Monday, September 13, 2010

Music and Memory, Part 16: The Gardener

When I was a young soprano, I studied with a teacher who had herself studied in Germany with the great post-war coloratura Rita Streich.  My teacher said to me once in a lesson --it must have been a particularly good one -- "You sound like Streich!" to which I replied, in proper soprano fashion, "Who?"  She proceeded to tell me about the great Streich, adding, as an aside, "What a Nazi."  I later found a recording of Streich, somewhat in her dotage, singing a concert for French radio of duets by Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms with the Canadian contralto Maureen Forrester, who died earlier this summer.  This recording, sadly, is now out of print, but it is at the top of my desert-island list (in fact, I've already listened to it three times today).

This recording was very important to me for a number of years.  Not only is it wonderful -- the pared-down honesty and simplicity of expression demonstrated by these two singers, both of whom were past their prime at the time of the concert but whose artistry remained at the highest level, is both instructive and deeply moving -- but it also accompanied me during a very painful time in my life, a time of wrenching loss and longing which, while it lasted, was nonetheless beautiful, and still glows a little in the light of memory (the loss and longing that were to follow for me were far less lovely).

One song I particularly loved was the Mendelssohn duet "Gruß" (Greeting), set to a poem by the Romantic poet Eichendorff.  In a translation by Jakob Kellner, it goes thus:

Wherever I go and look,
in field and forest and plain,
down the hill to the mead;
most beautiful noble lady,
I greet you a thousand times.

In my garden I find
many flowers, pretty and nice,
many garlands I bind from them
and a thousand thoughts
and greetings I weave into them.

Her I must not give one,
she is too noble and fair;
they all have to fade,
only unequalled love
stays in the heart forever.

Eichendorff's sentiments nicely captured the longing in my own heart for a distant beloved, and Mendelssohn's setting, lyrical and at the same time pulsing with an energy which subtly undermines, with its freshness and optimism, the sadness of the text, provided a wistful soundtrack to my heavy heart in those long-ago days.  Here is a recording (sung in English) by the great British singers Isobel Baillie and Kathleen Ferrier.

It was at this time of year exactly that I began to see my own life as both illustrated and illuminated by this particular song.  And then, a few years later, I found out that Eichendorrf's poem was not in fact called "Gruß," but, rather, "Der Gärtner" (The Gardener), and that Mendelssohn had left off the last verse, which goes:

I seem to be of good cheer
and work to and fro,
and, though my heart bursts,
I dig on and sing,
and soon I dig my grave.

The last verse is the crux of the poem, and catapults it from wistfulness to heartbreak.

Brahms set the entire text in an early work for women's choir, harp, and two french horns; here is a rather lovely recording of what appears to be a Chinese (or Taiwanese, or Singaporean?) girls' choir, singing it in English.


mrsdarwin said...

I would like to hear that song in a live performance one day.

Pentimento said...

The Rita Streich/Maureen Forrester recording is faster than the Baillie/Ferrier one, and it works very well; you get a sense of the forward motion of the piece. The Baillie/Ferrier one is a little more Victorian in a way. But it's a beautiful song. And the Brahms setting is almost otherworldly with the combination of women's voices, harp, and horns, which always sound to me like they're being played across the distance of nostalgia.

I wonder if your sister knows the Mendelssohn song. His songs are semi-obscure now.