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Ludwig Rellstab

born: 13 April 1799
died: 27 November 1860
country: Germany

Ludwig Rellstab was born on in Berlin on 13 April 1799. It is interesting to note that he was only 29 when Schubert set his poems, and the astonishingly rapid advance of his career, and the spread of his influence as a critic, was to do with having been born, in musical terms at least, with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father, J C F Rellstab (1759-1813) was an accomplished pianist and prominent music publisher, intimately connected with every aspect of Prussian musical life. (Rellstab was a cousin of a much greater poet, Wilhelm Häring, 1798-1871, who wrote under the pseudonym of Willibald Alexis.) The young Ludwig was also trained as a pianist and as a boy performed concertos by Mozart and Bach. He was a pupil of two distinguished composers, both pioneers of the Berlin school of Lieder composition – Ludwig Berger (who was the first to set Müller’s Die schöne Müllerin texts) and Bernhard Klein. Rellstab volunteered for the army during the Napoleonic wars but was rejected on grounds of weak eyesight. He nevertheless entered military service with a desk job and remained there until 1821 as a teacher of mathematics and history.

This combined interest in arts and sciences stood him in good stead as a journalist on the celebrated Vossiche Zeitung where his knowledge of music, and his readiness to express a strong opinion on almost anything, were the basis of his enormous reputation as a critic. He became a real celebrity in Berlin as a result of his outspoken writing. This led to the saying that ‘the true Berliner only believes in the correctness of his own hard-won opinions once they have been confirmed for him by Rellstab’. Henriette, oder die schöne Sängerin, a roman à clef (published under the pseudonym of Freimund Zuschauer) featuring the soprano Henriette Sontag thinly disguised, earned him three months in jail for libel; and some years later (1837) he was imprisoned for six weeks as a result of his campaign against the overweening influence of Berlin’s Generalmusikdirektor, Gaspare Spontini.

Despite the appearance of being a fighter for modern causes, Rellstab was, on the whole, a conservative who resisted the success of the later romantics. Weber was his idea of a modern composer. He heard the young Mendelssohn playing for Goethe in Weimar (the great old poet was unencouraging about Rellstab’s work) and Mendelssohn’s music represented the chronological limit of Rellstab’s sympathies: composers like Chopin and Schumann were weighed in the balance and found wanting. Liszt (who set some of his poems) was excused Rellstab’s venom, and his later relationship with Meyerbeer was less a result of musical sympathy than business acumen; the poet was a busy translator of that composer’s libretti when they found an enormous vogue in German houses. Rellstab divided composers into two classes: the premier league was Bach, Handel, Gluck, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven; the best of the also-rans were Cherubini, Spohr, Weber, Mendelssohn, and his two teachers Berger and Klein. In the midst of his musical work and writings Rellstab wrote a great deal else, including the highly successful historical novel 1812 (1834) and a collection of stories entitled Sommerfrüchte.

Like a great many men who enjoy success early in life, Rellstab remained stuck in his glory days. His posthumously published autobiography Aus meinem Leben (1861) ends with a poignant chapter concerning his visit to Beethoven in Vienna in 1825. If this is a true account (which can never be proved), Beethoven comes across as a great human being as well as artist, genuinely interested in the poet’s work, gravely encouraging, and noble in every aspect. (It was Rellstab’s critique of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op 27 No 2 that led to that work being nicknamed ‘The Moonlight’). Rellstab had hoped to interest Beethoven in his libretti (Weber had been tempted by his Dido) but, failing this, he left the great composer his poems. It is the manuscripts of these which were said to have been passed on to Schubert by Beethoven’s secretary, Anton Schindler.

The poet never directly commented on Schubert’s settings of his work. But at least he took the trouble to visit Schubert’s grave in the Währinger cemetery in 1841, writing a few complimentary, though somewhat patronising, words, an accolade of the kind reserved for women composers, or mere writers of songs. Rellstab little realised that the sole reason his creative writing (as opposed to his more significant work as a critic) continues to be of any interest is because of his connection to Schubert. He died on 28 November 1860, some 32 years after Schubert who was only two years his senior.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000


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