The magic of classical song springs from the fact that it requires a singer and accompanist to construct an entire emotional universe in a very short amount of time. You cannot hold onto a song, as you can sit as you ponder details in a painting, sculpture, or other visual creation. Nor, unless the performance has been recorded, can you replay it other than in your mind. Once the notes are sounded, and the words enunciated, only a song’s impact remains.
Art song demands that artists paint an emotional canvas so rich and meaningful that, in just a few minutes, they convey feelings and truths about human existence that other musical forms can take hours to express. The soprano playing Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly), Mimi (La Bohème), or Violetta (La Traviata) has an entire evening in which to express the tragedy of falling in love, separating, and dying much too soon. Contrast that with the challenge facing the singer and accompanist who attempt to create the three characters – father, child, and Earl King – in Schubert’s dramatic song, “Der Erlkönig” (The Earl King)
Those artists have only four or so minutes in which to re-enact the desperate dialogue between loving father and clinging child that is punctuated by the child’s visitation from the beyond, and then ended by the child’s death.
That art song has declined in popularity, certainly in the United States, is due, in part, to the language barrier. While there now exists a substantial body of English language art songs (Purcell, Dowland, Britten, Quilter, Copland, Barber, Rorem, Heggie, Hoiby, Gordon, Bolcom), art song first flowered with the creations of 18th and 19th century German (Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven to Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Brahms and Strauss), French (Gounod, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Hahn, Poulenc, Messiaen, Dutilleux), Spanish (Falla, Montsalvage), Russian (Mussorgsky, Shostakovich), and other European composers.
As the large wave of Europeans who emigrated to the United States from the late 19th century through WWII has aged and died off, so has the number of people who can understand what artists are singing about without aid of translations decreased dramatically. In an age of instant gratification, where a single Snapchat, “like,” photograph, or 140-character tweet takes the place of extended conversation, the notion of constantly moving one’s eyes between printed translations and the artists onstage has become far less appealing.
Regardless of its popularity, the fundamental beauty and communicative power of art song remains intact. Rarefied though it may seem to some, song remains the supreme avenue by which a singer can demonstrate their ability to reach beyond the confines of the stage or recordings and touch the listener’s heart.
What Is of Value
My initial foray into art song was by way of opera. I was 11 years old when my father brought home a three-record reissue set of tenor Enrico Caruso, and put on the sextet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14tdvxUvxFU
When I exclaimed, “Daddy, I’ve heard that before!”, he replied, “Yeah, you broke it when you were two.”
I had no idea of what Caruso and his co-artists were singing about; all I knew is that I could feel the passion and suffering in their voices. The way they used their instruments to convey emotion and tell stories touched me in the center of my being. From this came my bottom line as concerns he communicative power of the human voice, and its ability to transmit emotion through sound. The singing must touch my heart or gut in ways meaningful to me.
When, less than a decade after reconnecting with Caruso, I began browsing regularly in record stores, I first encountered the songs of Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms. Immediately, I listened for which singers touched my heart.
Soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf initially impressed me with the sheer beauty and fluidity of her sound, and the myriad colors and expressive gestures she crated with her voice. She was, in many ways, a supreme artist, whose early mono recordings of Mozart’s Exsultate, Jubilate :
—and Bach’s solo cantata, Jauchtzet Gott in allen Landen:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDyjjGtvxgU —both reissued on a single Seraphim LP, I carried with me from coast to coast.
I discuss both recordings in their latest remastering in a review for Stereophile, found here.
What to listen for
Before long, I discovered other sopranos – specifically Lotte Lehmann:
—and (later) Elisabeth Schumann, in German repertoire::
—and Maggie Teyte in French—whose singing felt far more genuine:
Even if I didn’t have translations for the songs these women sang, I sensed that they believed wholeheartedly in the music and words, to the point that the feelings they expressed radiated from the depth of their being. Their singing was so emotionally expressive that it felt as though their voices were windows on their souls.
Emotional and spiritual truth are, for me, the bottom line. As with politicians, it’s a case of whom I believe. Listening carefully, you can discover what feels like a genuine response to the material at hand, and what feels like artifice.
Some singers pay a huge amount of attention to the sounds and meanings of certain vowels, consonants, and syllables; others chose to put the majority of their attention on the arc of the vocal line. Some do both.
More important than what a singer chooses to emphasize is if their singing comes from the heart rather than the head. As much as the mind is at play as a singer develops their response to a song, what is essential is that voice and interpretation remain true to feelings directly inspired by the song at hand.
Equally important is the spiritual resonance of the artist. While far from every song is about spirituality or faith, virtually all communicate elements of spiritual truth. Whether someone is singing about love, pain, or smoking a cigarette, their performance, if great, speaks to the humanity within each of us, and our relationship with each other and, ultimately, the planet.
Finally, there are vocal limitation to take into account. Some singers capable of long inhalations are capable of sustaining long-held notes, as well as complete lines of text, without breaks. For those who must breathe, the question must be, do breaths come in appropriate places that do not interfere with musical flow and meaning?
Singers also have expressive limitations. Some singers are sweet human beings who, even when they express anger and rage, maintain their sweetness. It is hard to imagine such singers playing bloodthirsty roles. Other singers have no problem whatsoever in letting go, and altering their sound accordingly. Yet others have such an inherent sense of suffering and pain, or are so stuck in / attached to one emotional way of being that their lighthearted singing fails to convince.
Then there are the singers with special gifts:
—The radiance and impeccability of Elly Ameling https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYbomphH-lM
—The golden light, charm, devotion, and disarming depth of Elisabeth Schumann https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v6_gSBvX8rw
—The vocal profundity and uncommon sensitivity of basso Alexander Kipnis https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pikf4oGW5HI;
—The elegance, tenderness, caress, and impeccable enunciation of baritone Gerard Souzay https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GLx8gHxnGKQ;
—The extraordinary depth, sweetness, dynamic range, and insights of baritone Matthias Goerne https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIygXEAvjGw
—The smooth sensuality of Susan Graham
—The sincerity, honesty, beauty of voice, and sacred faith of Janet Baker https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d7Kj7R4BxxU,
…Lorraine Hunt Lieberson https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHDJ3YXH4yU,
…and Kathleen Ferrier:
—The downward portamento, sadness, exquisite phrasing, and surprisingly pure top that rises out of the depths of Maggie Teyte https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBT27ipaNwQ
—The passion, thrill, nostalgia, wisdom, vibrancy, and heart of Lotte Lehmann;
—And the gifts of the other singers mentioned in this introduction come immediately to mind. Need I say that they all have very different, often astoundingly beautiful voices?
I am hardly a proponent of YouTube as a source of vocal music. The sound quality is inferior, and far too many of the audio and video performances posted on the site are ripped off and posted illegally. Nonetheless, the place is a goldmine, both for first-listens that can lead to subsequent acquisitions in better sound, and for rare material that is available nowhere else.
Hence, to YouTube we shall head once again to discover how much poetic depth the great bass-baritone Hans Hotter and pianist Gerald Moore share in this set of seven Schubert songs (lieder): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zyOSdjx_pt0. Hotter was 40 at the time he recorded these in 1949, and had already been singing professionally for 19 years. His great Wagner recordings with Keilberth and Solti were yet to come.
Although Hotter is best known to opera lovers as the supreme embodiment of Wagner’s thunderous god, Wotan, he pares down his huge voice to begin with Schubert’s sacred hymn to music, “An die Musik”.
Below is the translation of the song. (Translations for the remainder of the songs in Hotter’s set, as well as for other songs discussed in this article, may be found online through simple Google searches.)
Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden,
Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,
Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb’ entzunden,
Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt,
In eine beßre Welt entrückt!
Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf’ entflossen,
Ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir,
Den Himmel beßrer Zeiten mir erschlossen,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir!
You, noble Art, in how many grey hours,
When life’s mad tumult wraps around me,
Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Have you transported me into a better world,
Transported into a better world!
Often has a sigh flowing out from your harp,
A sweet, divine harmony from you
Unlocked to me the heaven of better times,
You, noble Art, I thank you for it,
You, noble Art, I thank you!
As the set continues, Hotter intersperses soft and lyrical songs with others far more declamatory. In the span of 20 minutes, we discover that the man who could rage like the best, and then imbue his voice with extraordinary compassion, can bare his soul without restraint as he conveys a vast range of emotions, some of which are quite intimate.
Hotter’s set concludes with two of Schubert’s settings of poems by Goethe, “Wanderers Nachtlied” (Wanderers Night Song) I and II. Hotter recorded both songs – especially “Wanderers Nachtlied II,” on multiple occasions, with every performance differing in tempo, phrasing, and word emphasis. His conclusion to the second song, where he sings of the peace that comes with surrender, sleep, and death, is as mesmerizing as it is profound. This is great artistry.
In Part Two of this introduction to art song, we’ll listen to multiple interpretations of the same song, and then discuss one of the leading exponents of art song in the latter half of the 20th century.