About this Recording
8.572558 - CORNELIUS, P.: Lieder (Complete), Vol. 3 (Landshamer, M. Schäfer, Begemann, Hausmann, Veit)
English  German 

Peter Cornelius (1824–1874)
Complete Songs • 3

 

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 premiere 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.

Marcus Imbsweiler
English translation by Bernd Mueller

The compositions on this recording are drawn from various categories. On the one hand, the settings of texts by Heyse and Kuh complete our survey of Cornelius’s “secular” solo songs. (The sacred songs will be released separately.) On the other hand, this disc offers the first complete recording of his duets. The latter share the fate of almost all nineteenth-century songs for two or more voices in being rarely if ever performed in concert. All of Cornelius’s duets without exception were written for domestic music-making and are tailored to the needs and skills of middle-class households. These generally had at their disposal a piano, a fairly decent pianist and two proficient, but by no means professionally trained singers. It goes without saying that there were limits to how adventurous a composer could be, assuming that he did not want everything he wrote to be consigned to a desk drawer.

Cornelius’s friendship with the poet Paul Heyse (1830–1914), who was six years his junior, dates back to his time as a student in Berlin and lasted until the 1860s, when Heyse distanced himself from the “music of the future” of the circle around Liszt and Wagner. Heyse, an archconservative whose novels were widely read during the Wilhelmine period (1871–1918), had begun his career as a late-Romantic, Biedermeier poet in whose verse the pain of love, renunciation and loss are always set in the context of a greater whole (society, faith, Nature), through which they are purified. In 1848, while in Berlin, Cornelius set five of Heyse’s as yet unpublished poems. Preziosas Sprüchlein gegen Kopfweh [6] followed in the winter of 1854–55.

Despite their modesty, these compositions display a surprising maturity. We may regard as traditional making a motif the focal point for the entire setting, or at least a substantial section of it; a triplet accompaniment with a hidden melody (Im Lenz) [1]; bell-like chords (Schäfers Nachtlied) [4]; or fanfare-like motifs (Morgenwind) [3]. But in addition to this, Cornelius works with short thematic units, which he treats very flexibly and progressively. In the very first song, the unobtrusive changing-note figure migrates from the right hand of the piano part into the bass, in order to open up new expressive possibilities for the second strophe. Likewise, the triplet interjection in In der Mondnacht [5]. And the harmonic scheme of Schäfers Nachtlied [4] already carries intimations of later Cornelius, even if the final transition to the major key is still deployed completely in the Romantic spirit, as a sublimation—and not as a change of colour and starting-point for modulation, as it is in the opening bars of Preziosas Sprüchlein gegen Kopfweh [6].

In December 1858 Cornelius’s comic opera Der Barbier von Bagdad (The Barber of Baghdad) had its premiere in Weimar. It was a memorable occasion in the sense that the adherents and opponents of the New German School caused a massive theatrical scandal which precipitated Liszt‘s withdrawal from Weimar, but it was also memorable for Cornelius, whose compositions suddenly and unexpectedly became the focus of public debate. No wonder he fell prey to “a kind of existential crisis” in the weeks and months that followed.

At the beginning of 1859 Cornelius took a step that was as surprising as it was typical—he moved to Vienna to work as a freelance composer, poet, teacher and translator. In Vienna he wrote, “I want to be completely unfettered; independent, even if I am poor, and free from any outside influence”. The price he paid for this artistic autonomy was, indeed, serious financial worries, but the benefit was, as he had hoped, that he was able to concentrate on writing his second major dramatic work, Der Cid (The Cid), and that he made many stimulating acquaintances.

Among them was Emil Kuh, a poet and admirer of Friedrich Hebbel whom Cornelius regarded as “like-minded”. In the summer of 1859 he set four of Kuh’s poems for the the latter’s wife, who was a singer. He succeeds in reflecting their tone of warm-hearted, twinkling humour in his music very well. So although the songs about the bee and the deer, tracks [7] and [10], are rounded genre pieces, there are little irritations that leave room for interpretation—unexpected harmonic deviations in the first song, rhythmic unevennesses in the second. Frühling im Sommer [8] unfolds over a floated tapestry in the piano, with a different accompaniment for each of the four strophes. Mir ist, als zögen Arme [9] is totally different—deeply serious, with a noticeably more sophisticated setting. The “overwrought sensitivity” that Cornelius recognised in these lines finds expression in the continuous tremoli, and finally in a chain of painfully dissonant sighs that are introduced by the voice part and continued in the piano.

Two or three years after these songs, Cornelius composed three duets that were published by Schott as his Op 6. As already indicated, they are pieces for domestic music-making, for sociable gatherings, and therefore make a point of focussing on one subject—love. Nevertheless, Cornelius takes the simple, Lied-like voice parts on an exploration of distant keys, moving from E major to G major, A flat major and back to E major in Liebesprobe [11], for example. The word “Vorüberschweben” (“floated past”) at the beginning of Der beste Liebesbrief [12] occasions an even more intense chromatic detour, and when the amorous missive finally flutters away, the tonic key is also nowhere to be found, until a crude glissando in the piano part returns us to F major. Whilst in this duet the listener is only peripherally aware of the voices singing in canon, this is central to the final song [13], a setting of the famous love poem by Wernher von Tegernsee, where it symbolises the deep emotional bond.

With his Op 16, written in 1866, Cornelius widens his subject-matter to include home, parting and death as well as love. Death is naturally viewed through the eyes of the fool. He also broadens his scope dramatically; this can be observed in the way the voices are set against each other in Brennende Liebe [15] or at the end of Scheiden [17], when the singers bow out, so to speak, leaving the piano alone playing the opening sequence. Of particular significance is the Shakespeare setting Komm herbei, Tod! [16], which Cornelius had already set as a young man (see track [18]) and which he revised for the last time in 1873. Although they span a quarter of a century, the different versions employ identical motifs, but strive to achieve greater expressiveness while employing a more pared-down approach.

Cornelius’s earliest duets, dating from 1847–48, rely on their melodic qualities. He performed them a number of times with his friends, who liked them. Simple accompaniments, clear forms and voice-leading in thirds or sixths or in simple imitation point to the accessibility of these pieces. There is even a song in the folk idiom—Verratene Liebe [21], which is a translation into German after the modern Greek. It is based on the simplest of harmonies, to which the central section, with its unprepared chromatic modulations, offers a striking contrast.

This disc finishes with three duets from the 1860s. The dramatic scene Ich und du [22] is brought to life by its astonishing changes of harmony, which bring out key words in the text (“leben”, “lieben”, “sterben”—“live”, “love”, “die”), as though someone were opening a window. Am Meer [23], to a text by Eichendorff, is similarly intense and grippingly colourful, while the even flow of the psalm setting Zu den Bergen [24] belongs to the religious sphere. A note about the family of his friend Standhartner in a letter written by Cornelius shows that in Vienna, too, he made music with friends: “Recently they sang three Hebbel poems which I had set for baritone and soprano duet.”

Cornelius allowed himself a flawless parody in the trio Der Tod des Verräters [25]. It sends up Italian Romantic opera on gothic subject-matter, with its endless repetition of wild rhetoric, its sighing melodies and mechanical intensificatory devices. The way in which Cornelius puts a single, increasingly meaningless sentence through the contrapuntal mill already amused listeners including Franz Liszt at the Villa Altenburg in Weimar, and this intelligent joke, written in 1853, has lost nothing of its freshness.

Marcus Imbsweiler
English translation by Susan Baxter


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