Sunday, March 15, 2015

Knowing when enough is enough - K.A. Hartmann's "Lamento"

In the last installment of Christine’s Voice, I had just chosen Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi for the Shenson Recital Series at Stanford University. We find our heroine in the library in Frankfurt, on the hunt for repertoire to complete the program....

What might fit in with Messiaen’s cycle of love songs written in 1936, also fitting in with the theme of music surrounding World War II? With this on my mind, I saw, as if laid there by an angel, Lamento by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963) on the shelf in plain sight. 

I opened the book.
Modern? Check! German? Check! Texts about the atrocities of war? Check!

I hadn’t heard of this composer -- to be fair, he hadn’t written much for the voice, and his other works aren’t that popular -- but the more I researched, the more I found his story to be fascinating. In a sort of self-imposed exile (Hartmann himself called it an innere Emigration), he demanded that none of his works be performed in Germany while the Nazis ruled. His compositions enjoyed success in other countries, like Poème symphonique MISERAE, performed 1935 in Prague, and since he was neither Jewish nor otherwise subject to persecution from The Third Reich, he could come and go as he pleased.
In solidarity to his contemporaries whose works had already been deemed degenerate and some who had been forced out of the country or worse, he dedicated the piece to his “friends, 100s of whom had to die, who sleep now for eternity -- we will not forget you.”

Lamento, a reworking of Friede Anno 48 which was a cantata for soprano, chorus and piano, is set to texts by Andreas Gryphius, a German lyric poet of the baroque era. These were sonnets written about the Thirty Years War, which was also the setting of Hartmann’s chamber opera based on Grimmelshausen’s novel The Adventurous Simplicissimus (1668) to which he commented:

“The descriptions of the setting of the Thirty Years War struck me as strangely current. [...] There, the individual was at the mercy of the desolation and savagery of an era, in which our people had already once been close to losing the core of our soul.”

As I read the Gryphius sonnets for the first time that day in the library, I had a similar feeling. Even to this day, in several places around the world, we are in the midst of or on the verge of war. More than 300 years after these texts were written, we continue to use poetry and music to convey our frustration with it, and ‘fight’ against it.

Lamento was one of several of Hartmann’s compositions which emerged as a reworking of another piece. Like his music, our recital program went through many revisions and rewrites before becoming what it is. I had to consider the arc of the program, and although this song cycle conveyed the exact message I would like to get across, bombarding college students on a sunny Sunday afternoon in California with 20 minutes of atonal music lamenting death and destruction just didn’t seem like the way to go.

Was I to leave Lamento altogether? No. We’d come too far by now.  We decided, for the sake of the program as a whole, to cut the third movement from the performance - a 9-minute happy end called “Friede” (Peace) built on two separate Gryphius sonnets. 

As difficult as it was to drop “Friede” from the set -- because this piece contains some of my favorite moments from the Lamento cycle, and since the whole piece serves as a crux for the recital itself -- it still seemed like the right thing to do. At some point, Hartmann himself had to learn to stop revising, changing and perfecting his pieces and just put them out there. 

Even without the third song, we will still be able to bring across Hartmann’s interesting musical language in the context of a program which reflects those he influenced and who influenced him. 

So, I will just leave the text from my favorite passage here for myself, to remember what  drew me into the piece in the first place:

Adding to Gryphius’ words, “... in which sweet peace returns, and one hears a song of thanks instead of raging trumpets...,” Hartmann, suddenly drops the atonal shield between us and our barbaric nature, and embraces a harmonious major chord to add in his own words: “Peace to mankind, Peace to the dead, Peace to the living. Peace, Peace, Peace.”

The Shenson Recital Series: April 12, 2:30p.m. Campbell Recital Hall, Stanford University

Monday, January 26, 2015

Shenson Recital at Stanford: Part 1, Back to the Books

After the recital with Robert Huw Morgan at U.W., 1996
Back in November 2010, when I had the pleasure of singing Gershwin songs with the incomparable Petra Woisetschläger at Die Fabrik in Frankfurt, I wrote a bit about the process of planning and performing recitals. Since then I’ve only sung one other recital, an ambitious concert of songs by American Women Composers for the Archive Frau und Musik, also in Frankfurt, with pianist Sara Okamoto. Now, thanks to the recommendation of my college crony, Robert Huw Morgan, who collaborated with me for two splendidly challenging recitals at the University of Washington, I have another rare occasion to take on the difficult but rewarding task of creating a program for the Shenson Recital Series at Stanford University this April.

For our second recital in Seattle, Robert and I featured the first half of Poèmes pour Mi by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), a nine-song cycle divided into two “books” that the composer wrote for his first wife in 1936.  Inspired by our previous collaboration, we decided it would be appropriate for our reunion (after 19 years!) to pick up where we left off and present the second half of the cycle.

Great. So one set was chosen. I now had to come up with ideas for the remaining three-quarters of an hour of music. This was a daunting prospect -- for a long time you feel like you’re staring at a blank page. Then, when you’re up to your elbows in stacks of music from the library, the sorting out of material is just as formidable a task as coming up with the ideas in the first place. The other recitals that I’ve sung provided me with a framework -- degree requirements, Gershwin, American Women Composers. That really narrowed things down. But for Stanford, I’d been given free rein in choosing the repertoire. So, now all I had to do was sift through 400 years worth of vocal literature and see what caught my eye. Easy peasy.
I proceeded to whittle down the stacks of music by examining a few factors - what’s the venue, who is my audience, and what can I give them that perhaps another singer cannot?

In the Gershwin program, I felt a certain sense of authority to present these songs as an American in Germany. Given that the concert was part of a chanson series, and coupled with a talented improvisational pianist, we could add our “mustard” to it unlike anyone else in the whole neighborhood (in fact, I don’t even think we could perform it the same way twice). For the recital of American Women Composers, I was able to introduce works of women I knew personally, and sing in my own language to boot.

As an American giving a recital in America, however, both of those party tricks wouldn’t impress anybody. And even though I’ve been living and working in Germany for almost two decades, the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, Brahms und Co. are nothing new to the average American student of singing. Nor do I consider myself much of an expert on the Romantic era, even though I share a birthday with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28th - mark your calendar!).

In recent years, I have gained a reputation (and honed an ability) as a singer of “Modern” music. The beginning of the 20th century was a fantastic time for art, when composers broke free from established norms and created their own systems (e.g. Schönberg’s 12-tone music) or ignored the rules completely -- and they have been doing it ever since. This brought my thoughts back to Messiaen and his Seven Modes of Limited Transposition (thanks, graduate school!). Just a few years after he composed Poèmes pour Mi, Messiaen was drafted into the French army, then captured and imprisoned in Görlitz. From there he composed his famous Quatour pour le fin de temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Prompted by his biography which ties him to Germany, albeit in an unpleasant manner, I decided to search for music relevant to World War II, exploring the time frames shortly before, during and shortly after.

So I hoofed it back to the library to start researching. Although the Frankfurt Public Library has a lot to offer, nothing can beat the stacks of  the  University of Washington School of Music Library, where I spent hours at the big wooden table in the alcove, overlooking the collegiate gothic quad strewn with cherry trees, blossoming in the Spring.

Since we performed our last recital 19 years ago, I’m about 19 pounds heavier (maybe more), and Robert’s beard is about 19 inches longer (maybe less). I couldn’t be happier to begin this highly underestimated venture of planning and performing a song recital, for which I am now approximately 19 times more qualified than I was then.

Tune in next time to see what else we have chosen for the program!

Next up -- Karl Amadeus Hartmann (1905-1963): Lamento