the wild forests is a detail to cherish, and so too is his attention to the poem’s melancholy. If Schumann, in his setting of Wilhelm Gerhard’s translation (No 13 of Myrthen, Op 25), ignores the poet’s passionate sorrow over separation from the region he loves most, Tomášek does not.
As he grew older Tomášek became more and more bitter about the lack of notice given to him by the larger musical world: ‘These gentlemen over there [in Vienna] pretend that I do not exist any more. Therefore now I must wait patiently until my death.’ It is hoped that this album of songs provides a measure of posthumous redress for lengthy neglect.
Susan Youens © 2015