German Lieder Rarities: Histories Behind the Composers and the Program

Written by AVA Administrative Assistant Stephen J. Trygar
Photo by Don Valentino from AVA’s 2019 New Artist Recital

On December 3rd and 5th, 2019, AVA master vocal coach Luke Housner will accompany and direct our Fall Recital, titled “German Lieder Rarities”. The recital will feature rarely performed pieces by Ludwig van Beethoven, Carl Maria von Weber, Franz Schubert, Alban Berg, and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Tickets are still available for these recitals and can be purchased on our website or by calling (215)735-1685.

In our 2016-2017 season, Mr. Housner directed a Czech recital. When it came time to design a recital program for this year’s recital series, he was inspired by his Czech program’s unique repertoire and sought out to discover more chamber rarities. His first step was to find lieder and concert pieces that were within the German/Austrian tradition; he had been familiar with several of the selections from his undergraduate and graduate studies. Second, he set out to find the vocalists among our Resident Artists that best fit the music. To see Mr. Housner’s selections, participating Resident Artists, and some of his thoughts on the music, visit the recital’s info page on the AVA website!

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

As the son of a court musician and a palace official’s daughter, Ludwig van Beethoven was destined to become one of the most influential and recognized composers. Beethoven’s compositional career would begin as a student of Christian Gottlob Neffe, who would encourage the young composer to seek out Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart as a second teacher. His trip to Vienna to visit Mozart was curtailed by his mother’s death, and his next attempt in 1792 would prove just as unsuccessful as Mozart had recently died. It was in Vienna that Beethoven’s compositions would gain attention, but as his fame grew, his hearing weakened. In 1802, Beethoven would relocate to Heilegenstadt in an attempt to come to terms with his worsening condition. Before too long, Beethoven returned to Vienna, but with a new style of writing. This new period of Beethoven’s styles is commonly known as the “Heroic” Period in reference to the large number of grand-scale works and their heroic temperament. Thoughts of leaving Vienna for Paris, and a failing love life, kept Beethoven busy until his brother Kasper died. His brother’s death sparked a legal dispute between Kaspar’s wife Johanna and Beethoven over the custody of his son Karl; Beethoven saw Johanna as unfit to be a parent due to her financial management and morals. After winning the dispute and improving his health, Beethoven’s creativity would blossom again. With mixed success, he would produce a wide variety of works in an array of styles. The final months of his life were spent in his bed, and he died during a thunderstorm on March 26th, 1827.

Beethoven’s concert aria “Ah! perfido”, Op. 65 was written in 1796, four years after Beethoven had moved to Vienna to study with Mozart. Beethoven had been quite taken by Mozart’s music, and within the 1790s, Beethoven had written several pieces that quoted Mozartian themes: Variations on “Se vuol ballare” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro for violin and piano, WoO 40; Variations on “Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen” from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte for cello and piano, Op. 66; and Variations on “Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen” from Die Zauberflöte for cello and piano, WoO 46. While the style of “Ah! perfido” is reminiscent of Mozart’s, the text also seems to be taken from the mouths of Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni.

Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826)

Despite the nobility particle of “von” in his name, Carl Maria von Weber was born to a family of modest means and no aristocratic affiliation. While Weber had no noble blood, he was born to a musically gifted family. His father, Franz Anton, was a violinist and his mother was a singer. His father’s half-brother, Fridolin, had four musical daughters. Of the four, Constanze would marry Mozart. Franz Anton had high hopes in turning Carl into a child prodigy like his nephew-by-marriage, Mozart. By four years old, Weber was already a gifted singer and pianist. Shortly after his mother’s death in 1798, Weber traveled to Salzburg to study with Joseph Haydn’s younger brother, Michael Haydn, free of charge. That same year, Weber published his first work. Within that period, Weber completed several large works including his first opera. Despite moving several times, Weber would continue to seek out teachers and improve his composition skills. After several issues with his post as Director of the Breslau Opera, Weber served as the private secretary to Duke Ludwig, brother of King Frederick I of Württemberg. His time there was cut short after being arrested for embezzlement, a crime he was innocent of. Nevertheless, Weber and his father were banished from Württemberg. Weber’s late career was dedicated to establishing German opera to retaliate against the growing Italian opera that dominated the European music scene since the 18th century. His health, however, declined after contracting tuberculosis in London. He continued to fulfill his commitments up until he passed away during the night of June 4/5, 1826 at 39 years old.

Weber’s song “Bei der Musik des Prinzen Louis Ferdinand von Preussen”, Op. 43 is certainly a rare gem lost in his large output during 1816. This piece is pulled from a collection of pieces titled Leyer und Schwert with texts from a collection of poems of the same name by Theodor Körner. In his notes, Mr. Housner makes a point to mention that Leyer und Schwert is a musical tribute to Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who was a musician and composer in his own right. “Bei der Musik des Prinzen Louis Ferdinand von Preussen” is particularly special, as Weber combines melodies written by Prince Louis Ferdinand with his own in order to create the ultimate musical homage. In my interview with Mr. Housner, he showed me the music in which Weber notates in the score which melodies are his and which are Prince Louis Ferdinand’s. Not too long after publishing this piece, Weber would begin work on his renowned opera Der Freischütz. Weber’s output around this period would focus on vocal pieces, such as the pieces in Leyer und Schwert, with occasional instrumental works for a change of pace.

Franz Schubert (1797–1828)

Franz Schubert did not start serious musical tuition until 11-years-old after enrolling in the Imperial College. When he left the Imperial College at 16, he became a teacher, but did not give up on his composition career. In 1816, after a failed love affair, Schubert moved to Vienna to focus on his composition, and he abandoned teaching altogether. Within a few years, he left Austria for the first time in order to tutor the offspring of Count Esterházy in Zseliz, Hungary. Despite his success with vocal settings, Schubert’s attempts at writing operas was a massive failure. Instead, he had more success in writing symphonies, and he worked on several of them throughout his career as a composer (leaving one unfinished due to his death in 1828). Although Schubert had great success with his compositions, he died with little recognition of his accomplishments.

Schubert helped to set the standard for the German/Austrian Lieder tradition. In his late teens, Schubert had already composed hundreds of Lieder, including Gretchen am Spinnrade (1814) and Der Erlkönig (1815), then Die Forelle and the song cycles Die schöne Müllerin (1823) and Winerreise (1827) later in his life. Notwithstanding his failure as an opera composer, Schubert brilliantly sets the stage in each of his Lieder. It is this, along with Schubert’s strong ties to nature, that guided Mr. Housner to programming these infrequently performed beauties and proving that Schubert’s greatness was not limited to a few songs.

Alban Berg (1885–1935)

Unlike his forthcoming peer and colleague Anton Webern, Alban Berg’s dilemmas as a schoolboy were self-inflicted. He was distracted by his love of literature, the piano, and girls. His poor academic record inhibited his chances of receiving a university education, but he would work as an unpaid civil service trainee in the meantime. Having already shown promise as a composer, he began his studies in music theory with Arnold Schoenberg after his sister replied on his behalf to Schoenberg’s newspaper advertisement. Schoenberg insisted on three years of music theory before beginning formal composition lessons. In 1911, the year Berg finished his studies with Schoenberg, his family fortunes had reduced drastically. He turned to editorial work, teaching, answering Schoenberg’s frequent and overbearing demands for help, and running the family property for extra money. His time devoted to composition began to dwindle, and to make matters worse, a concert of his music in March of 1913 was ended early after a public brawl broke out. This would change when, after his conscription, he would complete his opera Wozzeck. His compositional output would only continue to grow from there, but on Christmas Eve 1935, Berg would die of blood poisoning from a furuncle, induced by an insect sting. This left his next masterpiece, the opera Lulu, unfinished.

Not yet associated with his teacher Schoenberg, Berg showed an interest in expanding the boundaries of the musical language. His two volume Jugendlieder was amongst the first compositions he wrote (Volume 1, 1901-1904 and Volume 2, 1904-1908). Within the same time frame, Berg had already composed the first setting of Schließe mir die Augen beide—a piece that Mr. Housner has programmed amidst the musical potpourri that is Jugendlieder—and his Piano Sonata, Op. 1. Although there is no true delineation of which voice type is to sing these pieces, Mr. Housner believes these pieces are best sung by a bass due to the low register Berg had set.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957)

Born the second son of the eminent music critic Leopold Julius Korngold, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was surrounded by music from the moment he was born. By the age of five, Korngold was playing four-hand piano arrangements alongside his father in their new home in Vienna, and his composition career started only two years later. His 1909 cantata Gold was played by the young composer for Gustav Mahler, who later called him a “musical genius” and recommended he study with the Austrian composer and conductor Alexander von Zemlinsky. Both Mahler and Richard Strauss felt so strongly of young Korngold’s talent, that they argued against the notion of enrolling him in a music conservatory. By the age of 11, he composed his incredibly successful ballet Der Scheemann. His career continued to grow through his teens, and by the age of 17, he had already completed two operas, Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, and incidental for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Korngold kept himself active in the theatrical scene throughout Europe throughout his 20s. The success of his opera Die tote Stadt, which he conducted himself in many opera houses, secured his success as an international composer. His attention was turned towards Hollywood films around 1935 after being invited to adapt and enlarge Mendelssohn’s score for A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Max Reingardt’s film adaptation of his staging. His career as a film-score writer became so fruitful that he became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1943. After the death of his father in 1945 and the end of World War II, Korngold longed to return to writing music for the concert hall and the stage. In October of 1956, Korngold suffered a severe stroke that he never fully recovered from, and within a month, he had passed away.

Mr. Housner’s selection of Lieder by Korngold spans throughout most of the composer’s life. Sechs Einfache Lieder, Op. 9 was written within the few years prior to his first two operas. These songs were the first pieces of vocal music that Korngold set and served well as practice for his larger vocal projects. During the height of his theatrical music endeavors, Korngold wrote his Drei Lieder, Op. 22 and a song cycle Unvergänglichkeit, Op. 27. His return to concert and stage music involved the release of his operetta Die stumme Serenade, Op. 36; a Cello Concerto in C major, Op. 37; and Fünf Lieder, Op. 38. All of Korngold’s Lieder are so rarely performed, yet so gorgeous, that Mr. Housner found it difficult to choose which pieces to program. He worked with Resident Artist Anne Marie Stanley to see which pieces would best suit her voice and would be most beneficial to the overall program. The result is a perfect representation of Korngold as a writer of German/Austrian Lieder.

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