Sibelius – or Jean Sibelius, as we know him today – both started and ended his career composing songs. Only a few months before his death in 1957 he orchestrated one of his earlier songs with the assistance of his son-in-law, and his first major publication was also a collection of songs, to words by JL Runeberg, later numbered opus 13.
Sibelius was a musical chameleon, changing styles like others change coats. Some of his 111 songs are totally classical in the Schubertian tradition, others are in the Nordic romantic style, and in the years around the change of the century Sibelius wrote some of his most beautiful songs in the late romantic style: the collections in opuses 36, 37 and 38.
Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The boy’s magic horn) is an anthology of German folk songs collected in the early 19th century by the poets Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim. Over the years many German and Austrian composers have been inspired by the texts – Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Schönberg, Webern, Zemlinsky and of course Gustav Mahler, who not only set many of the poems in the collection to music, but also re-used the tunes he composed for them in his symphonies.
As a 25-year-old, Mahler used the anthology as inspiration for his own lyrics to his Songs of a Wayfarer, and seven years later he published songs taken directly from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Neither was that the end of it: in 1892 he started writing the songs selected for this evening’s concert by Lise Davidsen and Helmut Deutsch.
The five songs in Mahler’s song cycle to words by Friedrich Rückert were originally published as part of his collection Sieben Lieder aus letzter Zeit (Seven Songs of Latter Days) and premiered in Vienna on 29 January 1905 with Mahler conducting. As is the case with many of Mahler’s songs, they are conceived both as orchestral lieder and as songs with piano accompaniment.
Richard Strauss adored the soprano voice. Some of his best music was written for sopranos, and he married one himself! The pivotal roles in his operas are almost always sopranos, whether a wild teenager (Salome), a maladjusted nervous wreck (Elektra), an unworldly goddess (Ariadne) or an innocent young daughter of a nouveau riche businessman (Sofie in Der Rosenkavalier). As a composer he knows the soprano voice and the possibilities it holds better than most, and in contexts where composers usually write for male voices, Strauss is the champion of the soprano.
The four works in Strauss’s opus 27 were in fact a present from the composer to his wife, the soprano Pauline de Anha, on the occasion of their wedding in 1894. Although she was famous for being ‘eccentric, snobbish, ill-tempered and outspoken’, Strauss described her as ‘very complex, very feminine, a little perverse, a little coquettish …’ and they lived happily together for over fifty years.
Richard Strauss worked on the four wedding present songs to the very last moment: Cäcilie was not completed until the day before their marriage.
Text: Henrik Engelbrecht
English version: Roger Martin