- Past event
Hailed as “the most promising of today’s up-and-coming song recitalists” (Financial Times), German-British baritone Benjamin Appl joins renowned pianist Wolfram Rieger in a recital anchored by the poetry of Wilhelm Müller.
Benjamin Appl, baritone
Wolfram Rieger, piano
David Lang: flower, forget me (Canadian Première)*
Franz Schubert: Die schöne Müllerin, Op. 25, D. 795
*Commissioned by the Konzerthaus Dortmund for Benjamin Appl
This recital is generously supported by the Stratton Trust and Roy & Marjorie Linden
David Lang, (b. 1957)
flower, forget me
flower, forget me was commissioned by Konzerthaus Dortmund, for the baritone Benjamin Appl, specifically to go on a program with Schubert’s great song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin.
I am not sure that they knew it when they asked me, but Die schöne Müllerin is one of my favorite pieces. Die schöne Müllerin is an act of radical storytelling, completely ahead of its time in subtlety and complexity, whose radical nature is hidden from our sight by the emotional narrative and the beautiful tunes.
One interesting fact is that Schubert didn’t set to music all of the poems in the original cycle, by the poet Wilhelm Müller. He left out a few, and my first thought for this piece was to set some of the missing poems to new music. Upon re-reading them, one of these un-set poems immediately jumped out at me— Blümlein Vergißmein (The Flower Forget-me).
In this poem, which appears near the end of the cycle, the young miller hides in the forest, throwing himself on the ground in despair, describing the flowers that could match the darkness that he feels all around him. Then I began to remember the flowers in other texts that Schubert set to music—the flowers with which Death tempts the boy in Der Erlkönig, the creepy boy tormenting a rose in Heidenröslein, etc., and, of course, all the flower imagery in those Die schöne Müllerin poems that Schubert did set.
Flowers show up a lot in the texts that Schubert used, as they did in much Romantic-era poetry. Flowers are the perfect metaphor for futility and death—seeing their fragile, bright, short lives might make us think of our own. I began to wonder how many of Schubert’s songs engaged this kind of imagery. I went alphabetically, in German, through every single Schubert song text and compiled every instance of when a flower is mentioned as a reminder of our mortality. All told, I have used excerpts from 33 songs, translating them very roughly and trimming them into a single text. And then I set to music the Müller poem that Schubert didn’t set.
This is the same process I used to make the text for my piece, death speaks, in which the libretto is made out of all the moments in Schubert song texts when Death speaks to us, directly, in words.
I would like to thank Benjamin Appl and Konzerthaus Dortmund for asking me to do this project. Not only is it a tremendous honour, but it is also meaningful to me personally, as my grandfather Max Atlas lived in Dortmund in the years before the First World War. After the war, he moved to Düsseldorf, met my Grandmother, and they settled in Wuppertal.
Copyright © 2022 David Lang
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Die schöne Müllerin, Op. 25, D. 795
I can neither play nor sing, yet, when I write verses, I sing and play after all. If I could produce the tunes, my poems would please me better than they do now. But courage! A kindred soul may be found who will hear the tunes behind the words and give them back to me.
This is an excerpt from Wilhelm Müller’s (the poet of Die schöne Müllerin) personal diary and after reading this, one can only bemoan the fact that Müller never had the chance to personally meet Franz Schubert, for he would have instantly found a “kindred spirit” in the young Austrian composer.
Die schöne Müllerin, or “The Fair Maid of the Mill,” is Schubert’s first great song cycle based on poems of Wilhelm Müller (the other being Winterreise). Composed in 1823 and published the following year, the cycle tells the tale of a young unnamed “wanderer” who happens upon a brook during his travels and follows it to a mill. There, he begins working in earnest for the miller and soon falls in love with his beautiful daughter, the titular schöne Müllerin. He attempts to court her, singing gently at her window and offering her the gift of a precious green ribbon. Her response is tentative, at best, and before long, her affections shift when a hunter, clad in green, comes to the mill and seduces her. The narrator becomes increasingly agitated after having lost his beloved and he gradually comes to despise anything that carries the colour green. His despondency grows ever deeper and he soon begins fantasizing about his own death.
Schubert manages, with great economy of means, to create a rich and varied sonic world to underpin the unfolding drama. While the singer naturally assumes the role of the lovesick narrator, the piano quickly comes to represent another crucial character in the story, the brook. Endless variations of “water music” are developed in the piano part throughout the cycle. Broken arpeggios, babbling melodic figurations, and deep, murky-sounding chords are just a few examples of pianistic textures employed whenever the narrator confers with the brook. In the second song, “Wohin?”, the wanderer asks “Where are you leading me, brook?”, in the next song, “Halt!”, after being led to the mill, he asks anew “Dear little brook, is this where you meant to lead me?”, and in the following song, “Danksagung an den Bach”, after meeting the miller’s daughter for the first time, the narrator asks “Did she send you? Or are you deceiving me?”. It isn’t until the penultimate song, “Der Müller und der Bach”, that the brook finally answers the wanderer as the latter is contemplating suicide. The brook speaks of love and of its many virtues. Such idyllic talk of love is too much for the heartbroken wanderer, and, in a final act of desperation, he drowns himself in the cool waters of the brook. The final song, “Des Baches Wiegenlied”, is a lullaby sung by the brook to the now-dead wanderer.
Copyright © 2022 Stephane Mayer