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8.111099 - SCHUMANN, Elizabeth: Brahms / Mendelssohn / Schumann: Lieder (1930-1938)

Elisabeth Schumann (1888-1952)
Lieder by Mendelssohn, Schumann and Brahms


'The presentation of a song demands something, which can never be attained by study, however long and conscientious, unless a natural gift is there. It is the gift of delivery or exposition, the gift of creating anew, by its union with music, the vision inherent in the poetry of the words: to bring it, as nearly as that is possible, visually as well as audibly before the hearer's sense. It would be idle to ask me any code of rules to that end; I do not believe that any such rules exist. My view is rather that the masterworks of song embody within themselves some secret powers; it is to the heart of these that we must seek to penetrate if we are to grasp their full significance.'

The above extract, which makes a successful connection between the successful rendering and true interpretation of song to a singer's poetic instinct, is found in Elisabeth Schumann's book German Song. (Although the book was actually written by Leo Rosenek, the ideas were essentially hers.) Elisabeth Schumann had an intuitive understanding of poetical texts. Even in school, where she was mostly bored, she never had difficulty interpreting the poetry she had to read.

Born in Merseburg, Saxony, in 1888, she had been surrounded by music from the start: her father, Alfred Schumann, was a music teacher and cathedral organist of Merseburg; her mother, Emma, possessed a beautiful though untrained voice, and would often sing locally. When Emma practised her songs or oratorio arias with her husband accompanying, little 'Lies' was allowed in the room, where she would crawl around under the piano and join in singing. At a charity event when she was four years old, someone suggested that little Lies might like to sing something to the gathering. She was lifted onto a table where she proceeded to sing a folksong, a Lied by Schubert and two by Robert Franz. Her voice was extraordinarily expressive for her age, and she was applauded enthusiastically. It was then that Alfred Schumann realised that his daughter's talent needed to be nurtured.

After having piano and music-theory lessons with her father and later with Otto Reubke in Halle, Elisabeth Schumann went to study singing in Dresden and Berlin. Her training was primarily operatic, and by the time she auditioned successfully for the Hamburg Opera at the age of twenty, she had studied 35 rôles. She began her operatic career in Hamburg in the autumn of 1909, and had the opportunity to work on Lieder with various conductors and répétiteurs, including Otto Klemperer with whom she had a scandalous love affair. At the time she was married to her first husband, Walther Puritz, and after he whipped Klemperer in public, the lovers eloped. Some months later she was reconciled with her husband; a year later, her only child was born. It was not long, however, before she discovered a shared love of Lieder with Carl Gotthardt, conductor and coach at the Hamburg Stadttheater. His exquisite piano-playing and understanding of both poetry and music brought her very close to him, and they became lovers. This affair led to the complete breakdown of her marriage, and in November 1918 she was divorced from her husband. Four months later she married Karl Alwin, a young conductor who had joined the Hamburg Opera just over a year earlier. Their marriage lasted more than fourteen years (when both artists were engaged by the Vienna State Opera), and their relationship was extremely productive. Not only was the restless, lively Alwin much more ambitious for his wife than she was for herself, but he was a brilliant pianist, the perfect partner for learning, practising and performing the Lieder repertoire. There was one drawback: Alwin admired his wife so much that he could not always be objectively critical. Fortunately at the Vienna State Opera there was an elderly répétiteur named Ferdinand Foll who had been a close friend of Hugo Wolf. Through working with him Schumann gained much insight into the significance of the union between words and music.

Naturally, the Lieder of Franz Schubert dominated Elisabeth Schumann's repertoire both in recital and in the recording studio. The German Romantic composers who immediately followed Schubert also figured prominently, and this anthology brings together all of the soprano's pre-war recordings of Lieder by Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann and Johannes Brahms.

In her book German Song, Elisabeth Schumann contrasted the Lieder of Schubert and Schumann, remarking that their choice of texts alone is a clear index of their differing thought and feeling. 'Schubert, in his amazing versatility, seized on poetry of almost every order - merry, grave, lyrical, dramatic, elegiac, and mystical. The great majority of the poems which Schumann set are lyrically romantic. Characteristic is his leaning towards the tender and gentle, even tragic, moods, towards spiritual grief turning to introspection or resignation'. She wrote further: 'If our view of Schumann as a truly lyrical composer needs confirmation, we find it in his choice of texts for the majority of his songs, and especially for the best of them; they are almost all taken from the out-and-out romantics… It is such purely lyrical songs which reveal Schumann's gifts at their best, and win for him his place among the greatest composers of German song'.

Regarding Brahms, Elisabeth Schumann noted his 'two-folded leaning towards the lyrically romantic and the tragically dramatic'. She also observed that 'texts which are too realistic or which, like ballads, recount actual happenings, did not appeal to him'.

As for two of Brahms's songs included on this disc, she wrote: "'An eine Äolsharfe' might well be described as the first song of Brahms's maturity. In contrast to Hugo Wolf's treatment of it, he has given the song a more compact shape and, by the recitatives at the beginning and in the middle section, lent it something of arioso character. It reveals, like many another song, Brahms's strong leaning towards the romantic". Of 'Vergebliches Ständchen', Schumann wrote: "It has suffered from so many inartistic performances that it has fallen into some disrepute as a song of no great worth… The rustic character of the melody misleads many a singer into some monotony of performance which no more contributes to its effectiveness than the exaggeratedly pointed interpretation given by others, as though the piquant suggestions in the text - and there are several - brought it down to cabaret level. How far removed from any such thought was Brahms's conception of the song is clearly shown in the many dynamic shades of expression indicated for its performance".

Apart from the last eleven Brahms songs on this disc, all the items on this disc were made when Elisabeth Schumann was a member of the Vienna State Opera, the happiest, and in operatic terms, the most successful time of her career. She made her London début in Covent Garden in 1924, singing Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. She sang several more seasons at Covent Garden, and her popularity led to many recitals in London and throughout Britain. Except for Mendelssohn's 'Auf Flügeln des Gesanges', all the Lieder on this disc were recorded in London, mostly at EMI's Abbey Road studios. Despite her initial fear of its discerning public and her dislike of its cold, damp climate, she grew to love England. In the last year of her life she decided to make London her permanent home. Sadly, she died in New York on 23 April 1952, only a few days before her planned move.

The last eleven Brahms Lieder on this disc were made in the summer of 1938 during a very difficult time in Schumann's life. On 12 March 1938, the day Hitler marched into Vienna, she had to leave her beloved adopted city to embark on a concert tour of France and North Africa. She left with an aching heart, knowing that life in Vienna would never be the same again. Worst of all, she was leaving behind her lover of six years, standing, Dr Hans Krüger, a skin specialist who, being Jewish, was in great danger. A week later reports of anti-Semitic atrocities made her realise that she could never return to Vienna, and that she must do everything in her power to help Krüger emigrate to the United States. (They succeeded in emigrating later that year, after getting married in England.) During her tour she wrote to her British concert agents Ibbs & Tillett, begging them to find her work in England. She had left almost all her possessions behind and had very little money, and when she arrived in London hardly any concerts had been arranged. Fortunately HMV wanted her to make recordings. In the summer of 1938 she recorded 31 items, eleven of which were Brahms Lieder (more than all the Brahms songs she had already recorded up until that time). Although she always maintained that her voice had lost some of its bloom during this difficult period, these recordings remain among the best she ever made.

Elisabeth Schumann's accompanist in London had usually been George Reeves, but, following the Anschluss, Leo Rosenek, also a refugee from Vienna, desperately needed work. When Schumann explained the situation to Reeves he immediately agreed to let Rosenek take his place. Through HMV she acquired a work permit for Rosenek, and sent him money in order for him to make the journey from Amsterdam to London. Sadly, Reeves's kind gesture was not reciprocated, some time later, when Schumann wanted to help Reeves in the United States by letting him play for her, Rosenek would not give up a concert for him. At the end of 1949 Schumann's friendship with Rosenek was broken off permanently. She had recently performed in Berlin with the pianist Michael Raucheisen, and although the latter was denazified, Rosenek told Schumann that he would not play with anyone who had worked with Raucheisen, and thus could no longer have anything to do with her.

Throughout the Second World War Schumann lived in New York. She had few concerts, and made only one recording (a Bach cantata for RCA Victor in the autumn of 1939). After the war she returned to London in 1945, and made a successful comeback. Gerald Moore served as one of her accompanists, and in his book Am I too loud? he wrote: 'My especial pet was Elisabeth Schumann. An adorable person who, like her singing, was all sunshine'. Schumann's sparkling personality was, indeed, one of her outstanding qualities. As an admirer once remarked: 'As soon as she walked on stage one knew that life was good'. This sunny personality lent a special charm to the more lighthearted and lively songs she sang, but at the same time her depth of feeling and awareness of life's tragedies enabled her to give deeply moving performances of the more serious Lieder in her repertoire.

© Joy Puritz

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