Sunday, September 8, 2019

"Goethe and Music", a lecture-concert at the Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn, Germany

Beethoven and Goethe (
“Goethe und die Musik” (Goethe and Music), an event celebrating 270 years of the birth of Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), took place on August 28th 2019 at the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany (Bundeskunsthalle) Bonn. Actually, the evening opened with drinks served on the roof of the building, where garden beds have been planted with the kinds of flowers that had been cultivated by the great German poet himself in his own garden. No amateur to horticulture, Goethe’s seminal scientific work “Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären” (An Attempt to Interpret the Metamorphosis of Plants), dated from 1790, has created the foundation for many domains of modern plant biology.


The event was a collaboration between the Bundeskunsthalle, the Beethoven House (Bonn) and the Weimar Classical Foundation (Klassik Stiftung Weimar). Performing Lieder set to texts of Goethe were baritone Patrick Cellnik and pianist Camilla Köhnken, with Dr. Julia Ronge (Beethoven House) and Prof. Thorston Valk (Klassik Stiftung Weimar) interspersing the works with much interesting background information. Born in Frankfurt, Goethe, referred to by Thomas Carlyle as “the universal man”, produced four novels, epic- and lyrical poetry, prose and verse dramas, memoirs, an autobiography, literary and aesthetic criticism and treatises on botany, anatomy and colour; add to these, numerous literary- and scientific fragments, more than 10,000 letters, and some 3,000 drawings. The recital opened with Lieder of the earliest Goethe composer Bernhard Theodor Breitkopf (1749-1820), grandson of the publishing house’s founder. Breitkopf; he was the first composer to set his friend’s  poems to music, in the style of the day. Subtler and more colourful were settings of Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752-1814) and Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832) - these two composers were major figures of  the Second Berlin School. Their text settings, demands of performance practice and their role in the overall development of the Lied are largely underappreciated.


Beethoven greatly revered Goethe’s artistry; it is Goethe who appears in his Lieder more persistently than any other poet. The composer’s Goethe songs are among the most eloquent of the fifty-or-so Lieder composed in his early- and middle years. Following their fine-spun elation expressed in “Mailied” (May Song), the artists gave a poetic and poignant reading of “Wonne der Wehmut” (Delight in Melancholy), with its small pondering pauses and suggestion of joy found through sadness. In “Song of the Flea”, the farcical ballad sung by Mephisto from “Faust”, telling of a king who loved his flea and forbade his courtiers to kill the miniature tormentors, Cellnik presented the narrative with glee and whimsical self-importance as Köhnken entertained with Beethoven's clumsy clusters of dissonant chords. 


Prolific German composer Franz Xaver Sterkel (!750-1817) is little known to today’s audiences. In his time, he was prominent and influential, his music lyrical, sentimental and well structured. Of his almost four hundred songs, we heard two from. “Sechs Gedichte von Goethe” (1818).  Secretary to Count Moritz Dietrichstein, Austrian court official, composer and writer on performance practice Ignaz Franz von Mosel (1772-1844) was an influential supporter of Schubert’s music. The four Goethe songs of his Op.3 were dedicated to Schubert. Mosel was one of the very many composers to set Goethe’s “Mignon” (from “Wilhelm Meister”) to music. Cellnik’s singing of it was articulate and indeed text-centred:  
“Know’st thou the land where the fair citron blows,
Where the bright orange midst the foliage glows,
Where soft winds greet us from the azure skies,
Where silent myrtles, stately laurels rise,
Know'st thou it well?
'Tis there, 'tis there,
That I with thee, beloved one, would repair…”

Ferdinand Ries’ oeuvre isn’t entirely forgotten, but very little of it is played today. A pupil of Beethoven, with a strong connection to him on both a personal- and professional level, Ries had served as his copyist and private secretary. Ries’ works represent an important link between the Classical- and Romantic styles. We heard a section of his Op.32 - “6 Lieder von Goethe für eine Singstimme mit Begleitung des Pianoforte” (Hamburg, 1811), an example of the conservative, charming folk-like style of his Lieder, together with his fine writing for piano.


One occasionally hears Beethoven’s “Egmont” Overture in piano arrangements for four hands (one piano) or for eight hands (two pianos). Prior to the final bracket of songs on the program, Camilla Köhnken, however, performed a one-piano (2 hands) arrangement of the piece, indeed a program work powerfully telling the story of Count Egmont - of his arrest, execution and that his spirit lives on. Köhnken’s dynamic, virtuosic performance gave expression to the work’s passion, emotion and final optimism. 


The concert concluded with Lieder of Franz Schubert, who set 80 of Goethe's poems to music. Sadly, Goethe failed to appreciate the songs which would link his poems to musical immortality. It was in October 1814 that the 17--year-old composer began the transformation of an entire musical genre with his setting of a poem from Goethe’s “Faust” - “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), composed in a single day. With its incessant whirring piano accompaniment, Köhnken and Cellnik’s performance of the work was intense and mesmerising, enriched by Cellnik’s fine use of low and high registers. A sense of fate and warmth pervaded their reading of “An Mignon” (To Mignon), with its enigmatic melodic simplicity and astonishing modulations. As to “Erster Verlust” (First Loss), written by Schubert at age 18, its major-minor introspection weaving hope with despair was given an attentive and balanced reading.  Effective in its directness and narrative, “Der König in Thule” (The King in Thule) emerged expressive of loneliness, bereavement and the pointlessness of wealth and power when there is no love.  The Bonn recital concluded with the artists’ performance of Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig” (Earl King), one of Romantic repertoire’s most challenging miniature vocal dramas, with its relentless, forbiddingly difficult piano accompaniment depicting the galloping horse and its demands on the singer to act all four characters of the ballad – narrator, father, son, and the Earl King -  and to embody all four sentiments, a huge task for the vocalist. Cellnik and Köhnken addressed the song’s many elements with fine articulacy - its drama and urgency, its sensation of horror, the supernatural, the teasing Earl King, his eerie “death dance”, the child’s frenzied utterances, the father’s calming gestures and the final statement - real, stark and chillingly unaccompanied.

An enriching and high-quality event, offering much to interest the listener, with seldom-heard works alongside those well-known to the concert public. Patrick Cellnik is a young, well-trained and thorough artist with a fine future ahead of him. Time will allow him to venture further out of his comfort zone. An outstanding and experienced accompanist, Camilla Köhnken, ever attentive to her soloist, could at times be more confrontational.

Born in Bonn, Camilla Köhnken studied in Cologne, New York and Basel. She performs widely in Europe and the USA. A keen chamber musician, she performs with two ensembles: "Ivory & Reed" (with saxophone) and the Philon Trio. She recently completed her doctorate at the University of Bern on interpretation strategies of the Liszt circle.

Patrick Cellnik recently completed studies in Catholic Church Music in Cologne, studying voice and choral conducting. Due to his special interest in the Lied, he has led workshops for young people on Schubert's "Winterreise". As of 2018, he has  served as assistant to the choirmaster of the Cologne Cathedral Choir.   


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