At the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall on Sunday afternoon, baritone Samuel Hasselhorn and pianist Renate Rohlfing treated us to a beautifully conceived and artfully presented selection of songs in German, English, and French. Much of Gardner audience could see the singer’s face since reduced attendance allowed the elimination of the usual seating behind the performers.
The opening group of Robert Schumann’s settings of texts by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) demonstrated the wide range of subject and mood explored by both poet and composer. All of them touched in one way or another on themes of death and dying. In the first section of “Tragödie” (Tragedy), op. 64, no. 3, a man invites his lover to flee with him. Schumann set these stanzas in a dense and impetuous style. The next song recounts how the couple fled through the snow and froze to death. (Heine claimed this poem to be “a genuine folk song” he had heard along the Rhine.) With a sudden shift from major to minor, Schumann adopted the bare bones syllabic style of an ancient ballad, distant “horn calls” in the piano evoking the sad conclusion. Next, Heine’s adaptation of the biblical story of Balthazar’s feast and the handwriting on the wall alternated narration and description with direct quotation culminating in outbursts of drunken blasphemy. Hasselhorn depicted the many shades of the drama with shifts of dynamics and tone color that were never overplayed or mannered. Two songs from 1840 could be linked to Schumann’s love for his future wife, Clara Wieck. “Lehn’ deine Wang’” (Rest your cheeks [against my cheeks]) conveyed a single mood of longing through rapid harmonic shifts, only to end inconclusively in a brief piano postlude on a half cadence. “Du bist wie eine Blume” (You are like a flower) brought out the mellifluous quality of Hasselhorn’s voice in softer tones. The final song in the Schumann group was another favorite, “Die beiden Grenadiere” (The Two Grenadiers), again from 1840, depicting two French prisoners returning from Napoleon’s failed Russian campaign. With its ringing quotation from the “Marseillaise” in the final stanza, here was another vehicle for a stunning display of dramatic characterization in a martial mode.
Born and educated in Germany, Hasselhorn also studied in France and the United States. In choosing four of Benjamin Britten’s folk arrangements as the next segment, he displayed his facility with some tongue-twisting English verses. He capped the rapid patter of “Oliver Cromwell,” the mock-romantic “Foggy Foggy Dew,” and the straightforward lyricism of “O waly waly” with the sailor’s tall tale, “The Crocodile,” sung with joyous aplomb.
Only the remotest echoes of folk song persist in Hugo Wolf’s 1888 setting of “Der Feuerreiter” (The Fire-rider) by Eduard Mörike (1804-1875). The intense and chilling tale depicts a mad rider so obsessed with fire that he rides into a burning mill and burns to death, his ashes mingling with the ruins of the mill. This was a bravura display of spooky musical imagery for both performers: obsessive triplets followed by increasing rhythmic density in the piano, wild leaps in the voice contrasting with rising chromatic progressions, then a return to centered tonality with the discovery of the skeleton and the hush of the piano’s final chords. Following immediately without pause and almost before we knew it came the comforting tones of Schubert’s early “Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen” (Litany for All Souls’ Day), a perfectly molded melody that seemed to float on its own. Three songs by Francis Poulenc addressed death and dying in war and its aftermath. “Le Disparu” (The One Who Disappeared) actually refers to a double disappearance. The poem, written in 1942 by Robert Desnos under the title “Couplets de la rue Saint-Martin,” mourns the capture by the Gestapo of the fictional resistance fighter André Platard: “I no longer like the rue Saint-Martin since André Platard left it.” In setting this song, Poulenc knew that Desnos, a member of the resistance himself, was captured in 1944 and ended up at Theresienstadt, where he died of typhus in May 1945, not long after the camp’s liberation. Like Desnos, Poulenc had first been associated with the surrealists but then turned to a more popular style. Inspired by the songs of Edith Piaf, he set Desnos’s couplets in the style of a street dance (valse-musette). Successive changes of key reflected an increasingly frantic mood until it all fell apart in a somber funeral march and a final tinkling of bells. In 1938, Europeans still hoped to avert war. On September 29th, however, Germany, France, and Britain signed the Munich agreement that paved its way. The day before, a “Prière pour paix” (Prayer for Peace) had been published by the Paris newspaper Le Figaro. The author was Charles, duke of Orléans, who was captured at the battle of Agincourt in 1415 and held hostage by the English for 25 years. In keeping with the late medieval origin of the text, which Poulenc called “a prayer to be spoken in a country church,” he chose a simple, syllabic style in an “archaic” Dorian mode for his setting, an about-face from the “boulevard” mode of “Le Disparu.” In “Le retour du sergent” (The sergeant’s return), the fifth of Maurice Fombeure’s Chansons villageoises (Village songs), the sergeant is happy to be back from the war, but sad to think of those who will never see their village again. In seven short stanzas, the singer has to shift back and forth between fast, percussive, martial delivery — ironically set to the words “with swollen feet and a wheezing nose” — and plaintive regret for the dead. Hasselhorn realized the shifting moods unerringly.
A final group of Schubert songs closed the program. The young Schubert’s setting of Goethe’s dramatic poem “Erlkönig” (Elf-king) [one of the greatest of opus ones] calls for virtuosic stamina from both pianist and singer: relentless triplet octaves from the pianist, variety of characterization from the singer. In fact, Hasselhorn employed a distinctive tone color for each of the four characters, with only the narrator remaining in a neutral mood. Employing subtle shifts in color rather than undue mimicry, Hasselhorn conveyed the father’s mounting fear, the child’s panic, and the elf-king’s ingratiating falsehood. Rohlfing’s crisp, light attack and steady pace maintained an atmosphere of sheer terror throughout. The calm setting of another Goethe poem, “Wandrers Nachtlied” (Wanderer’s Night Song) brought a complete contrast of mood. Here the urgency of the singer’s longing for death was reflected in gentle syncopations in the piano and only gradually reached in upwardly soaring, discreetly ornamented melody that brought out the sweetness of Hasselhorn’s pianissimo voice in its upper register. In “Der blinde Knabe” (The blind boy), the poor boy claims he is happy as a king because the sun shines on him just as on everyone else. Over strumming broken chords in the piano, the voice wove a syllabically-declaimed melody, enlivened by small chromatic touches until its smoothly consonant resolution. Schubert’s last song, “Die Taubenpost” (The Pigeon Post), was composed about a month before his death. Here a young man’s hopeless love has been imagined into a guileless exchange of messages carried by pigeon post, the cheerful hopping and flying of the pigeons in the piano’s syncopated accompaniment providing a constant background to his longing. Hasselhorn and Rohlfing carried off this conceit, at once cheerful and melancholic, with rare elegance. Following a round of well-earned applause, an encore of “An die Musik” (To Music), composed in 1817 to text beginning “Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir” by Schubert’s friend Franz Schobert (1798-1882), echoed our sentiments.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.