I’m about to say something that will shock you. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a hanging offense in this part of the world.
I don’t much care for Schubert.
I know! I know! I know he’s the height of Lied composition. I know he composed hundreds of songs, perfectly marrying text to music with an artistry and attention to detail that makes men weep and women swoon.
I just don’t really like a lot of his songs. Case in point: Der Musensohn. But the poem is beautiful, and luckily part of the point of this program is that we start with the words. Our poetry teacher, Dr. Wolfgang Lockemann, is a lifelong student of German poetry and literature, and feels very (VE-RY) strongly that art song requires a totally different approach than dramatic singing disciplines like opera*. Rather than creating a character and singing the action of the poem as though it were a dramatic scene, we let the worlds of the poem speak for themselves. Its the difference between being the painter and being the paint.
Lieder singers should be reproductive artists, learning to express the innate rhythm, cadence, topography of the words themselves without deeper interpretation, but rather exacting detail and faithfulness to what the poet gives us. Don’t make up a back-story, or try to find symbolism. Don’t assume or create circumstances or facts beyond the words on the page. Choose the Occam’s Razor approach to poetry–the simplest understanding is correct for our purposes. This allows the listener to really experience the poetry for themselves, rather than having OUR interpretation foisted ineffectually upon them. It’s the audible, external version of reading a poem to oneself. Our singing is the paint that the poem uses to show itself to the audience. The poet is the painter, I am just his medium.
This approach is TOTALLY different from the way most of us have been trained, and is hard to wrap the brain around. We are all struggling to subsume our own thoughts and interpretations of the poetry, and rather learning to recognize the internal structure directions that the words themselves provide the performer. Right now, our work is spent endlessly reciting poetry in a group with Wolfgang directing and correcting us. It’s harder than one might think to read with drama but without being “dramatic” (that is, speaking as though we were on stage). On stage the goal is (in part) to make one’s speech/singing sound spontaneous, as though the thought were passing through our heads for the first time. In recitation of this kind, we approach the line as a finished thing that exists in the world already as a whole.
It is…hard. Really, really hard. And I’m pretty sure that I’m currently in the lead for the Most Annoying Student award for asking complicated philosophical and practical questions about the whole premise and process.
We have each been assigned 3 songs, the first of which for me is Der Musensohn by Schubert. After today’s poetry workshop on the text, I have an affection for and understanding of the poem, which is by Goethe. It is beautiful (though not my favorite of those that we did today. But I just don’t particularly like the setting by Schubert. I just listened to it again (last time I heard it was in Song Literature class several months ago), and am sort of bored by it about a minute in. It will be interesting to see how I feel about it once I start to apply what we learned about the poetry to singing. I’m ready to change my mind, Schubert fans–I hope that I do.
Now, it’s 8:30 here, and I have some German homework to do before language class tomorrow, a first lesson to prepare for, and about 10 more poems to prepare for tomorrow, so here’s your moment of Zen for the day:
*For those who would like to read more about Dr. Lockrmann’s approach to Art song singing, he has published this article (I believe in Classical Singer? will have to check), and here on the program website: Lieder As Mini Opera?