Recently I was asked by Leeds Lieder+ to provide some programme notes for the recital by the Kathleen Ferrier Competition Winner Recital. One of the sets of songs to be performed by Natalya Romaniw and Elizabeth Rossiter in Leeds on 6 June 2013 will be Edvard Grieg’s Sechs Lieder, op. 48. At the end I include a recent performance by the Melicus Duo of the fifth song from this set, Zur Rosenzeit.
Sechs Lieder, Op. 48 – Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Even though first published by Peters in 1889, Edvard Grieg’s “Sechs Lieder“, op. 48 (“Seks Sange” according to the Hansen publication of five years later) were composed between 1884 and 1889. The importance of these songs in Grieg’s life and output is two-fold. On the one hand the first two songs were composed after a long unproductive period. His cousin and wife Nina Grieg (née Hagerup) was a great interpreter and advocate of his songs. Grieg’s association of his songs with Nina was so great that its composition (or lack thereof) in fact reflected the state of affairs in their marital life. 1884 marks a reconciliation between Edvard and Nina and it was at this time that developments started on their residence Troldhaugen (Troll Hill) in Bergen. This would bring further stability to Grieg’s hitherto relatively nomadic existence. These six German poems are the first settings Grieg made in this language since his opus 4 group of songs of 1864. The latter four songs were all composed in August 1889. Hansen published the edition with Norwegian translation in 1894. Grieg dedicated these six songs to the Swedish-born Wagnerian soprano, Ellen Nordgren Gulbranson.
Grieg’s choice of poets in his sextet represents a canon of Romantic German poets with the exception of the great medieval poet Walther von der Vogelweise. The six songs create a triptych of three pairs in which the first pair serves as a quick overview of the narrative that is to follow. The curtain opens with a joyful greeting (Gruß – Heine), which is drunk and intoxicated with love. In complete contrast, soul-searching leads to anticipating an existence beyond the grave, where there is no love and therefore ensuing pain and wounds (Dereinst, Gedanke mein – Geibel). This setting of Geibel’s text contrasts with both that of Wolf’s (Spanisches Liederbuch) and Schumann’s (Spanisches Lierspiel). Where Wolf writes in painful downward chromaticism, which might evoke the image of a tear slowly running down a crimson cheek, Schumann’s setting is more extrovert in its emotion. In the op. 48 group Grieg’s setting is more observant and the music seems not to directly involve itself in the text. Perhaps this might suggest a certain hopefulness, looking ahead to the imminent respite from suffering.
The second pair of songs are memories of courtship and passion. In Uhland’s Lauf der Welt we see the lovers shyly flirt, stealing a kiss now and then. From the first notes in the piano the spirit of Gruß is recalled. The playful character in the folk like contours of the vocal line in the outer strophes are cleverly intertwined in the use of developmental harmonies in the setting of the central strophe. Uhlands verse is known for its numerous influences including that of the German Volkslied, Skalds (a group of poets whose poetry is associated with that of the Scandinavian and Icelandic courts) and the medieval courtly Minnesänger. Grieg makes this connection effortlessly in his choice of poetry by continuing with a setting of a medieval poem. The lazy afternoon atmosphere, fragrant with lemon blossoms and grass, sets the scene for Walther von der Vogelweide’s Die verschwiegene Nachtigall. Originally in Middle High German the text is more risqué than set out in the present German translation. Grieg’s suspended atmosphere suggests the passionate yet secret love affair, which is known only to the girl and her lover – and of course the little nightingale which witnessed it all, lightly imitated in both the voice and piano.
The final two songs mirror the first pair in that it juxtaposes two contrasting time frames in its poetry. The first is directly at the end of the relationship and tells of the girl’s admission at her inability to sustain the love of this affair. The roses of the opening song feature here too, however they are wilting and she fails to resurrect them (Zur Rosenzeit – Goethe). The repeated chords in the piano are accentuating the unimportant off-beat, depicting this unhappy time and the suffering of the girl. All this is underlined with the vocal melody doubled in the piano left hand as a bass line, depicting the drooping roses. Finally we awake from a dream (Ein Traum – Von Bodenstedt). The melody gradually stretches across the range of the voice, and the accompaniment unravels in broken chords, echoing the nightingale motif from before. Gradually the dream is retold, evoking memories of the delight of this love that blossomed in Die verschwiegene Nachtigall. The painful memories of love lost in Dereinst, Gedanke mein subtly shimmers through the vocal line before the repeated chordal accompaniment sheds its melancholy held over from Zur Rosenzeit and carries the voice from a fond dream into an ecstatic and jubilant Wirklichkeit.