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Sarah Connolly

Songs of a Wayfarer

13 October 2023, 7:30pm - 9:00pm

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A truly thrilling opening-night concert for this year’s Festival, with two of the world’s best-known artists: Sarah Connolly and Imogen Cooper. They perform songs by Robert Schumann, Carl Loewe and Henri Duparc, before concluding with Mahler’s richly evocative Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer).

Tonight’s concert begins with a 15-minute Emerging Artist performance, showcasing the very best of the next generation. Tonight, Guy Elliott and Hamish Brown perform Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (see Event 3).

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Notes on the Programme

Beethoven: An die ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved)

An die ferne Geliebte is widely considered to be the first ever song cycle – it was certainly the first time that a major composer had organised a group of songs with piano accompaniment into a coherent whole. The theme of the distant beloved, however, had loomed large in Beethoven’s Lieder a long time before the composition of his only cycle: ‘Adelaide’(1794-5), ‘An den fernen Geliebten’ (1809), ‘Lied aus der Ferne (1809), ‘Andenken’ (1809), ‘Der Jüngling in der Fremde’ (1809), ‘Sehnsucht’ (‘Was zieht mir das Herz so’) (1810) all deal specifically with the theme of separation before Beethoven wrote his celebrated letter to ‘The Immortal Beloved’, which dates from July 1812. Although An die ferne Geliebte was composed four years after that tortured outpouring, there is enough evidence to suggest that he was still obsessed by the unknown woman, and that the cycle was an attempt to banish her from his mind. A month after its composition Beethoven confided to Ferdinand Ries, his intimate composer and pianist friend, that he had found ‘only one woman whom I shall doubtless never possess’; and Fanny Giannatasio del Rio, whose father owned the boarding school which Beethoven’s nephew attended in 1816-18, confided to her diary on 16 September 1816 a conversation she had overheard between her father and Beethoven, who confessed how he had become acquainted with a person, “a more intimate union with whom” he would have considered the greatest happiness of his life. It was however not to be thought of, it was almost impossible, a chimera. “I have still not been able to banish it from my mind” were the Beethoven words that affected Fanny most profoundly.

Whatever the truth of Fanny’s diary entries (scholars have usually considered them to be honest), it is clear that Beethoven at the time of An die ferne Geliebte was still obsessed by some powerful, unconsummated relationship – and he was still to compose two more songs on precisely the same theme: ‘Ruf vom Berge’ (December 1816) and ‘Gedenke mein’ (1819-20). It seems very likely, moreover, that the poems of the cycle were written expressly at Beethoven’s request. Since no evidence of collaboration between composer and poet has come down to us, we can only guess at what might have happened. Alois Jeitteles (or Aloys Jeiteles) was a doctor by profession, not a poet. He was born in Brno in 1794, and his medical studies took him to Vienna, where he wrote some poems for Ignaz Castelli’s anthology Selam (1815), the same publication which provided Schubert with the poems for some of his songs.

Though Jeitteles’s verse appeared in several almanacs, the poems were never published in book form, and Beethoven was probably delighted to have found a virtually unknown collaborator who was not only musical and cultured but almost certainly willing to be directed. Each of the six poems is dominated by the image of the distant beloved. Auf dem Hügel sitz ich spähend tells us of their first meeting (‘in the distant meadows’) and their subsequent separation which, we are told, is a torment (‘Qual’) to both of them. Wo die Berge so blau expresses the poet’s obsessive wish (the ‘wo’ is mentioned four times) to be by her side. His reverie is banished in the next song, Leichte Segler in den Höhen, in which he begs the scudding clouds, rippling brook and gusting breeze to convey to her his longing. The same idea (and the same key) is continued in Diese Wolken in den Höhen which contains the only sensuous phrase in the cycle that describes the breeze frolicking about her cheeks and breast and burrowing in her silken locks. All these fond imaginings, however, vanish in the fifth song, Es kehret der Maien, es blühet die Au, as the poet comes down to earth with a bump, and the joy of all nature (especially the conjugal bliss of the swallow) is contrasted with the barrenness of his own love, which leads him to conclude in Nimm sie hin denn diese Lieder – with a mixture of reverence and stoicism – that only through his poetry will he be at one with the object of his desire. 

    © Richard Stokes

*****

Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer)

It was Mahler’s anguished relationship with the singer Johanna Richter that inspired his first masterpiece, the Songs of a Wayfaring Journeyman cycle. In June 1883 the composer had landed his first major appointment, as music director at the Kassel opera. His affair with Johanna began shortly afterwards and dragged on until late1884. In its original version for voice and piano, the Gesellen cycle was essentially by 1 January 1885, just after the relationship had ended. That day Mahler wrote to his friend Friedrich Löhr: ‘I have composed a cycle of songs… all of which are dedicated to her…The songs are planned as a whole in such a way that it is as if a travelling journeyman now sets out into the world and wanders in solitude.’

Mahler wrote the texts for the Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen himself, under the influence of the folk collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The cycle has been aptly dubbed Mahler’s Frühlingsreise, a latter-day counterpart to Winterreise. As in Schubert’s cycle a jilted lover sets out on his aimless wandering, haunted by memories of the affair and the girl’s blue eyes. The first song, ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’, contrasts Slavonic-flavoured wedding piping with the lover’s own grief on his sweetheart’s wedding day, and his delight in the natural world, evoked with a turn to from D minor to E flat and a lulling 6/8 motion. In the ‘Ging’ heut morgen über’s Feld’, there is an aching tension between the initial ‘walking’ tune (later to find its way into Mahler’s First Symphony) and the merry birdsong on the one hand, and the lover’s underlying sadness on the other. The walking tune gradually grows more wistful and dreamlike, ending in a key far distant from the opening.

The first song, ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’, contrasts Slavonic-flavoured wedding piping with the lover’s own grief on his sweetheart’s wedding day, and his delight in the natural world, evoked with a turn to from D minor to E flat and a lulling 6/8 motion. In the ‘Ging’ heut morgen über’s Feld’, there is an aching tension between the initial ‘walking’ tune (later to find its way into Mahler’s First Symphony) and the merry birdsong on the one hand, and the lover’s underlying sadness on the other. The walking tune gradually grows more wistful and dreamlike, ending in a key far distant from the opening.

If the first two songs are essentially diatonic and folk-inspired, the feverishly chromatic ‘Ich hab ein glühend Messer’ foreshadows the expressionist violence of later Mahler. After the voice’s last anguished climax the music dissolves in shadowy fragments. The final ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ opens as a desolate minor-keyed funeral march, a genre Mahler was to make his own. But minor warms to major as the wanderer - unlike the protagonist of Schubert’s Winterreise - finds everlasting rest beneath the linden tree. Very much in Schubert’s manner, Mahler then gently twists the knife in the piano postlude, ending the cycle pppp in a bleak F minor. 

     © Richard Wigmore


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13 October 2023 | 11:00am

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