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ERIN GO BERLIN! The intersection of German and Irish music

March 17, 2012

It all began when DANK Haus, Chicago’s German-American cultural center, had an opening in their schedule for the lovely grand ballroom space on Saint Patrick’s Day.  Naturally, a holiday is a lovely time for people to be out and about on the town.  Because the day celebrates the Irish, it does not mean a venue associated with a nation on the opposite side of the English Channel should sit empty.  Enter VOX 3 Collective.  The program, fashioned by Artistic Director Brian von Rueden, includes a number of rarities written by German or Austrian (or French!) composers which pay homage to the rugged, folky tales and tunes of Ireland.  The origins and contents of three of these groupings, by Beethoven, Brüll, and Schumann, are described here below. You can hear more of about this event on WBEZ Chicago Public Radio’s Weekend Passport program, featuring Brian von Rueden in discussion with Worldview program host Jerome McDonnell and Nari Safavi.

Beethoven’s Irish Folk Song Settings

Ludwig van Beethoven wrote several sets of folk song arrangements between 1809 and 1820, at the behest of Scottish publisher George Thomson.  Beginning with the 25 Scottish Songs, Op. 108, Beethoven eventually arranged over 160 folk tunes for various combinations of voices accompanied by piano trio.  The bulk of these are of Scottish, Irish, Welsh, or British origin, as the publisher tried to cater to a local audience.  Eventually, the set would grow to include Swiss, Russian, Spanish, Polish, Danish, and Tyrolean melodies; due to the Napoleonic Wars, however, only one French piece was set – a little number from a light opera by Rousseau.   These later sets comprise Beethoven’s Op. 152-158.  Biographer Alexander Wheelock Thayer illuminated the patchwork process that led to the creation of these folksong settings:

“A very remarkable feature of the enterprise was, that the composers of the accompaniments had no knowledge of the texts, and the writers of the poetry no knowledge of the accompaniments. The poets, in many cases, had a stanza of the original song as a model for the metre and rhythm; in all others, they and the composers alike received the bare melody, with nothing to guide them in their work but Italian musical terms: allegro, moderato, andante, etc.” [Thayer, Life of Beethoven – revised and edited by Elliot Forbes. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. 1967]

One of the joys of these pieces is that they were written, at least in theory, for amateurs to play at home.  Thomson, upon receiving the scores, purportedly recognized that Beethoven’s output was markedly better than the usual salon hack-job, saying “He composes for posterity.”  On the other hand, the higher quality required more pianistic skill than the domestic young wives Thomson targeted with this publication – meaning that the volumes did not prove blockbusters in the sales department.   Tuneful, yes, and light in character, but demanding technique and agility beyond the average hobby musician, the songs inhabit a realm somewhere between the classical and folk idioms.  For a modern concert audience, however, these jaunty works allow us to experience some of Beethoven’s masterful craft without the hefty weight of his symphonies.  (Listen to VOX 3 members perform an excerpt from Beethoven’s Scottish song settings.)

Ignaz Brüll (1846 – 1907)

Ignaz Brüll, the Moravian Melodist

The story is almost cliche at this point.  A talented child, taught the basics by his parents, is discovered to be a musical prodigy – and subsequently seeks his fortune in that golden city of music, Vienna.  Unlike Mozart, however, the German-speaking, Czech-born Ignaz Brüll did not have the benefit of religious or royal patrons; he was left to his own devices in securing an audience for his music.  Luckily, he made the right friends, affording his works both quality performances and good reception.  By the age of ten, Brüll was studying piano with a friend of Johannes Brahms who taught at the Vienna Conservatory, Julius Epstein.  Brüll’s first Piano Concerto, written at the age of fourteen, was premiered in Vienna in 1860, and earned praise from the likes of the famed pianist-composer Anton Rubinstein.  Things looked good for this young star.  When his second opera, Das Goldene Kreuz (The Golden Cross) premiered in Berlin, shortly after Brüll’s 29th birthday, he received personal compliments from the German Emperor Wilhelm I.  It was this piece that catapulted Brüll to fame throughout Europe, both as a composer and a concert pianist.  He became involved with Brahms’s inner circle, even playing four-hand piano reductions of new orchestral works alongside their renowned composer.

Though in his lifetime, Brüll wrote many vocal works, including at least nine operas total, this output is largely neglected today.  By contrast, his instrumental and piano music has been performed and recorded – though it is largely known only by connoisseurs.  Brüll’s Lieder, in particular, are worth rediscovering.  They have a level of craftsmanship that would expect of a friend and collaborator of Brahms.  They also hint at the intricacy of text-setting of Hugo Wolf, and are reminiscent in their expansive lines of Richard Wagner, whose operas held the day in German-speaking lands.  Like Beethoven did decades earlier, he also wrote Scottish and Irish-themed song sets, to poetry by Moore and Burns.  As Brüll did not rely on folk-melodies, though, the songs have a much more overtly “German” sound to them.  For example, the square 4/4 recitative movement that opens “Die Harfe, die für dich erklungen,” the fourth of his “Irische Lieder,” could easily be mistaken for a less-inspired narrative section in Wagner’s “Tannhäuser.”  There are strummed chords, in generally traditional harmonic progressions, with a few key tones added for color at key points in the text.  The inspired part of this song, however, comes with the shift to 3/2 meter, when rising arpeggiations and strong ascending fifths in the vocal line illustrate the vivid memories of the far-away beloved.  This is contrasted by the ambiguous harmonies accompanying the text “Gram” (“Sorrow”), as if the piano has been sent wandering in pursuit of that lady-love.  The contrasting rhythmic and harmonic characterization of these poles, love and loss, carry through the full set of songs.

Schumann’s Highland Excursions

As Robert Schumann’s wedding trousseau for his beloved bride Clara Wieck, he composed 26 songs collected as Myrthen, to texts by many great poets of the day.  Included, naturally, are settings of texts by the prominent German wordsmiths Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Heine, and Friedrich Rückert.  Perhaps more surprising, though, are the number of poems by the Irishman Thomas Moore and the Scottish Bard Robert Burns.  Eight of the tunes are based on Burns poems, as rendered in German by Wilhelm Christoph Gerhard; many of these feature rollicking melodies pining away for highland adventure, like “Die Hochländer-Witwe” and “Hochländers Abschied,” included on the VOX 3 program.  Both of these songs manage to remain very true to Schumann’s individual style, but are also colored (like Beethoven’s folk settings) with Scottish character.  It can be particularly amusing for a soprano to spit out the many consonants in the “Highlander Widow,” as she rapidly enumerates the many animals she once had (“Denn damals hatt’ ich zwanzig Küh’;” “Und sechzig Schafe hatt’ ich dort”), while maintaining proper tone in the elevated tessitura.  Similarly, in the male companion piece, “The Highlander’s Farewell,” the voice has a heavily accented main melody, sung in a low register, which gives way to a much higher range in the piece’s B section, as he describes the hills and valleys, bedecked in snow and flowers.

Even more off the beaten path are the “Zwei Venetianische Lieder,” originally English-language poems about Venice written by the Irish Thomas Moore, then translated into German by Ferdinand Freiligrath.  Instead of depicting Irish jigs, Moore’s words talk of gondolas rowing gently through the tides.  Here, there is no particularly “Italian” or “Irish” character in either text or music; these pieces come across as straightforward art songs, simply evoking a nighttime atmosphere across the Venetian lagoons.  The second piece, “When Through the Piazzetta,” has a bit more active, slightly flirtatious accompaniment, but does not rank among Schumann’s best songs.  Perhaps it is best to think of the Venetian Songs’ elaborate chain of Irish-Italian-German origins as a light honeymoon for the Schumanns, after all the more heartfelt, romantic sentiments expressed earlier in the cycle.

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