Sunday, 21 June 2015

The Curse of the Lieder Recital


What is the curse of the Lieder Recital? Are the performers feeling unwell (singers "are" their instruments)? Or someone coughing? Or an unanswered phone? Such things can be accidents. The real curse of a Lieder recital is when audience members keep their noses in the programme. Of course poetry counts. Composers wouldn't be writing song if they didn't want to communicate the meaning of a poem. But composers write music. Words and music cannot be separate. Burying your nose in the programme means you're not really listening.

So what if you don't know the song? Get the gist of the text by reading up beforehand, then listening to how the composer interprets meaning by developing the musical setting.  In song, words and music cannot be separate. What really matters is what the composer thinks about the poem, not what the reader thinks.  Good poems inspire multiple interpretations,. In any case, how can anyone who doesn't know a song, or a poem, or a language, think they can automatically know everything simply by reading? It's the curse of Fast Food thinking. There's no need to digest a song in one gulp. Many Lieder fans savour favourite songs over the whole course of their lives. Quickfix is a sign of arrogance, as if the consumer can get everything first time round, like consuming a product. As in all things, learning takes time.

Lieder recitals are also interactive. Performers communicate. It's horrible to sing or play when the audience isn't paying attention . Performers need feedback to give their best: you can't blame them if they freeze because they know the audience is more interested in reading the programme than relating to the performance? Why sing or play when no-one's interested  Live recitals are not like recordings. Each performance is very different, even if the singer has done the same material 1000 times. Some folk should just stay at home with a CD. Eventually that will kill the art altogether, which thrives on human interaction.

Much better to read the text beforehand, to get the general spirit. Don['t worry about exactitude. Poetry isn't like that. Listen to the performers, absorb the music, react to their body language. But above all, listen. What does the composer bring out in a poem? How does that make you feel? That emotional engagement is the start of good listening. You can get it all wrong but at least you've learned to listen and feel.

One very good exercise I recommend is listening to new songs in a language which you don't understand. Then you are focusing on the song and the ideas it generates. The more you listen, the more you learn . Real understanding comes through that process, not just from print.

Above, an engraving of Franz Liszt. Notice how the audience are listening intently. It's a piano recital - no singer - but chances are they'd be paying attention anyway. Even the kid is alert.  That is how people were in the 19th century, much more formal than now. These days, it's fashionable for people like Alex Ross and his followers to say it's OK to clap, wander around and generally act up in performance. In some things maybe, and in some cultures. By all means spontaneous reactions like clapping something genuinely surprising, but serious listeners pay attention, because that's what good music deserves.  Listening is about caring about what other people think. A good lesson for life in general.

1 comment:

Olivier Masson said...

Composers like Schubert were they so much 'rejected' because they were not listened to rather than understood against a set system of values? Is philology the solution for reappraisal ?