Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Trail of MANY "missing" Mendelssohn songs

Big media coverage for a Mendelssohn song, The Heart of Man is Like a Mine, written in 1842. Because it was a private commission it was never published and remained in private hands. It's now being auctioned at Christie's  where it might fetch £15,000 - £25,000. Yet manuscripts like these aren't exactly rare. Imagine the media hysteria if some unknown work by Mozart or Schubert were found? When dodgy bits of "evidence" or  trivia about a composer come up, the world goes agog with frenzy. But a few years ago a trove of  46 "unknown" songs by Mendelssohn were unearthed, there was hardly a ripple in the press because the songs were found in  the Bodleian Library in Oxford, donated via his grandchildren, (of whom there were many). Some documents are more significant than others but some get money grabbing headlines.
Mendelssohn was so prolific that he simply didn't get around to cataloguing and publishing all he wrote. He was a workaholic, a genius in many fields. Apart from composing, he was a virtuoso pianist and violinist, a painter, an athlete, and a formidable organizer of orchestras and cultural events. He spent his gap year in the Scottish Highlands, in those days very remote and primitive. He died aged only 38, weakened by exhaustion. The "unknown" songs were scattered among his manuscripts, which have since themselves been scattered around the world. There's a big cache of Mendelssohn papers in the Bodleian Library in Oxford,  so that's where Eugene Asti, the pianist and music historian,  went to follow the trail of the "missing" songs.

Mendelssohn's penmanship was so clear that the manuscripts were easy to transcribe, even though the composer wrote quickly, with great fluency. Tracking down the poems was in most cases straightforward - Goethe, Holty, Uhland - but others proved more elusive since some were written by the composer himself, and in Fraktur, the old-style German script that most people can't read today. Mendelssohn's letters and papers provide background into how and when the songs were written, and for whom. Intriguingly, there are references to yet more unknown songs.

What's even more remarkable is how good some of these songs are. Nachtlied, from 1847, should take its place in any anthology of Eichendorff settings. Two lovely matching strophes blossom into swelling, soaring lines as the song describes a nightingale, greeting the dawn.

Altdeutsches Frühlingslied, also from the same period towards the end of Mendelssohn's life, is another masterpiece. The piano part is brooding, melancholy, figures repeating like circles, reflecting the despair that lies under the ostensibly cheerful text (Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld 1591-1635). Spring has returned after a hard winter, "everyone is happy, wallowing almost in pleasure" (wonderful idiomatic translation by Richard Stokes). But the protagonist quietly states Nur ich allein, Ich liede Pein. In the winter just past, someone very dear him was taken away. So much nonsense is written about Mendelssohn being "happy" and mindless. This song is further evidence how silly the myth is. Mendelssohn wasn't given to unseemly display, he didn't flaff about. But his emotions ran very deep indeed. The deeply felt intensity of the final verse breaks through the polite homilies to Spring, chilling the atmosphere. Mendelssohn's beloved sister Fanny had just passed away, but feelings as passionate as these spring from veryt deep sources in the composer's personality.

Part of the reason Mendelssohn songs don't grab the average listener at first is that they don't word paint the way we're used to. Goethe is famously supposed to have rejected Schubert's settings of his poems. There's no direct evidence he even saw them, but it fits in with ideas prevalent in Goethe's circles which considered noble ideas and text more important than musical invention. Mendelssohn was very much in Goethe's orbit. Goethe adored the young Mendelssohn, introducing him to composers he knew, like Zelter. So Mendelssohn is very much a part of that neo-classical sensibility, where people didn't do unseemly self-display. Nonetheless, Mendelssohn was far too original not to connect to the early Romantic mode. He just did it in a different, more self-effacing way. Mendelssohn songs are an important thread in song development: at times you can hear where Schumann and Brahms got their ideas from.

The Goethean mindset certainly doesn't preclude passion. Die Liebende schreibt, an 1830 setting of Goethe, is surprisingly erotic. The poet's so much in love that his whole being focuses on the idea of a letter from the beloved. Yet in his quietly observant way, Mendelssohn has picked up that the beloved does not actually respond. The composer puts his emphasis on the small phrase "Gib mir ein Zeichen", (give me a sign). The word Zeichen repeats, ever louder and more passionately, as if Mendelssohn is reminding us that it's been sent out in hope, and there might, conceivably, be no answer.

Lots of other beautiful songs, too, like Seltsam, Muter, geht es mir (1830 to Johannes Ludwig Casper). The young girl's thrilled by the physical sensation of being in love, like the rising of sap in spring. Mendelsson expresses her excitement with breathless, rollicking lines: you can almost feel the girl's heart beat faster and faster. The punchline's hilarious, the girl doesn't know why her mother knows about such things. This, incidentally, is a song discovered only in 2007 when the manuscript came up for sale, having been uncatalogued and in private hands for 150 years.  Asti's work is informed by his experience as a pianist, so his new edition of the "unknown" songs for Bärenreiter are specially valuable for practical performance. It's very detailed, lots of notes on critical decisions made and background material which will enrich interpretation. Serious Mendelssohn singers and painists need this work. HERE is a link to the edition on Bärenreiter's site.

The Oxford Lieder Festival brings treasures like this all the time, which is why it's such an important series for serious music people. Oxford Lieder was crucial in bringing the "lost" songs to public attention, hosting recitals of "premieres", where singers were accompanied by Eugene Asti himself. Some of these songs  were written for private performance, like Lied zum Geburtstage meines guten Vaters, which the 10-year-old Felix wrote for his father's birthday in 1819. His sister Fanny wrote a song too, it must have been quite some party.

Mendelssohn wrote many part songs because they suit performances where people sing and play for pleasure, not to display technique. In his understated way, Mendelssohn gets to the heart of why music is so much fun for ordinary people. The final song in this concert was Volkslied, a song where the whole ensemble could join together. Written in 1839, it was performed at the composer's funeral service a few years later. Different soloists sing different lines, but they unite in the full-throated final verse, Wenn Menschen auseinander gehn, so sagen sie : Auf Wiedersehen ! The last two words repeat again and again as if the composer can't bear to let them end. Yet the same notes appear throughout the song, in different guises, so if you hear the song again, it's haunted by "Auf Wiedersehen".

1 comment:

Renate Laich-K said...

Zelter was Mendelssohn's teacher, also friend of Goethe, so Zelter intrduced Mendelssohn to Goethe :-)