Für den Graben, Mutter, für den Graben.

Mutter, wozu hast du deinen Sohn aufgezogen? Hast dich zwanzig’ Jahr mit ihm gequält? 

Wozu ist er dir in deinen Arm geflogen, und du hast ihm leise was erzählt? 
 Bis sie ihn dir weggenommen haben. Für den Graben, Mutter, für den Graben.

 Junge, kannst du noch an Vater denken? Vater nahm dich oft auf seinen Arm. Und er wollt dir einen Groschen schenken, und er spielte mit dir Räuber und Gendarm. Bis sie ihn dir weggenommen haben. Für den Graben, Junge, für den Graben. 
Drüben die französischen Genossen lagen dicht bei Englands Arbeitsmann. Alle haben sie ihr Blut vergossen, und zerschossen ruht heut Mann bei Mann. Alte Leute, Männer, mancher Knabe in dem einen großen Massengrabe. 
Seid nicht stolz auf Orden und Geklunker! Seid nicht stolz auf Narben und die Zeit! In die Gräben schickten euch die Junker, Staatswahn und der Fabrikantenneid. Ihr wart gut genug zum Fraß für Raben, für das Grab, Kameraden, für den Graben! 
Werft die Fahnen fort! Die Militärkapellen spielen auf zu euerm Todestanz. Seid ihr hin: ein Kranz von Immortellen – das ist dann der Dank des Vaterlands. 
Denkt an Todesröcheln und Gestöhne. Drüben stehen Väter, Mütter, Söhne, schuften schwer, wie ihr, ums bißchen Leben. Wollt ihr denen nicht die Hände geben? Reicht die Bruderhand als schönste aller Gaben übern Graben, Leute, übern Graben 
Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) 
Mother, for what have you brought your son up for ?  Have you done for him in 20 years ? Why has he flown from your arms, and you’ve gently eared him ?  Until he was taken from you to the trenches. Mother, for the trenches. 
Young man, can you yet think of your father ? You father who held you often in his arms and gave you a penny to spend and played Cops and Robbers with you.  Until you were taken away from him, to the trenches, Lad, to the trenches.
Over by the French buddies lay the English worthies, mown down together man by man.  Old guys, men in their prime, kids, all in a single mass grave. 
Don’t be proud of Orders and Medals ! Don’t be proud of  wounds and of time !  You were sent to the trenches by the Junkers, mad governments and greedy merchants of war.   You’re now food for ravens. For the trenches ! Comrades ! For the trenches !

Chuck out the flags ! Military bands are playing your Dance of Death. There you have a wreath of immortelles. That’s the thanks you get from your country.

Heed the death rattle and the groans. Over there stand others, fathers, sons, trying hard, like you to scrape a living. Don’t  you want to help, them ?  the hand of brotherhood is the finest gift. Better than graves, folks, better than graves.

Original Source: Für den Graben, Mutter, für den Graben.


Julian Prégardien Schubert Songs Wigmore Hall

The Wigmore Hall’s complete Schubert song series continued with Julian Prégardien and Christoph Schnackertz, in a recital deferring from May.  Well worth the wait, because Prégardian is good, his singing enhanced by very strong musical instincts. In Lieder, sensitivity and musical intelligence are as important as voice. A good recital, is one where you come away feeling you’ve gone deeper into the repertoire thanks to the performer, as opposed to watching celebrity for celebrity sake.  Julian Prégardien has musical thinking in his genes, and it shows.  His father’s voice is a divine  gift from God, but Julian, still only 33, has a gift for communication and, even rarer, an enthusiasm for music itself. Hence the wonderful Schubert Im gegenwärtigen Vergangenes, an unusual work where the lead tenor’s part is demanding enough for a top-quality singer, but the song works best as a quartet.  Prégardien’s voice led, enhanced by the filigree created first as a duet with the second tenor Kieran Carrel – keep an ear out for him –  further developed by the entry of the two baritones, Phil Wilcox and Niall Anderson.  Schubert’s multi-part songs are glorious : a pity they don’t get more big-name singers and high-profile gigs. At the end of the recital, Prégardien was joined by Ben Goldscheider for Auf dem Strom D943 (1828, Rellstab). Valve horns were relatively new at the time, and Schubert’s writing for the instrument tends to dominate the song, to the detriment of the voice part. 

Im gegenwärtigen Vergangenes is based on one of Goethe’s Hafiz poems from the West-östlicher Divan. Hence the theme Bilder aus Östen, highlighting the perfumed sensibility of Goethe’s invocation of exotic, distant lands of imagination, an aesthetic particularly suited to lithe-toned tenors.  Prégardien and Schnackertz began with the rar(ish) fragment Mahomets Gesang D549 (1817) following it with Versunken D715 (1821)  where the piano part trills circular figures,  as if, through the music, the poet is running his fingers through someone’s curly locks.  Prégardien brings out the flirtatious intimacy in the song, often lost in more formal “Germanic” baritone approaches. Perhaps the text might apply to fondling a child, but it could equally describe foreplay.  Friedrich Rückert was even more of an orientalist than Goethe, and also translated Asian texts. His volume    Östliche Rosen (1822), a response to the West-östlicher Divan. was his first of many forays into exoticism.  Sei mir gegrüsst D741 (1822) with its lilting tenderness expresses feelings that could apply in any culture.  The person being greeted is lost, but  “zum Trotz der Ferne, die sich, feindlich trennend”  the poet reaches out. Thus the gentle, rocking refrain. The tenderness in Prégardien’s delivery suggests lullaby, a caress in music.  Similarly, the unforced expressiveness in Prégardien’s Dass sie hier gewesen D775 (1823), another Rückert setting where subtlety is of the essence. 

 A beautifully phrased Am See D124 (1814) led to four settings of Johan Peter Uz (1720-1796).  Die Nacht D358, Gott im Frühlinge D 448 and An Chloen (fragment) D363, and Der gute Hirt D449,  all from 1816.  In a complete song series, someone has to draw the short straw, but Prégardien and Schnackertz gave the rather slight songs good treatment. For Uz, the shepherd in Dera gut Hirt was clearly Jesus. For Schubert, the shepherd could be a generic Romantic shepherd. The piano part suggests elegant repose, with a typically Schubertian undertow.  The alternating lines in the vocal part are fetching, too, sometimes soaring expansively, sometimes quietly reverent. 

Hearing Schubert’s Uz settings with his settings of Mayrhofer demonstrates the way Schubert responded to personal relationships as much as to poetry.  Prégardien and Schnackertz brought out the  delicacy of Geheimnis D491 (1816) which needs an intimate touch – it’s about a secret, after all, a whisper, not a shout.  In Schlaflied D527 (1817) the vocal line rocks from high to low, taxing the singer. Prégardien, fortunately, made the flow even, so it felt natural, like the movement of a cradle.   Prégardien has a gift for  songs that need sensitive treatment. He negotiates the changes, letting the line flow illuminated by an understanding of what the words mean, even when the texts aren’t particularly distinguished. Lieder is poetry. If words had no meaning, the songs wouldn’t be Lieder.  Then to the challenge of Atys D585 (1817) and Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren D360 (1816) much more sophisticated songs, which gave Prégardien more opportunity to show dramatic power. 

These songs were/are his father’s speciality: Prégardien père will never be equalled, nor should he be. Julian Prégardien gave the songs a personal touch, which I appreciated, for Lieder is about the individual and the way he or she reaches an audience.  Being the child of someone so good and so well known is a double-edged sword. You grow up in a musical environment but you have to face pressures of expectation which other young singers aren’t burdened with.  To stand on the stage at the Wigmore Hall, scene of so many Christoph Prégardien triumphs, must be daunting indeed.  That takes guts.  Prégardien fils is very good and deserves to be respected for himself.  For his encore, Julian Prégardien sang Nacht und Träume D827 (1825, Matthäus von Collin), beautifully and masterfully executed, the long lines stretching expressively. I thought I saw a tear run down Prégardien’s face, which someone else confirmed.  We were touched.  Nice to see a singer, not as an instrument, but as a human being. 

Original Source: Julian Prégardien Schubert Songs Wigmore Hall

Thoughts are Free ! Mahler Lied des Verfolgten im Turm

“Die Gedanken sind frei!”, the rallying cry of the Romantic revolution !   The text was first written dowen in the 12th century by the troubador poet Waklter von Wogelweide (whose artistic descendant is Walter von Stolzing). There are other variants from around the same period, suggesting thatbthe song was already part of oral tradition, spread presumably by students, travellers, and journeying Gesellen.  Notations were made and published later, from the 18th and early 19th century.  A true “folk” song, which fitted well with the spirit of Romanticism and its values of identity, individualism and love of Nature.  Please read my several pieces on the Lützower Freikorps and the poets and composers inspired by them HERE HEREand HERE   Effectively just about everyone, from Goethe to Beethoven, to Schubert, Weber and Mendelssohn and beyond.  And in very different ways, their heirs Wagner, Brahms and Mahler.  

Mahler’s song Lied des Verfolgten im Turm quotes Die Gedanken sind Frei word for word : the connections inescapable :
Die Gedanken sind frei, wer kann sie erraten,
sie fliegen vorbei wie nächtliche Schatten.
Kein Mensch kann sie wissen, kein Jäger erschießen
mit Pulver und Blei: Die Gedanken sind frei!

“Und sperrt man mich ein im finsteren Kerker,
das alles sind rein vergebliche Werke.
Denn meine Gedanken zerreißen die Schranken
und Mauern entzwei: Die Gedanken sind frei!”

Mahler used a variant text as published in the volume Des Knaben Wunderhorn, published by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim in 1806, which tidies up the folksy background.   In the original version, there is a verse in which the singer refers to one form of escapism : girlfriends and alcohol.

Ich liebe den Wein, mein Mädchen vor allen,
sie tut mir allein am besten gefallen.
Ich sitz nicht alleine bei meinem Glas Weine,
mein Mädchen dabei: Die Gedanken sind frei!”

Brentano and von Arnim modify this earthy humour by dividing the text into two parts, one for the Prisoner, the other for the Maiden. The girl thus becomes a protagonist in her own right. But  now her function is diversion, not support. Basically “let’s just party!” Mahler’s settingnunderlines the difference, setting the lines with flirtatious lyricism.

Im Sommer ist gut lustig sein,
Auf hohen wilden Bergen;
Man ist da ewig ganz allein,
Man hört da gar kein Kindergeschrei,
Die Luft mag einem da werden.”

The Prisoner isn’t fooled, however, and neither is Mahler. His song ends on the resolute. The old anthem returns, bold and free. 

Und weil du so klagst, Der Lieb ich entsage, 
 Und ist es gewagt, So kann mich nicht plagen!
 So kann ich im Herzen Stets lachen, bald scherzen; 
Es bleibet dabei, Die Gedanken sind frei !” 

I’ve used the picture above because it perfectly captures the humour in the song. Ths Gedanken are depicted as folksy cherubs, rather cheeky, somewhat grotesque. The angel represents the Spirit of Liberty which inspires thoughts of freedom.  She’s not a girlfriend and she’s not trying to divert the Prisoner from his dreams. 

Original Source: Thoughts are Free ! Mahler Lied des Verfolgten im Turm

The value of studying short Romantic era Character pieces

Piano teachers often welcome the opportunity to use student repertoire requests as a springboard to nourish new learning adventures. Such pupil-driven musical endeavors can lead to deep-layered immersions in short, Romantically framed character pieces.

The value of dipping into miniature variety compositions encompasses taking on a learning challenge in compact form. For example, Schumann’s Album for the Young Op. 68 has a repository of picturesque musical samples that have dual artistic and pedagogical merit bundled into a page or two. The same economy of space/expression applies to Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Pieces Op. 39. Burgmuller, Dvorak, and Shostakovich, join many other composers in this genre, who have produced anthologies of program music in attenuated form.


In both the Schumann and Tchaikovsky collections, colorful titles inspire the imagination while requiring a satisfying fusion of affective, kinesthetic, and cognitive approaches to learning. The process of absorption is still layered and developmental but it must be focused on a mood-set that is promptly captured and sustained. (Contrasts in middle sections must include a shift in affect, and an alteration of tonal expression within a short musical space.)

Schumann’s “The Reaper’s Song,” Op. 68 no. 19, is a pertinent reflection of piano study that requires an in depth examination of “voicing” despite its brevity. This particular learning dimension includes an awareness of how an opening thematic melodic line in 6/8, (duple compound meter) meanders from the “Soprano” range into the “Alto,” while the bass line provides an important fundamental underpinning. One might consider the interweaving of voices as reflective of Romantic era “counterpoint.”

In addition, there’s a syncopated rhythmic dimension that evokes the machine-like mechanism of the reaper that appears initially in the bass, but fans out to the upper voice.

Finally, any and all key changes, though ephemeral, must be noted and assessed for emotional/expressive impact.

In summary, this particular musical undertaking via “The Reaper” requires an attendant balance of all voices as they interact and move along with the enlistment of an expressive “singing tone.” (Arms must be relaxed, while wrists are supple in order to realize vocal modeled expression)

A “counter-melody” springs up, (though not readily apparent), that if fleshed out, will relieve thematic repetition and provide more nuanced artistic expression/phrasing. Rubato and dynamic variation also become integrated components in this learning venture, while an embracing rhythmic flow in TWO is musical wrapping.

As contrast to the opening fabric of voices that supports a singable, meandering theme, Schumann inserts an Interlude of rolled out UNISON triple-grouped 8th notes in Forte that smoothly transition back to the initial theme. Repetition of this particular mid-section with a doubled VOICE octave spread between the hands affords an opportunity to nuance it differently, perhaps with a less intense dynamic upon the second playing.

At the piece’s conclusion, the composer charmingly adds a Coda of lighthearted staccato chords in choir where the soprano remains, without doubt, the lead voice. A parallel harmonic third to fifth to sixth sequence in this addendum hearkens Schumann’s signature “hunting horn” motif, though I’m not convinced that the REAPER, relentlessly harvesting crops would have stumbled into this particular milieu. (but who knows?)

Other samples of short character pieces that require in depth probing of voicing/phrasing/dynamics etc. include these two gems that I’ve recently learned.

Robert Schumann

“A Little Romance,” Album for the Young, Op. 68
(This miniature requires playing after beat chords as harmonically rich supports, but not intruding upon an impassioned melodic line. Once again, “voicing and balance” considerations are pivotal to playing this piece expressively.)


Antonin Dvorak

“Grandpa Dances with Grandma” (No. 2–Two Little Pearls)

Lots of thematic repetition requires expressive and dynamic variation. In a relentless 3/8 meter frame, a player must resist the temptation to sound mechanical and metronomic. A contrasting middle section that’s homophonic and in a modulating KEY, demands a shift in mood, needing prompt awareness and attention to tone/touch shifts. A Voicing dimension expectedly permeates the entire tableau.

Original Source: The value of studying short Romantic era Character pieces

Storgårds : Mahler 4, Boulanger Jolas Barbican

John Storgårds conducted the BBC SO at the Barbican in Mahler Symphony no 4, paired with short pieces by Lili Boulanger and Betsy Jolas. Lili Boulanger died aged only 24. How she would have developed had she lived longer, no-one will ever know. Boulanger’s output isn’t big enough to fully justify the posthumous reputation promoted by her sister Nadia. Nadia herself was so strong that the gap intensified between her students (largely English speakers) and those of Olivier Messiaen, whose students went on to very diverse careers, a divide still felt today. Eventually Nadia will be understood in context, and Lili appreciated on her own merits. D’un soir triste and  D’un matin de printemps, written towards the end of her life, are slight pieces but have charm. Perfectly apposite in relation to Mahler’s Symphony no 4 with its evocation of souls whose voices were cut short before their time.

Unlike Lili Boulanger, Betsy Jolas has reached 91, and has a substantial output, primarily chamber, many miniatures.  Histoires Vraies (2015) is a relatively substantial piece: a concerto for two soloists,  Håkan Hardenberger and Roger Muraro, and orchestra. The title refers to “true stories”, talks of ordinary life, hence the idea of two soloists in dialogue with each other and with the wider ensemble. The orchestra provides a chattering backdrop . Nice langorous lines from Hardenberger’s trumpet, imaginative sparkle from Muraro’s piano.  The overall effect is intimate, rather like overhearing a conversation in a busy boulevard café. Nothing radical whatsoever, and rather timeless: the world is going by, but we live on in the moment. Which, in itself, is no bad thing.

In London, we have four world-class orchestras and others in town and further north, plus numerous specialist ensembles of all kinds.  Plus of course, we regularly get most of the big European orchestras, who are within easy reach even when they don’t play here live.  But we shouldn’t take that luck for granted. Our “home band”, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, is really very good: we just hear a lot of them and get blasé.  This Mahler 4 with John Storgårds surprised me. When the BBCSO are good, they’re very, very good.

Of the four high-profile Mahler 4‘s in recent weeks (Gatti, Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam; Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla, CBSO; and Jakub Hrůša, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra) (Please read my descriptions HERE HERE and HERE), four very different approaches.  All valid and enlightening. Storgårds brought out the pulsating energy in the first movement.  You could feel the horses pulling the sleighs. The snow doesn’t hold them back, as they surge forward.  Vitality in this first movement is important because  it provides structural balance to the final movement.  Furthermore, it connects  physical life with the simple physical pleasures that the child delights in, even after death.   The resonance in the BBCSO strings a reminder ofv the darkness that is never far away even in this most sunlit of Mahler’s symphonies.  That resonance came even more strongly to the fore in the second movement where the brasses and winds called sour warnings, and the First Violin  created the duality between the “earthly” violin and its “demonic” counterpart.  

MGM timpani in the finale of the third movement, followed by lustrous strings and harps. Cataclysm followed by repose, a transition that signifies renewal on a new plane.  The soprano, Susanna Hurrell, is pleasantly youthful. Light, bright voices here remind us that the child didn’t live long enough to become fully formed. Thus the tragedy, as the orchestra strikes up, the BBCSO in full, vibrant flow. Hrůša‘s soprano, Marta Reichelova, is possibly even younger, but her cheeky enthusiasm created the part vividly. Gatti’s soloist, Chen Reiss, is more experienced though rather neutral, but I liked the innocence of Hurrell.

Original Source: Storgårds : Mahler 4, Boulanger Jolas Barbican

Orchestre de Paris 50th Birthday Party – Berio Sinfonia flows free

The Orchestre de Paris, with Daniel Harding, click to enlarge -it’s worth  it

Hugely ambitious concert marking the 50th anniversary of the Orchestre de Paris. The finest concert hall in the world,  and one of the finest orchestras too,  with new Chief Conductor Daniel Harding, and a programme showcasing the connections between sound and space.  Berio’s Sinfonia, “a symphony that contains the world”  created so it constantly renews and adapts whenever it’s performed anew.  A metaphor for the creative force that is music !  The concepts that make Berio’s Sinfonia so innovative apply too to György Ligeti’s Poème symphonique pour 100 métronomes, to Jörg Widmann’s Fantasie, to Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and to Debussy La Mer.   To assess this vast programme in conventional terms would be to miss its very purpose.  The Orchestre de Paris and the Philharmonie are astute, not stupid.  These works are hardly obscure.  Music doesn’t have to be locked into straitjackets of form. Like the river that flows through Berio’s Sinfonia, it flows onwards, absorbing many influences, fertilizing new areas, bringing renewal and rebirth.  As Berio explained, “One of my aims was to use the orchestration as a respectful and loving instrument of investigation and transformation”. 

It’s no accident that Berio references Mahler’s Symphony no 2, with its themes of death and resurrection, and specifically to the movement in which the song  Des Antonius von Paduas Fischpredikt  resurfaces wordlessly, in orchestral guise.  Numerous other references, too, such as to Don, the first movement of Boulez’s Pli selon Pli ( which means fold upon fold, ie, endless layers and permutations)(Read more HERE)  “Don” means gift, so this is like a gift  from one composer to another. What has gone before shapes what is to come, but absolutely central is the idea that music never ends.  Numerous other references, some musical, some cultural, some explicit, some so cryptic that they only reveal themselves on careful listening.  “For the unexpected is always with us!” a phrase that acts like a signpost in the vocal parts. Berio also experiments with levels of time, blending references to the past to the present and future.  “Keep going, keep going” and later “Stop!” but the music propels ever forward.

Thunderbolt ostinato, screams of protest.  London Voices supplied the archly Anglo tones that appealed to Berio’s quirky sense of humour. So what if some audiences don’t get everything, all at once ?  St. Anthony kept preaching to the fish, though they didn’t listen and kept scrapping. 

 Berio also wrote music that would grow to fit each performance space. In the Philharmonie, the Sinfonia swelled to fit the vast space, where the acoustic  is so fine that it doesn’t dampen fine detail. This time the whispers in the voice parts could be heard, imperceptibly, and tiny figures in the orchestration weren’t lost  Though Berio uses a large orchestra, big blast is not the way to do this piece.  Harding builds up the layers of colour and texture so they shine . Much in the way Impressionist painters kept their brush strokes clear.  Thus the elegant symmetry of the programme, balancing Berio’s Sinfonia with Debussy La Mer. Both pieces are impressionistic in the way details are built up without being muddied, individual cells kept clean and vibrant. La Mer was revolutionary because it marked a sea change in style. It thrives best when conducted like this, where the energy flows freely.  For French orchestras La Mer is a signature piece : the symbol of modern French style.  

In Sinfonia, Berio also makes references to Ligeti and specifically to Atmosphères.  Perfectly logical then to follow Sinfonia with Ligeti’s Poème symphonique where 100 metronomes tick, each in slightly different ways. Ligeti’s playing with time, and measures of time : the principles of music, where his “players” are usually the means by which music is regulated. More quirky humour ! In a long concert like this, it gave the regular orchestra a rest while the audience worked. If they understood, which they probably did since it’s quite a well known piece. Again, proof that music exists in many forms ! Thus Widmann’s Fantasie for solo clarinet, heard in March this year at the opening concert at the Pierre Boulez Saal in Berlin. The Paris Philharmonie is a much bigger space, but the piece adapted well,  as if the sound of the clarinet were moving around the hall, reaching out into its distances. If anything, I much preferred this new spatial dimension. It makes the piece intriguing, as if the instrument were exploring and responding to its environment.  Like shepherds of Ancient Greece, playing flutes whose sound carries over vast spaces.  Another connection to the themes in Berio’s Sinfonia.  

Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, another hybrid form, blending the form of ritual religious music to orchestral style, at once ancient and modern.  It also combines orchestra with choir (the Choir of the Orchestre de Paris, Choirmaster Lionel Sow).  The ideas in Berio’s Sinfonia again, but with the unmistakable austerity that would mark Stravinsky’s later style. Huge blocks of sound, hewn as if from a rockface, yet moving forward with slow but monumental pace.  Stravinsky, Berio and Debussy, three very different composers but each creating new form.   In contrast,  Jörg Widmann’s  Au cœur de Paris written for the orchestra’s 50th birthday. It’s a party piece,  tumbling different clichés of Paris together in merry profusion.  Yet another nod to Berio and his sense of humour ! 

Listen to the concert here (available for the next six months)


Original Source: Orchestre de Paris 50th Birthday Party – Berio Sinfonia flows free