“Der kleine Tod” in Canada, with Ralph Stelzenmüller

On Friday, 11 January, Ralph and I revisited one of my favourite programmes, “Der kleine Tod”. Berg: 4 Gesänge, Op. 2, Strauss: 4 Lieder, Op. 27, Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder, WWV91. I’ve put our programme note below: it’s a physically and psychologically challenging programme for both singer and pianist, where the particular ordering of the sets from latest to earliest brings out unifying features that serve to create an entirely new cycle, spanning all three sets. It was great to come back to the university where I first encountered some of this music and the analytical approaches used to make sense of it, and to see again many old friends and teachers.

Alban Berg’s Vier Gesänge Op. 2 are often regarded as a turning point. The first song is composed in a highly-chromatic but still recognisably tonal harmonic language, and describes the speaker’s escape from pain, by wrapping himself in the restfulness of sleep. The vestiges of tonality are further obscured in the second and third songs: although they have conventional key signatures and can be interpreted as a dominant-tonic pair, every single note is given an accidental, and the second song is often analysed in terms of alternating whole-tone scales. These two songs are thematically linked, evoking a dramatically eventful dream world and the image of returning home to an intense sense of alienation. Of the last song, Schönberg said that he thought the principles underlying its musical language would be discovered by future musicologists: it was featured in a volume of essays dedicated to the topic of the pitch-class set genera theories of Western’s own Richard Parks, and Allen Forte (1998). Though frequently the subject of analytical exercises (Frauke’s first encounter with “Schlafend trägt man mich” was in third-year theory at Western with Alan Heard), this very dark and beautiful cycle is not performed nearly as often as it deserves.

Richard Strauss’s Vier Lieder, Op. 27 were dedicated to his wife. The cycle contains several of his most famous songs, including “Morgen”. The deceptively light-hearted poems of the two middle songs are raised to contemplative transcendence by the framing songs, which resemble recitative in their surface simplicity. The first song pushes the extreme boundaries of late-Romantic chromaticism, beginning with sonorities very similar to Berg’s conclusion, followed by a long turbulent journey to a clear, sunny C major, as the troubled soul (just as in Berg’s “Dem Schmerz sein Recht”) sinks into the oblivion of rest. The second song addresses the absent lover, suggesting that both rest and ecstatic understanding of life are found in togetherness, and this theme is continued in the third song, an altogether more direct invitation to leave a party and disappear into a rose-scented night garden. In the sunny morning of the fourth song, the united lovers descend to the beach, and gaze at each other in blissful silence. This bliss is reached via a Neapolitan chord, carrying fateful harmonic implications: whether these imply transcendence of the turbulence of the first song, or something altogether darker, is left open, as the blissful silence dissolves in delicate G major arpeggios.

Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck-Lieder are perhaps more familiar in their orchestral versions. However, the cycle was initially composed for female voice and piano, and Wagner himself orchestrated only two of the songs. Beginning tonally and gesturally where Strauss’s cycle finishes, they paint the clandestine love affair of Wagner (thinly disguised as a rescuing angel to a suffering soul in the first song) and the poet Mathilde Wesendonck. Compared with Strauss’s Op. 27, which was composed about 30 years later, these songs appear startlingly modern in their harmonic language and vocal line, while other aspects such as the treatment of the piano are more reminiscent of Wagner’s close contemporaries, such as Schumann. In the second song, two souls fuse to transcend the material world, and dissolve together in the harmony of the spheres, which is reached through an astonishing chromatic journey from C minor to C major. The central song, “Im Treibhaus”, uses the metaphor of hot-house plants displaced from their home-land to express Wesendonck’s unhappiness with her marriage situation. The slithering harmonies and lack of satisfaction produced by constant plagal cadences link this song most closely back to the first of Berg’s Op. 2, as the speaker wraps herself in the darkness of silence.  Both in Wagner’s increasingly-unstable harmonic language and in the poetic metaphors of dreaming, dying, and home-coming, we come full circle to the beginning of this programme in the last two songs.

Link to the concert series: https://music.uwo.ca/events/fridays.html

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