"Heiss mich nicht reden," D. 877, No. 2; "So lasst mich scheinen," D. 877, No. 3; "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt," D. 877, No. 4; "Kennst du das Land," D. 321; "Der König in Thule," D. 367; "Gretchen am Spinnrade," D. 118; "Gretchens Bitte," D. 564 (fragment, completed Benjamin Britten)
In Goethe's novel, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), the character Mignon is a mysterious adolescent girl who was kidnapped from her native Italy at a young age and then rescued from her harsh life in a German acrobatic troupe by the title character Wilhelm Meister, with whom she falls in love. She symbolizes humanity's two natures—earthly and spiritual, male and female—and her life is governed by Sehnsucht, or "longing," a form of Romantic desire that manifests itself as affliction. In her songs, she reaches out for the lost and irretrievable ideal.
"Heiss mich nicht reden" is introduced in an offhand manner in Goethe's Book V, Chapter 6, as "a poem Mignon had recited once or twice with great expressiveness." She made a vow to the Virgin Mary, who promised her protection as she was being kidnapped, that she would never tell her story and would live and die in expectation of divine intervention. Schubert sets these grave words to the dactylic rhythms (long-short-short) that often indicate cosmic matters in his songs and ends with a blaze of proto-Wagnerian harmonies.
"So lasst mich scheinen" comes from Book VIII, Chapter 2, when Wilhelm's eventual bride Natalie tells him about a birthday party at which Mignon played the part of an angel. Refusing to take off her costume, she sings this song foretelling her transcendence after death in strains devoid of anger, self-pity, or even resignation. Throughout much of the song, Schubert maintains a repeated pitch hidden inside the piano's chords, as if it were the emblem of the land beyond death on which her gaze is fixed.
In the novel, "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt" is presented as Wilhelm's incomplete transcription of a duet sung by the Harper and Mignon, but many musical settings are written just for Mignon. This is Schubert's sixth and final version of this poem; its music is a reworking of an earlier song, "Ins stille Land." In the song, Mignon cannot yet see beyond her yearning and suffering.
At the beginning of Book III of the novel, Mignon sings "Kennst du das Land" with "a certain solemn grandeur, as if ... she were imparting something of importance." Schubert imbues her memories of her native Italy with the solemnity and expressivity Goethe wanted, and then ends each stanza with the urgent refrain "Dahin! Dahin!" ("There! There!") and an appeal to her "Beloved, Protector, Father" (Wilhelm) to take her there.
Schubert's Songs from Faust
In Part I of Goethe's Faust about a character whose aspirations partake both of sublimity and depravity, Gretchen is the archetypal good village girl. She is seduced by Faust with the help of the devil's emissary Mephistopheles, and then executed after she murders her baby in despair (though her soul is saved).
In the scene entitled "Evening," Gretchen sings "Der König in Thule" just before she discovers the casket of jewels that Faust and Mephistopheles have left for her. Ultima Thule was the legendary name for the ends of the earth, and this tiny ballad tells of a king faithful to his beloved beyond her death and until his own—but Gretchen will not know such love. Schubert invests this deceptively simple strophic song with the antique aura of a tale of bygone times.
In the scene "Gretchen's Room," she sits at her spinning wheel and sings of peace of mind lost to desire in "Gretchen am Spinnrade"; Goethe reshuffled the order of the scenes over the years, and Schubert would have read the version in which Gretchen is newly awakened to passion, but not yet seduced. This song burst onto the compositional stage like an epiphany; here, the primal power of female sexuality is unleashed in wave upon wave of harmonies that make the head spin. That a 17-year-old young man wrote it is forever astonishing.
In the scene "Gretchen at the City Ramparts," the pregnant Gretchen, aware of disgrace to come, prays to a statue of the Virgin placed in a niche in the town walls. "Gretchens Bitte" is a fragment: The final three stanzas of her desperate prayer are not to be found here. Composer Benjamin Britten, one of the greatest Schubert accompanists of the 20th century, completed the fragment.
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"Die Nacht," Op. 10, No. 3; "Morgen," Op. 27, No. 4; "Schlechtes Wetter," Op. 69, No. 5; "September," from Four Last Songs; "Befreit," Op. 39, No. 4
A Smorgasbord of Strauss
From an early song to one of his last utterances, from storminess to utmost intimacy, the five Strauss songs on tonight's program tell of the composer's lifelong engagement with this genre. "Actually, I like my songs best," he once told bass-baritone Hans Hotter; upon hearing these selections, one understands why.
Strauss's first song opus was Acht Gedichte aus Letzte Blätter, Op. 10, set to texts by Hermann von Gilm, a 19th-century Austrian civil servant. In "Die Nacht," the moonlight that seems to rob everything of its color and substance could, the lover fears, rob him of his beloved; but to the young Strauss, nocturnal ecstasy trumps menace.
The poet of "Morgen," John Henry Mackay, was known for leftist—even anarchistic—leanings that endeared him to the young Strauss, who was also a rebel against convention. But for his wedding gift to his bride, soprano Pauline de Ahna, Strauss chose not political verse but Mackay's blissful vision of union on the "sun-breathing earth."
The witty, tender, ironic genius Heinrich Heine skewers bourgeois society in many of his poems. In "Schlechtes Wetter," a mother goes out in dreadful weather to buy the ingredients of a cake for her spoiled daughter at home. Strauss brews a great tempest in the piano and spins a half-ironic, half-rhapsodic passage for the singer to hymn the maiden's golden hair.
At the end of the war, Strauss wrote, "The most terrible period of human history is at an end—the 12-year reign of bestiality, ignorance, and anti-culture under the greatest criminals, during which Germany's 2,000 years of cultural evolution met its doom." Strauss was responding to more than old age when he composed the works of his final decade, including the Four Last Songs. In the second song, "September," summer is aware of its imminent end as the golden leaves of autumn—the season of approaching death—begin to fall. Desirous of rest, it closes its weary eyes at the end, just as the composer of this exquisite self-elegy would do not long after.
Richard Dehmel, whose 1896 poetic anthology Weib und Welt caused a scandal for its eroticism, did not like Strauss's setting of his poem "Befreit," thinking the music "a little too soft for the poem." Here, a lover releases his beloved to the death they both know is coming. If the song begins quietly, there are sufficient climactic moments to thrill us, if not the picky poet.
© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation
"Ich möchte hingehn"; "Der du von dem Himmel bist"; "Freudvoll und leidvoll"; "Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh"; "Die Loreley"
Liszt and the Lied
"My orphaned songs," Franz Liszt once called his repertory of songs in German, French, English, Hungarian, and Italian in expression of his hope that singers might take up these works. A collaborator with some of Europe's best singers, including French tenor Adolphe Nourrit and the husband-wife duo of Hans Feodor and Rosa von Milde, Liszt used song as a laboratory in which to experiment with "music of the future."
Georg Herwegh was a fiery political poet during the mid-century revolutions, but "Ich möchte hingehn" is a lengthy meditation on the kinds of "good death" that Nature affords. Human beings, however, must suffer heartbreak before their end. It is no wonder that a poem on such a subject would inspire Liszt to create music that prophesies Wagner's opera of Eros and Death, Tristan und Isolde.
Liszt revisited an earlier, more extravagant setting of Goethe's "Der du von dem Himmel bist" for publication later in his life; what was extroverted earlier becomes a more inward experience. He did likewise with "Freudvoll und leidvoll" from Act III of Goethe's drama Egmont. This famous poem-for-music had already been set to music by Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Carl Friedrich Zelter, Beethoven, and Schubert before Liszt's lavish strains in 1844.
Goethe's "Wandrers Nachtlied II," or "Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh'" is one of the greatest masterpieces of German verse. Written on the wall of a wooden hut at the peak of the Kickelhahn mountain near Ilmenau, it begins by evoking the onset of night and then transforms "evening" into the imminent end of life. In the quiet, descending chords in the piano at the beginning of Liszt's second version, we hear musical peace descend on the landscape.
"Die Loreley" was a mythical figure invented in the first years of the 19th century by Romantic writer Clemens Brentano. A descendant of Homer's sirens, this golden-haired archetype of female eroticism sits atop a rocky promontory on the Rhine River and lures sailors to shipwreck with her beautiful singing. Poet Heinrich Heine would subsequently write a haunting poem about her, and Liszt was so entranced by it that he set it to music five times. We hear the second version: Not surprisingly from so great a pianist, the siren's song is in the piano.
© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation
"Heiss mich nicht reden"; "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt"; "So lasst mich scheinen"; "Kennst du das Land"
Hugo Wolf's Mignon
These songs are the product of the third "miracle year" in the history of German lied: Schubert in 1815, Schumann in 1840, and Hugo Wolf in 1888—the year he found his mature voice as a composer. He composed 51 songs set to poems from Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, and placed them at the beginning of the published volume in defiance of the many settings that preceded his, among them, those by Schubert and Schumann.
Wolf sets Mignon's oath never to speak of her past in "Heiss mich nicht reden," with his characteristic post-Wagnerian harmonic idiom expressing both the depths of despair and the heights of desperate longing.
Wolf's Mignon sings "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt" ("Only those who know longing know what I suffer!") to a descending line redolent of depression and despair, and then leaps back into higher registers to tell of the joy she can never have. When she invokes the Old Testament image of burning bowels, the offbeat chords in the piano quicken to impassioned throbbing before she lapses back into the post-Wagnerian suffering of the beginning.
For the first and third verses, and again in the piano at the end of "So lasst mich scheinen," we hear the same quietly poignant strains; but Mignon's plea "Make me forever young again" at the close, with its unforgettable octave leaps in the vocal line, is of shattering intensity.
Once again, we hear Mignon remember her lost Italian homeland—its orange groves, its myrtle and laurel trees, the palace where she once lived, the misty mountains—in "Kennst du das Land." For this highly symmetrical strophic poem, Wolf sets each of the first two reminiscences as a slow, expressive meditation filled with sighing figures, then allows passion to burst forth in the two-stage refrains at the end of each verse: first, at the start of the question, "Do you know it?"; and then in even greater urgency for the repeated pleas, "Dahin! Dahin!" ("There! There!"). For the third verse—with its dragon-infested caves, its waterfalls over rocky heights—Wolf liquefies the piano in orchestral-sounding tremolos that lead to a massive climax.
© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation