About this Recording
8.572556 - CORNELIUS, P.: Lieder (Complete), Vol. 1 (Landshamer, M. Schafer, Hausmann, Veit)
English  German 

Peter Cornelius (1824–1874)
Complete Songs • 1


Peter Cornelius, who was born in 1824 in Mainz and died there shortly before his fiftieth birthday, saw himself as a Poet-Musician, as an artist who could create equally valid works in word and sound. He succeeded in this better than most. His literary output consists of more than 700 poems, three librettos, as well as numerous essays and translations. As a composer, Cornelius concentrated wholly on vocal music, apart from some early instrumental works. That he went his own way stylistically in this respect is all the more astounding, because he remained under the spell of personalities such as Liszt and Wagner throughout his life. His independence is documented especially in his songs, which were mostly composed to his own texts. Therefore, the present complete recording closes an important gap in the repertoire.

At first everything had suggested that the young Cornelius would follow the calling of his parents and become an actor. Instead he started studying music in Berlin after the death of his father, supported by his uncle, the well-known painter Peter von Cornelius. His conservative education with Siegfried Dehn could not erase his inclination to the music of the Neo-German school of Liszt and Wagner, and a visit to Liszt in 1852 confirmed him in this, in an artistic as well as personal aspect. Liszt gave Cornelius advice and help, and through him he got to know the works of Berlioz and Wagner, later the composers themselves. As a collaborator of Liszt he spent the following years mostly in Weimar, where his Barber of Baghdad was given its première in 1858. More than half of his songs originated during this time. He spent five years working free-lance in Vienna, before Wagner summoned him to Munich in 1864. Not only did he start his first permanent job as a lecturer there, but he also became the happy father of a family. He remained ambivalent in his relationship with Wagner, whom he admired, but whose monopolizing and authoritarian nature, he feared, would burn him up. Afflicted with diabetes, Cornelius died on a visit to his home town of Mainz.

Only about a dozen of Cornelius’s works appeared in print during his lifetime. The reservations on the part of music publishers might have had differing reasons: lack of prospective sales, insecurity in respect of the stylistic categorization of the composer, as well as his reticence in marketing himself. Of the song cycles on this CD, Opp 3, 4 and 15 were only published years after their composition, the Brautlieder (Bridal Songs) and parts of the Rheinische Lieder (Rhenish Songs) posthumously. Small wonder that Cornelius enthusiastically celebrated his first printed work, six songs he wrote in July 1853, which were published by Schott barely a year later, as confirmation that he was destined to be a Poet-Musician, ‘one of the lucky people who have the best of both worlds’ of poetry and music. The sung texts were written by Cornelius himself during a short stay in the Saarland, where he fell in love with Leonie Schlincker, to whom the work is dedicated. ‘My song is short, needs little room’, it says at the beginning of the cycle, and indeed these musical tributes take up not more than one sheet of notepaper for each song. There is economy in the compositions as well, with chordal accompaniment to support the singing, almost no interludes for the piano, and a short strophic format. Cornelius is able to conjure up an atmosphere within a few bars of music with elementary motifs, be they the ‘fragrant’ piano interjections in Veilchen, the short epilogue in Schmetterling or the thin (monophonic!) accompaniment in Denkst Du an mich? (No 6). What is more, there are motivic connections between the individual songs.

The songs of Op 3 show a significantly more serious tone with their mourning gestures, the more independent accompaniment and the wide harmonic ambitus. The cyclical connection, thematically given through the catharsis from ‘mourning’ to ‘consolation’, is musically intensified by the choice of key and motif. In this context, the note B (D in our recording) occupies a central position, not only serving as the opening note of every song, but also as the musical axis in Nos 3 and 4. Taking the song title Ein Ton (One Note) literally, the singer persists on the middle B, which is repeated eighty times. Rhythmic variety and a colourful piano accompaniment prevent monotony. In the following song An den Traum the relationship is reversed: the B now sounds as a death-knell in the accompaniment.

The Bridal Songs belong to the rich yield of 1856, as Cornelius alternated between Weimar, Mainz and the seclusion of the Thuringian forests. In November he started on his Barbier, the writing and first performance of which would occupy him for two years. In the Bridal Songs, which Cornelius offered to publishers without success, his striving for cyclical rounding is apparent as well. Transitions moderate the key changes from song to song, often the final note of one song becomes the starting-point for the next one, and in No 6 the piano part of the final song returns to the initial theme of the cycle. The perspective is that of a young bride: from looking back at the awakening of her love via the eve of her wedding to the fulfilment of her happiness. The cycle as a whole has an idyllic aura, which sometimes comes to the fore as inward-looking restraint, at other times as rapturous passion. In No 4, Erwachen (Am Morgen), Cornelius has two notes, D and E, sound throughout the song (similarly to Op 3), the bell-like symbol of a successful union. No 5 settles on a decidedly hymnic tone, which is based on the Song of Songs in The Bible: on a carpet of triplets, a fervent duet between piano and singer develops.

For Cornelius love’s dream was only fulfilled quite late: in 1865, when he was on ‘home leave’ in Mainz, he became engaged to Bertha Jung, a friend of his youth and his sister-in-law. It would take another two years until they got married, and the feelings of the unemployed musician during this transitional phase found expression in the short cycle An Bertha. Es kommt die Zeit, o zage nicht (The time will come, do not despair), it says significantly in the final song of Op 15. While the first song had already been written in 1862 in Vienna, Cornelius wrote the other three in the autumn of 1865 in Munich, expressly in regard to and for his future wife. ‘With them I set out on my new direction’, the composer wrote in a letter: ‘nothing but melody, easy accompaniment, all golden wares’. Rhythm and harmonies are consequently kept rather simple; in many places the piano part closely follows the sung melody. Nonetheless, even these songs are carefully crafted. The opening theme of the singing voice in the first song is also heard rhythmically varied in the piano introduction of the second (which was written three years earlier). In the third Cornelius connects two motifs from the beginning and end of the piano introduction only very late, at the end of the third verse, in an obvious manner, when the text speaks of the future union of the lovers. And in Dein Bildnis he unobtrusively inserts the hitherto omitted piano introduction under the final sung bars.

A completely different Cornelius emerges in the four Rhenish Songs for baritone, composed in 1856 in Vienna and never published, apart from one. The colourful and flexible, in parts highly virtuosic piano setting sounds romantically ‘saturated’, and the demands on the singer are considerable. There is also a harmonic mobility (especially in the fourth song), which Cornelius had learned from Liszt, and there are rhythmic peculiarities, particularly in the change from the 3/8 metre to 2/4 in No 3. Typical for the text as well as the musical setting is the vivid and unsentimental way in which Cornelius portrays the Rhine and its environs. This is not the mysteriously enchanting river of earlier generations, but one flowing in brightest sunshine, which inspires pleasure and love, invites you to sing and gladdens the heart. Even the strictly canonical setting of the second song is employed to convey this positive mood, biographically a reflex on Cornelius’s visit to Mainz in the spring of 1856.

In the Bernhardshütte, the cabin which was his ‘composing asylum’ in the Thuringian Forest, the Three Songs of Op 4 emerged in the autumn of 1854, again to his own texts. These are more expansively conceived love songs for high voice, harmonically and thematically highly imaginative. ‘Emotive and devout’, as Cornelius himself described No 1, where the emotion is voiced in the turbulent outer sections, the devotion in the calmer middle part. At the return to the beginning, a more and more urgent bass motif emerges, while the passionate initial gesture turns up in the upper piano part. No 2, Komm, wir wandeln zusammen im Mondschein, (Come let us stroll out under the moon), one of Cornelius’ best-known songs, derives its appeal from the ceaseless contrast between triplets and duplets, D flat major and F major, and moderate and accelerated basic tempi. At the start of the third verse, the piano takes over the melody of the singing voice, which promptly changes to that of the piano introduction; a short interjection in C sharp minor gives additional colour. No 3 is also shaped by changing scales: While the singing voice tends towards the major, the piano returns consistently to G minor.

Marcus Imbsweiler
English translation by Bernd Mueller

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