Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883) is not well-known as a song writer and, in fact, the Wesendonck Lieder apart, most people would be hard pressed to think of any other works by the composer in this genre. In fact the Wesendonck Lieder are Wag...
Richard Wagner (1813 - 1883) is not well-known as a song writer and, in fact, the Wesendonck Lieder apart, most people would be hard pressed to think of any other works by the composer in this genre. In fact the Wesendonck Lieder are Wagner's only songs dating from his operatic maturity and their links to Tristan und Isolde make them rather sui generis. But he did write songs earlier in his career, so Nigel Foster and his London Song Festival at their recital on 23 May 2013 at St Paul's Church, Covent Garden, London, enabled us to hear all of Wagner's completed songs, forming a programme which was full, satisfying and rather surprising. Soprano Elisabeth Meister and bass-baritone Matthew Hargreaves were accompanied by Foster, and joined by members of London Voices, giving us a rare chance to hear all of Wagner's songs in one place, giving us an intriguing glance into Wagner before he became Wagner.
Wagner completed the first opera in his mature canon, Der fliegende Holländer, in 1843 and his songs generally date from before this period so that, like his early operas, they show us the composer absorbing influences, trying on styles and even flirting with humour.
The first group of songs were the Sieben Kompositionen zu Goethe's Faust (Seven pieces from Goethe's Faust) which were written in 1831, before the 18 year old composer had started his composition lessons with Theodor Wenlig. The songs were written for a theatre performance in Leipzig of Goethe's Faust where his sister was playing Gretchen. Wagner set familiar Goethe texts which crop up in a variety of other songs and Faust adaptations: Lied der Soldaten (Song of the Soldiers), Bauern unter der Linde (Yokels under the linden tree), Brander's Lied (Brander's song), Lied des Mephistopheles: Es war einmal ein Konig (Mephistopheles Song: There was once a King), Lied des Mephistopheles: Was machst du mir (Mephistopheles Song: What are you doing), Gretchen am Spinnrade, Melodram Gretchens.
The opening two movements are choruses, which were sung with lively enthusiasm by members of London Voices; the first a rather four-square march, the second a charming strophic song with solos for tenor and soprano voices. It was immediately apparent that we were in the world of Weber and Marschner. Matthew Hargreaves sang both Brander's Lied and Mephistopheles' two songs, providing some nicely dramatic and vividly involving singing. Both Hargreaves and Elisabeth Meister sang all the programme from memory. This enormously added to the communicability of the performances but represented a significant amount of work given the rarity of the music. Meister was, of course, Gretchen giving a brilliant account of Gretchen am Spinnrade with Foster providing a very atmospheric piano accompaniment. The final item was even more unusual, Wagner's only example of a melodrama with Meister vividly intense in the spoken passages.
All concerned gave vividly dramatic performances, which were highly involving and helped contribute to the success of the work. Certainly this was Wagner aping Weber and Marschner, but doing so very creditably. We don't normally think of Wagner as a particular prodigy as it took some time before he found his full voice, but it is clear that at 18 he could write very interestingly and creditably. And no, if I'd heard the music blind I would never have guessed it was by Wagner.
In 1837 (at the age of 24) Wagner was appointed music director of Riga opera house, but in 1839 he and his wife Minna had to flee to Paris because of their debts. In Paris, Wagner had a go at writing songs for financial gain; the idea being to write a song which would be taken up by well known singers in recital and hence be popular when published. Though he did get songs published, none were taken up by the well known singers and Wagner failed to make any money. What the songs do show is the composer trying on other styles and influences such as Meyerbeer and Rossini.
Dors mon enfant (S