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Song's first cycle

Robin Tritschler (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: January 2017
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Andrew Mellor
Engineered by Andrew Mellor
Release date: September 2019
Total duration: 82 minutes 29 seconds

Cover artwork: Cover image © Keith Tritschler.

The creation of the song cycle as an art form was paved with musical experiments and innovations. Robin Tritschler and Malcolm Martineau here chart the progress made by the great Lied composers of the day toward the cyclical perfection finally achieved by Beethoven and Schubert, and since emulated by Schumann, Loewe, Wolf, Fauré, Britten, Shostakovich and so many others.


‘Robin Tritschler's sweet-toned voice is a delight, as is Malcolm Martineau's sparkling, pearly, luminous piano sound. The recording quality has a beautiful clarity and intimacy’ (BBC Music Magazine)
The creation of the song cycle as a new art form in the early nineteenth century was paved with musical experiments and innovations. On this album we illustrate the progress made by the great Lied composers of the day toward the cyclical perfection finally achieved by Beethoven and Schubert, and since emulated by Schumann, Loewe, Wolf, Fauré, Britten, Shostakovich and so many others.

A song cycle is distinguishable from a collection of songs or a Liederspiel by some type of interior cohesion: a unifying theme, text from a single source, a narrative. It could be a musical connection: recurring devices and motifs, key relationships between songs, or perhaps a fixed performance order. Usually, a combination of these criteria is necessary to bestow on any song collection the title of song cycle.

Songs from Sophiens Reise
Mozart composed these three songs between August 1781 and May 1782. The texts are all interpolations from the popular sentimental novel Sophiens Reise von Memel nach Sachsen by Johann Timotheus Hermes. In Verdankt sei es dem Glanz der Großen the relationship between heavenly and earthly beings, between modesty and self awareness, is treated with complete assurance; there is no shame in being small and insignificant in the Universe. An die Einsamkeit exhibits an exquisite opening, a gentle slide towards B flat that effectively represents the hidden sorrow of the poet as he seeks a place of comfortable isolation where he can nurse his wounded heart to the grave. For Ich würd auf meinem Pfad, the most substantial song in the group, Mozart delved deep into the text to conceive an emotional and personal conflict; musically illustrating the struggle against fate, and creating this minor masterpiece.

The original Köchel catalogue assigned the K numbers 390-392 to the songs. By the catalogue’s 6th edition, new research had discovered the true order of the songs and catalogued them under the number K(6)340 a/b/c, the order presented here. As a result of this reshuffling the evidence of a song cycle becomes more pronounced; the sense of contented insignificance in the first song grows through the others until it becomes a self imposed isolation. But in musical style and invention each song still stands alone, and while the keys are related (F major – B flat major – D minor) they do not quite make a full revolution. It is not a cycle, but Mozart firmly placed our feet on the pedals.

Lieder aus der ‘Selam’
In 1989 the editor of the Neuen Schubert-Ausgabe, Walther Dürr, wrote the article ‘Lieder aus den “Selam”. Ein Schubertsches Liederheft’ in which he suggested that seven songs composed to texts found in the almanac Selam can be thought of as a mini song cycle.

The first two songs both tell of the poet’s desire for an intimate moment between himself and his beloved. Tears of sweet suffering would be relieved by the Labetrank der Liebe; the refreshing tonic of love is her reviving kiss. In An die Geliebte the poet serenely kisses the salty tears directly from the cheek of his beloved.

Then follows the exquisite Wiegenlied in which the sight of a mother cradling her child leads the male narrator to reminisce on his own life and think of his future in a short commentary on the Three Ages of Man. Mein Gruss an den Mai is a charming song rooted in classical form. The poem of nine verses compares the delights of southern fruits to the noble northern roses plucked by the poet’s wife Silli. Schubert only set the first verse, indicating at the end of the page to repeat the remaining eight. However because Schubert unintentionally added two words to the text, the musical underlay does not fit the remaining verses without slight alteration. Graham Johnson suggests that Schubert may have misread the small text of the almanac when he added three extra syllables. In this recording we have included seven of the nine verses using the underlay solutions suggested by Walther Dürr in the NSA.

Skolie is a drinking song sung as the cup is passed around by bawdy men. This bouncy masculine song is driven by semiquavers in the left hand and includes the interruption of a drunken hiccup. Die Sternenwelten is perhaps the most significant song of the group. It lays new astronomical discoveries and the praising of God side by side as compatible ideas. To marry the two Schubert uses a baroque style of writing resulting in a successful mix of joy and desolation. Die Macht der Liebe is a positive song and a wonderful ending to the Selam group; Love reigns across nature infecting everything and everyone.

Schubert wrote these songs into one book, dating each song individually despite all being written on one miraculous day: 15 October 1815. Perhaps he wanted them to be more than just a collection. If Schubert had conferred the title of 'Liederkreis' on this group I have no doubt it would regularly appear on recital programmes as it exhibits such beautiful music. But can it be called a cycle? Despite the mixture of poets there is a unifying thread through the songs; the experience of heavenly gifts enjoyed in earthly life, but it lacks common musical gestures and the keys make no real journey, basically oscillating between F and B flat. If Schubert had published these songs as a cycle he may have been disappointed a year later when Beethoven published the first true cycle, An die ferne Geliebte.

An die ferne Geliebte
An die ferne Geliebte is the first musically linked song cycle. Unlike the later Schubert cycles where each song is a stand alone masterpiece, the songs in An die ferne Geliebte are made greater by being adjoined.

Beethoven had already composed a song collection on a single theme but the invention of musically linked songs was new. His setting of six religious poems by Gellert (Op 48) in 1802 may have claim to be a song cycle. I believe it should be discounted due to the uncertainty over the performance order of the songs. For both its two contemporary publications either Beethoven or the publishers altered the order of the songs from the original manuscript. Perhaps by musically linking the poems of An die ferne Geliebte Beethoven could be assured of their performance as intended. We will never know for certain.

While studying An die ferne Geliebte the line ‘… aus der vollen Brust Ohne Kunstgepräng’ erklungen …’ ('from the full heart artlessly sounded') struck me as the reason for Beethoven’s peculiar setting. This directive alludes to the folksong nature of the cycle. The overflowing heart offers simple songs to sing, while the piano accompaniment provides the interest and variety. It must also be remembered that this cycle starts in a fundamentally happy state; the lovers may be separated by time and distance, but they are not divorced from each other.

From the introduction Beethoven’s simple folksong intentions are made clear. A single chord launches the vocal line, a line which offers (on the whole) one note per syllable. Then, while the vocal line remains strophic, the piano offers variations. As the poet realises that the solution to his pain is to sing sweetly, Beethoven decorates ‘Lieder’ with a triplet. In a barren melodic field this sudden embellishment is particularly effective. The second song begins as a true folksong; the vocal line is restricted to the narrow range of a fifth. Perhaps because of this it is extremely satisfying to sing. This comfortable folksong morphs into a meditation in the second stanza as the poet’s thoughts turn away from the mountains to the valleys where he would like to be. The final repeat of ‘möchte ich sein!’ opens a very intricate memory, bringing more immediacy to the distance between the two lovers. This realisation causes him to pause and contemplate his ‘innere Pein’ which drives him to breach the divide.

The anguish in the third song is disguised by Beethoven’s jaunty rhythm. To prevent the song becoming too cheerful, he used the minor key to highlight the darker emotion. The major key returns later with new optimism, ‘meine Seufzer, die vergehen …’ ('my sighs pass'). The poet begs the clouds, bushes and wind to be natural conduits of his messages until finally the memory of separation turns to present despair and a stream is created by his own countless tears.

The third and fourth songs are linked by a held note in the voice, and the theme of natural elements continues. Now however the poet wishes he could accompany the messages across the divide to his beloved. Beethoven returns to a strophic vocal part while the piano once again provides the variety. The tempo increases towards the end of the song and rushes to the next ‘unverweilt’ (without delay). Throughout the cycle the composer manages to portray the sometimes wild mood swings in the poetry through many changes of tempo. This swinging yet unpredictable tempo accurately symbolises that hope and despair live alongside each other.

With the arrival of the swallows in the fifth song, Nature seems to take pity on the poet; bringing an end to dark days with a possible early summer and the hope of assured fidelity despite the lovers separation. Beethoven again uses a folk-like melody but this time the piano shows little variation except in the interludes where the birds tweet of their happiness while building their nest together. Unfortunately this place of contentment does not suit the poet as there can be no Spring until he is reunited with his beloved and able to renew their love. Their separation is destined to continue. To regain his peace the poet can only hope she will accept his songs and sing them in unison with him, their loving hearts bridging the physical gap between them. Beethoven transforms the poet’s desperate call for reunification into a duet in thirds which leads to a triumphant cadence.

Die vier Temperamente bei dem Verlust der Geliebten
Weber was the superstar composer of his time. His style of composition, rooted in German folksong, filled with humour and declamation, was incredibly popular. As well as the piano, he composed many songs with guitar accompaniment; making his music even more accessible to the public. Such was Weber’s fame, Wilhelm Müller, the creator of Die schöne Müllerin, dedicated a volume of poetry to him; perhaps in the hope the composer might set a text. Weber’s song style is often called improvisational, but his music does truly capture the popular style of the time. Conceivably because of this very style, his songs, like so many others of the period, are now largely forgotten.

But did Weber write a song cycle? Die vier Temperamente bei dem Verlust der Geliebten is as close as he got.

In Der Leichtmütige, the Sanguine cheerily says farewell to a lover while singing a bouncy melody. This bravado highlights the sense a Sanguine feels; he is the cheery guest on all occasions, everyone’s friend. After the break up he immediately seeks out other girls and is undeterred when they refuse to kiss him. His idea of friendship might not extend beyond knowing someone’s name, but that will not stop him being chatty and open to any new person he meets.

In Der Schwermütige ('The Melancholic') the outburst of intense sorrow is indicative of the thinking of a melancholic—a perfectionist who is emotionally sensitive and stubborn. The delicate melody, accompanied by an alternating flowing then brittle piano, slowly soars towards heaven where everything is perfect. Only there will the Melancholic find comfort.

The mini ballad Der Liebewütige ('The Choleric') opens with a Beethovian ire. Don Marco, a choleric, is furious as he barks orders at the servants. He has been dumped by his lover Clara. To control the situation he must respond with action, so he storms to her tower. Weber artfully turns the opening ire into an amusing dismissal when Clara, using a rather sarcastic tone, tells Don Marco that his jealousy has destroyed their love and he should leave. Don Marco, to show he is still a proud alpha male, grabs his gun and rushes out to hunt. Weber makes it clear that a poor hare gets both barrels.

In another change of form Weber sets Der Gleichmütige ('The Phlegmatic') as a strophic song. On the page it appears the least expansive or expressive of the Op 46 songs, but this is why it is so successful at presenting the phlegmatic man. He is newly single and content to be without a wife. If breaking up was what she wanted, then he allows it. He would rather escape from a conflict than seek a victory, and probably moved out when she first voiced the idea. He is relieved that he no longer must make decisions or be responsible for anything: ‘Das ist Höllenlast, küssen müssen!’ ('it is a hellish burden to have to kiss'). Weber’s sparse accompaniment and simple repeating vocal line brilliantly evoke the meekness and introverted nature of this man who barely expresses emotion; the listener is left to feel almost nothing for him.

Weber shows a different type of cohesion in this collection. Certainly he composed four wonderful character songs, but there are no musical links between the songs either in motif or key relationships. Even the form of the songs themselves vary; through-composed, a ballad, and strophic. There is no particular reason to perform the songs in a certain order, indeed each song could be performed individually. So this opus does not meet the criteria to be called a cycle, but the songs are linked. Their link is to be found in the title, the 'Four Temperaments'; the ancient idea that there are four fundamental personality types. In these four songs Weber and Gubitz merge the whole of humanity by comparing how each personality responds to the same event: the break up of a relationship.

Ironically Weber wrote these songs during upheaval in his own relationship. He and his fiancé, Caroline Brandt, agreed to separate after Caroline became jealous of the composer's association with the actress Christine Böhler. A disconsolate Weber left Prague for Munich. Their relationship was soon rekindled via mail, and they conducted a long distance and stormy relationship until being reunited once Weber had secured a position in Dresden.

In many ways An die ferne Geliebte could be seen as the model for Einsamkeit. Schubert may have even asked his friend Mayrhofer to compose a large scale poem for the purpose of creating a similar work, but in any case he certainly chose the poem for its length and form. Schubert was so delighted with the finished song, he wrote in a letter of 1818 that it was the best he had ever written and he felt like a composing god.

Like An die ferne Geliebte, Einsamkeit is in six sections, although here each are subdivided. A recurring declaration opens each section. In these Schubert uses a similar recitative; a type of noble herald, calling and summarising the emotional need of the moment.

The poem is vastly complex but Schubert is more than capable of rising to the challenge. As a youth Mayrhofer had been a novice, he had first hand experience of sitting and praying alone in a cell. Perhaps he discussed with Schubert the solitude and loneliness he felt. Certainly the composer captures both those meanings of the ambiguous title in the opening verse. After three years Mayrhofer left the Abbey to study law, just as in the second strophe the lure of the city proved too strong for the young oblate. Schubert matches this move with a total shift of style, and the song begins to pulse and twinkle.

The second section is almost certainly related to the third song of An die ferne Geliebte; a moving triplet figure which makes the city feel like a hallow place. The liveliness of city life is slowed as the music moves to E minor and silence. However the lightness returns in the following strophe as Nature’s idyllic life is lost. After this, to open the next strophe, the regular declamation is faster. A party begins as friends crowd around, and Schubert’s folksong music makes it seem as if they are singing. This is as good as life gets, but the communal song quickly becomes fragmented and the young man’s despair and worries return as his peace disappears.

The new strophe opens with the most grand declamation; full of ecstasy it rises to the highest note of the song. Comfort is to be found in Nature if only the young man can follow its lead to happiness. But that hope of peace is torn away by war. This strophe is perhaps the most difficult section of the poem. Suddenly the poem is detached from the poet’s autobiographical story to a tale of ancestors and immortality. Schubert creates a short but fantastically heroic interlude. Perhaps even he thought these lines of text would require brevity. As the depths of 'düsterheit' ('gloom') are plunged in the subsequent section, the gloom created in the music is astonishing. The dotted rhythm highlights the march of the warriors and the downtrodden spirit of the greeting families. After setting this verse so successfully no wonder Schubert felt like a god!

The fifth verse is the most political. Mayrhofer’s pacifist views may be the reason why publication of the song was delayed until 1840. Schubert sets this verse in a metered recitative. The slowly rising chromatics are the realisation that the approaching victorious army is actually a rabble of murderers.

The final verse opens with the ultimate request ‘Gib mir die weihe Einsamkeit’ ('Give to me the blessed solitude'). There is no ambiguity in Schubert’s setting now. He finds perhaps the most beautiful music of the entire song for the final conferring of the Holy Blessing. The Youth’s emotional and turbulent journey has lead him to a contented old age.

Einsamkeit is a miracle of song writing. Schubert transformed his usual methods and adapted them to a massive poem. He was deservedly delighted by his work but claiming it as a Liederkreis was probably never his intention. It ticks many of the cycle boxes; singular source, storyline, recurring motifs, but unlike Beethoven’s cycle, Einsamkeit begins and ends in different keys. This is not really a concern for me as, just like Winterreise, the song makes a dramatic journey, if not in actual distance then in consciousness. A whole life is lived in contemplation in that tiny cell. Perhaps only by emulating An die ferne Geliebte Schubert discovered that his preferred cycle text should be a narrative one. In Schubert’s personal journey too we see in this song the growing confidence of a young composer; he was still only twenty-one years old. After enjoying this personal success, the intervening years between Einsamkeit and Die schöne Müllerin gave Schubert the emotional experience as well as the technical mastery to extend this model and knit twenty Müller poems into one phenomenal song cycle.

Robin Tritschler © 2019

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