Richard Wagner: Wesendonck Lieder

performed by Jessye Norman and the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Colin Davis

(cover image by Eberhard Grossgasteiger)

Can you believe this is (sort of) the first formal appearance of Richard Wagner on the blog(ner)? It is.

I’ve reviewed two of his operas that I’ve had the excellent occasion to see live, but that’s not as official as him being listed in the roster, so here we are. He has a fitting place in the timeline right now, among Brahms, Bruckner, and others who will appear shortly. This piece should definitely have made it into the vocal series we did last year, but it didn’t. Oops. Aside from the Siegfried Idyll, this is Wagner’s most commonly performed non-opera work.

Wilhelm Richard Wagner (yes, we’re doing this) was born on May 22, 1813 in Leipzig, in the Jewish quarter, the ninth child of Carl Friedrich Wagner, a clerk in the Leipzig police service. Carl died of Typhus only six months after Richard’s birth, and shortly thereafter, Joanna (Richard’s mother) may have married but definitely moved in with her husband’s friend, playwright Ludwig Geyer. No marriage record have been found, but Wagner was known until the age of 14 as Wilhelm Richard Geyer, and, as Wikipedia says, “almost certainly thought Geyer was his biological father.”

Geyer’s love of the theater made an impression on the young Geyer/Wagner, who was apparently even given parts to play on occasion. Geyer died in 1821, and Wagner was sent to the Kreuzschule in Dresden, for which his step-uncle paid. Impressed by Weber’s Der Freischütz, the young man even wrote a tragedy with aspirations of becoming a playwright himself.

He began his study of harmony in 1828 back in his hometown of Leipzig under Christian Gottlieb Müller, and in the same year he heard Beethoven’s seventh and ninth symphonies, as well as Mozart’s requiem. He composed some piano sonatas and orchestral overtures during this period. Christian Theodor Weinlig, who also taught Clara Schumann (née Wieck), was so impressed with the young Wagner that he refused payment. Wagner dedicated his op. 1 piano sonata to Weinlig, and also his symphony in C.

And then he went on to be super famous for opera and super infamous for lots of other stuff.

Wesendonck Lieder, WWV 91, was written between 1857-1858, around the same time of his Tristan und Isolde. This work is made up of five songs with texts by Mathilde Wesendonck, hence the name. She was the wife of one of Wagner’s patrons, Otto Wesendonck. They are:

  1. Der Engel” (“The Angel”), composed November 1857
  2. Stehe still!” (“Be still!”), composed February 1858
  3. Im Treibhaus – Studie zu Tristan und Isolde” (“In the Greenhouse”), composed May 1858
  4. Schmerzen” (“Sorrows”), composed December 1857
  5. Träume – Studie zu Tristan und Isolde” (“Dreams”), composed December 1857

The songs were first published in 1862, and performed with famed conductor Hans von Bülow at the piano (as the songs were originally only for piano). Upon publication, the collection was originally called Fünf Gedichte für eine Frauenstimme (Five poems for a female voice), and it was only in 1902, after Mathilde’s death, that it became known that the text was hers. The translations (into English) of the five songs can be found here. Brace yourself for aggressive copyright notices.

Two of the songs, the third and fifth, as you see from above, are ‘studies” for Tristan und Isolde, almost like precursors, where the material used here is later more fully used in the famous opera. These five songs, though…

Do they form an actual cycle, like Schubert’s famous pieces, or are they just individual songs? That’s apparently up for debate. For now, let’s take a look at them individually and then try to make up our minds, shall we?

The first, Der Engel, may remind you, if you’re familiar with it, of Mahler’s fourth symphony, the finale. Norman’s voice here is absolutely angelic, but there’s a ‘heavenly’ sound in the ethereal warmth of the orchestra. Jennifer Hambrick at AllMusic states that the accompaniment:

depicts the contrast between heavenly angels and earthly cares: series of ascending arpeggiated chords reach upwards at the mention of angels, and repeated eighth note chords plod earthbound when the singer sings of fear, worry, and floods of tears.

And indeed the text itself is ‘uplifting’ in the sense of being carried away from earthly woes. We don’t have much room in a three-minute song to depict that kind of contrast, but the heavenly, pure nature of the music is enough to drive the point home.

The second song, Stehe Still, sounds more like something we’d hear from one of the composer’s operas, constantly pushing forward. It’s storm-like, stirring, in such contradiction to the ‘stand still’ title. The German ‘still’ could also be ‘quiet’, but this movement is neither of those things, at least not until the latter part of the song, with some stiller, quieter moments. It’s unsettled, agitated, but once the speaker calms, we get to a broader, softer passage, leading us to a breathtaking, regal resolution.

The third song is the longest of the five, a stroll through a greenhouse, talking (or thinking) to the plants. Can you see it? Someone takes a quiet, pensive walk through dense, lush plants, maybe even dwarfed by large tropical trees, and their emotions. Perhaps it’s chilly outside and these plants, maybe much like yourself, are living, or just surviving, and don’t really belong where they are.

Even the music feels more personal here. It’s thinner, with a violin solo, the kind of transparent orchestral, really almost chamber, textures that Mahler would use later in his songs. There may indeed be a large orchestra on stage, but it isn’t always all at full throttle. There’s a sense of loneliness, sadness, wonder, being lost, that’s not so much depressing as it is relatable. Who of us hasn’t felt this way? It’s also, perhaps suitably, at the very center of this work.

The fourth song, ‘Sorrows,’ or something similar, also sounds more like it comes from an opera, moving forward in developing a narrative rather than circling around itself. There are the orchestral swells and brass calls that we know from Wagner, but this shortest of the five gets quickly to the point in a weird juxtaposition of positivity and appreciation of anguish, all surrounding the imagery of the sun, which we can hear in the music.

The final song, ‘Dreams’, it may not surprise you to know, also makes mention of death. It is ‘dreamy’ in the same sense that the first song of the set was heavenly, somewhat ethereal, tender…

Wagner clearly has a way with the orchestra, extremely convincing be it in the softer, warmer songs that bookend this set, or the more anxious, turbulent songs, but they all seem to come from the same orchestral fabric. While this 22-minute cycle embodies love and death and the representation of a friendship of which we may not ever know the true nature, it’s only the smallest glimpse of what he accomplishes in his operas. If anything about these songs appeals to you, buckle up and set aside a half a day to treat yourself to one of his operas.

Wagner has finally made it to the blog, and I’m only a few days away from flying back to my (current) home in Asia. There’s lots more really great stuff coming up though, so please do stay tuned, and thanks so much for reading.


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