Christian Gerhaher and Christoph Vratz talking about the singer's adoration for Schumann


Mizuka Kano (©Rolf Obrecht)
Mizuka Kano (©Rolf Obrecht)

Christoph Vratz: Yes, ladies and gentlemen! Both people ce- lebrating a jubilee in the past and present years were just wonderfully combined: Franz Liszt and Robert Schumann. Actually, Mister Gerhaher, this work must be an anathema to you, since there’s nothing left for you to do anymore with this Liszt transcription [Robert Schumann’s “Widmung“ performed by Mizuka Kano in the transcription of Liszt]. Your voice is not asked and Liszt also insisted to – well – elevate all this in a pianistic way that at best the basic melody is preserved.

Christian Gerhaher: Yes, maybe it was indeed exceptional, but don’t get me wrong when I say that these arpeggios are not sounding that much like Schumann anymore, but then – there is often the case with music of Schumann, where the lyrics are not to hear, but are still to be thought along. But what quickly came to my mind: I think that Schumann is not only about music, but also about things that can be achieved by music, and exceed the musical horizon.

CV: In what way exceeding?

ChG: Yes, this is of course the question. I of course tried to prepare myself. I found a quotation in a biography, where Schumann states following, about Schubert or maybe he wasn’t even referring to Schubert, but to those before. The quote is as following: “So entstand jene kunstvollere und tiefsinnigere Art des Liedes, und ums Lied geht es mir natürlich besonders, von der natürlich die früheren [Komponisten] nicht wissen konnten, denn es war nur der neue Dichtergeist [...]”.
“Only“ the new poetic spirit is in my opinion obviously remarkable. The poetic spirit is something very determining in Schumann’s life.

CV: Would you agree? ChG: Concerning Schubert, I...

CV: Schumann. You say, when you refer to Schubert, you would not necessarily agree with it.

ChG: This is maybe a bit far-fetched. I don’t know why – he was commenting several times positively about Schubert – why he, concerning his songs, didn’t do that.

CV: To what extent would you say that Schumann continued Schubert’s heritage – and the song heritage is just simply a colossus regarded as a whole –, respectively, where did Schumann discover possibilities for the song genre, which Schubert couldn’t savor yet?

ChG: There are known things – this emphasizing of the piano art in his songs, with great preludes and sequels, with reflections about the previous, already stated in the singing, but I would like to respond to something different. I think that one can credit Schumann with a certain conceptual affinity, which is not the case with Schubert. Schubert is a song composer – the first and maybe one of the most important, there is actually no doubt about it – but still I have the feeling with Schubert that it is more about the interpreting unambiguousness, which he is looking for in his musical approach to an existing poem.

CV: Yes, but that this is not the case with Schumann, is also resulting from the “zeitgeist” (spirit of the age) which is tending toward openess. Schumann also shows this with his partly selected texts; Heine for instance, who epitomizes ambiguity with his irony.
What consequences does this irony have for you as singer?

ChG: Well...

CV: Well, it is a relatively fine line, when you exaggerate, then it is satire in the 21st century, how it is not supposed to be. And when you make it boring, then everyone would say: Well, wait a second, where has the ironical undertone gone.

ChG: Well, I think that the problem of irony with Heine is a bit bagging in context of Schumann. I think that the textual basis, he is choosing for his Heine settings are actually all no highly ironical templates, as for example Vesque von Püttlingen is choosing. Schumann didn’t set Atta Troll or similar to music. There are simply big differences, which are spotted already in the choice of the texts, relating to the rest of Heine receptions. I don’t think it is reproducible to impute to Schumann that he’s not appropriately presenting the irony of Heine is his settings, respectively didn’t even put it into consideration. I think, the irony with Heine is just a part of his poetry. It’s not that Heine is to be reduced to irony. Of course, he’s using it. But he also expresses often enough the desire – the desire to come closer to a person, and maybe also to be frustrated that exactly this is when it is not possible, same like a flower that is considered beautiful, to come closer to a flower. Of course you can touch it. And you can also destroy it. But the object of desire is not really to understand, touch. I think this is the essential bottom line of this poem, not the slight irony that comes with it.

CV: But this is already included a little bit in the song that basically always shows up with Heine. Namely in estimated or felt 95% of his poems, there are always sudden changes taking place in the end. At the beginning everything is joyful and bright and you suspect a happy end for this hope, but by the last verse the situation overturns and ends up in either a bittersweet or maybe even tragic way, disappointment etc.
Is this, this fact, relevant for you as interpreter when you prepare a piece, that in the case of Schumann/Heine sort of approaches bottom-up?

ChG: Mmh... , how I work out a piece, it is something totally different. This is a little bit complicated. It changes. But I feel that you have a great affinity to consider the irony of Heine as essential for Schumann’s work, whether it is fulfilled or not. Maybe I’m totally mistaken, which I hope, since I’m convinced that is not important.
And, now that you say it, Heine characterizes a different time for Schumann than for Schubert, a different poetic time. I would also approach this statement with a certain amount of doubt. Well, also Schubert set Heine-songs to music and he also found Wilhelm Müller who as a poet was also perceived by Heine explicitly as predecessor. Irony is not something that was invented by Heine.
I think that also Schubert tried from time to time to distance himself notionally from the clear form construct of a music masterpiece. I believe that there are two works in the song field: There is Winterreise and there are the Heine songs from Schwanengesang, where...

CV: Whereas these are also defined as late works.

CHG: Well, but he also wrote the Rellstab songs in Schwanengesang at the same time the same point of time, and his last song was “Taubenpost”, which can also be named ‘Taubenpest’ with all its beatitude.
I think, it is not deniable that Schubert maybe sometimes tried to notionally get a different idea of a piece as to let it be as finished artwork as its own. But I think it characterizes Schubert not as composer, it is a small part which still might show up in his life.
But I absolutely want to see it with Schumann. Just let me conclude with some examples. Schumann set not only Heine to music, and I don’t know much about the other ironical poems.

CV: Oh, let’s leave the irony aside.

ChG: Well yes, it is important. Why should you tell this about a piece, with which you’re inspirationally involved. Why should you try to serve another purpose as the music immanent one as a composer. I would like to state examples where I think that there is in it. Two small song cycles. I believe that almost every song opus of Schumann has a cyclical character in the sense of “being performed”. It should not be used as totally lifeless base – so that one only says: “Ah, the ‘Widmung’ (dedication) is so beautiful, I take this out. And then....”

Christop Vratz and Christian Gerhaher
Christop Vratz and Christian Gerhaher (©Rolf Obrecht)

CV: No, of course not...

ChG: This is totally not feasible with Schumann. In my opinion, concerning Schumann, you have to perform the entire opera. And as example I wanted to state two: opus 40 is, in my perception, the one with the Chamisso poems, or 42, no, I think 42 is Frauenliebe, and 40 is the one with the four Charmisso poems, where in the end the new lyrical, joyful poem is added.
Here you can see a real dramaturgy. It starts with a harmless song, joyful, vivid, which deals with a small question at the end, which is not appearing in the lyrics. Then, it is getting worse, the soldiers come, there are – first there is a mother, which is about to lose her child to a raven, then there comes the soldier who has to shoot his friend, a firing squad, and then there comes the wedding, where the groom in the end of his life has to play at the wedding of his beloved, on the violin, but he’s not the groom anymore. It is interesting that the climax is not considering the moment where the soldier has to kill his friend as worse than the lover having the biggest pain. It is getting worse and worse. It is almost beyond all bearing and then there comes this joyful poem, set to music also joyfully.

CV: What does this joyfulness mean in this moment?

ChG: It is a joyfulness, which is per se not really accepted. But this song – it is about two lovers going around by boat and the stars are notice about this love which was supposed to be a secret. One star falls into the water and is passing the news, the father is pulling a fish out of the water, the fish is telling about this love and at once all the people know about – you see, it’s extremely funny and frolic, haha! But after all this battue – battue of thoughts and emotions – it is no longer perceived as adequate. The fact him doing something like this, can’t be a coincidence. He didn’t publish any opera in that way, like Schubert did – I don’t think that Schubert’s operas should be performed as them, this is my personal opinion. There are scientists who state oppo- site. But I think, in this case it is about ambitions of a composer, who wanted to become famous and maybe also make his living with especially perfected and dramatic songs.
I think it is totally different with Schumann. He wants to develop something out of these musical thoughts. The question is what it is exactly. I think, I can respond to me personally by saying that it’s his proper identity, which shines through everything. There are composers who seem to meticulously keep their identity out of their works. I think, Bach in this context can be named without any doubt. It is the person of Bach, who acts only a small part in understanding his works.
The person plays a major role with Schumann. I think, he is highly romantic, since he cannot dissociate himself from his proper person in the relevance of his works. And...

CV: Is this maybe related to the fact that Schumann from the beginning was feeling a sort of double existence inside him? Half poet, half musician.

ChG: It can maybe be connected to the fact that he felt torn between these two poles of his life. The fact can also be the elevated, even exaggerated image of this, well you can say, transcendental meaning of music in his life.
I would also like to quote another example: Opus 90, also a song cycle – excuse me that I’m only operating with songs. Also here, a poem is added to the end of it. There are six poems by Lenau. And at the end there is a poem added, the old catholic requiem by Abaelard und Heloise.
This is per se at the end of the song cycle not a chronological, logistically necessary fact at all. So, especially the end shows that it is about a certain soul dramaturgy to add a requiem. But it’s not only this. In the first song, and here I would also like to point out that it is not only visible in the compilation of his works that he wanted to have something else than only create musically a piece perfect in form. It is also visible in between several songs that there is a different will. And now the first song from opus 90: “Lied eines Schmiedes”. A harmless song taken from Lenau’s Faust. It is about a foal that has to be shoed and the fourth music verse repeats the lyrics of the first poem’s stanza. and all at once it is indicated at the fourth verse “piano to sing” – yes, but why? It cannot be related to the interpretation of the text anymore. And it is not about – excuse me, I’ll be finished in a second – it is not about presenting a text illustratively in an adequate way. It is about arousing a massive uncertainty for the listener. All at once it is not about the joyful construct anymore: “fein Rößlein... ”.
Why? It is, I think, to give a little taste of things to come – the series of spiritual desasters.

Christian Gerhaher (©Rolf Obrecht)
Christian Gerhaher (©Rolf Obrecht)

CV: Well, that’s it was it is in the end – you have already brought it up, this requiem sequel. This is so to say characteristic for late Schumann, who also starts to change his style totally. Who meagerly composes, who abandoned this slight ardor from his early works – except the piano sonata by the way, which we will listen to in a while. This so to speak fits in. If you bring up the cyclical, we also would have to talk about the two versions in case of Dichterliebe. The one consists of 16, the other of 20 songs. This was later more or less boiled down.
Would you say that there is also a cyclical character in the sense of Schubert’s heritage? With Schubert you can still sort of apply a plot in the songs of the great cycles.

ChG: Where? Where?

CV: With Winterreise, I believe...

ChG: I don’t agree. Well, I don’t see Winterreise like this. This is not a chronologically traceable opus.

CV: Well, maybe not chronologically, but he moves out in the beginning and in the end we finds a partner from whom we don’t know who he is.

ChG: He has already moved out. He has already...

CV: He is homeless.

ChG: I don’t think so. Well, I believe that Winterreise doesn’t have anything tale-wise, it is illustrating 24 tableaux of spiritual conditions.

CV: Then this would again be a connection to Schumann.

ChG: Yes. There is this and that with Schumann. There are maybe – you could say, in Frauenliebe und Leben, there is an actual story told, which is very unusual for Schumann. And with Dichterliebe you can assume that there is a bit more telling character than with Winterreise. But this is comparable, in my opinion: states of minds – here of a real lover. There with Winterreise, I’d say it’s not about love, it’s more about someone in a crisis, but is not hovering between life and death – but it’s not about Winterreise now. But to draw a line, with Dichterliebe, there is actually a small plot. You can figure that especially in the last song. A journey is reflected again in retrospect. In the sequel themes from previous song parts are listened to resumptively. In fact it is actually about a small cycle. But more musically cyclic, not as defined in the Schlne Müllerin. And the Schöne Müllerin is in fact, and you have to say this, it is an exception! You always think a narrative song cycle is something common, but it is an entire exception. The song is something lyrical and the Schöne Müllerin has strong epic moves; so, it’s not a prototype of a song cycle.

CV: Talking about the cyclical. Then we can also ask about Schumann’s song writing why he started so late composing songs. Since his poetic affinity, literary affection was distinctive from the beginning onwards. Why is this man waiting for so long to write for the human voice for the first time?

ChG: I cannot say that.

CV: But you for sure have a clue.

ChG: So, maybe. Maybe it’s like that the text references which he implemented in his piano music, with all the titles he gave his plays, not only in the particular operas, but also in several pieces of this opera, that he always created text references, more references of meaning, so for sure within the meaning of his program music – that this was enough for him at the beginning. But I would consider more interesting that later, when he was finally composing songs, that his purpose was not – this is my opinion -, to treat the poems in an adequate way. It was not about illustrating. It was more important to him, whether intentional or non-intentional, to maintain the ambiguousness, which in the setting to music of these mostly or almost always highly qualitative texts, which in context with Wolf is merely an exception, that it was about to maintain this ambiguousness which results more or less from the area of conflict between lyrics and music. And I think you can paraphrase this with the definition of a transcendental character of his songs. What the songs of Schubert and Wolf try to point out, and with Wolf it is extreme, since it is to musically present the lyrics adequately down to the smallest detail, that this is not the case here. My impression, here art is art for itself enough since created as art, and with Schumann is about a different approach of reception.

CV: I assume that this is maybe a bit resulting from the epoch. In romanticism it is only in a different way about sentiment than for example with Hugo Wolf, where naturalism is quasi around the corner, where sort of you also have these poems.

ChG: But with Brahms it was not the case either!

CV: Yes, but Brahms as song composer is anyways a special case. So much folklike as with Brahms can’t be found at all with Schumann. Even if you would consider Wunderhorn.
At the end of our interview, after talking so much about the song composer Schumann, I would like to talk shortly about the composer of Szenen aus Goethes ”Faust”. There is barely a singer, who, counting the past decades, agitated so much for “Faust” as you in the past years. The Szenen aus Goethes ”Faust” are a strange piece of work – first of all a complied – but complied this way by him on purpose, but what was Schumann up to with this Faust. What is this character to you as singer, as interpreter, that he creates from this Faust?

ChG: This is most probably a different character than Goethe has intended and a different character as the nowadays Faust research would have liked to received it. That is to say, it is a positive figure. After all, you can say Faust is quite a villain and egoist beyond compare. But I believe that Schumann intended to present Faust as ... , – with Faust eternally striving as something – and this is the essential – as a positive character.

CV: The eternally striving also as the eternally searching and insofar a mirror around Schumann himself.

ChG: I’m well convinced of it. Or at least it got something idolized for him, this Faust character. I think the perverted and criminal elements of Faust, which are of course there, which Goethe clearly described as well, for example even in the acting instruction, that in the second part, if ever performed, the Faust of the first part should act Mephisto and the Mephisto of the first part shall have the role of Faust. This means, it is very clear and well-defined that both characters are theoretically related to each other. The one is subsuming the other, and because of the felonious actions of Mephisto, - which are also common in the second part, have the burning of Philemon and Baucis in mind, that in the end it was Faust responsible for. But there are various passages in this, well, let’s call it “oratorio”.

CV: Yes, this is the question – generations of scientists already racked their brains about it.

ChG: Well, I personally consider the definition vocal symphony as the closest, like it appears later with Mahler. I perceive in general a great similarity between these two composers. But, anyways, so in Faust’s death scene Mephisto say, when he finally decease: “Es ist vollbracht” [It is done.], and this is of course a blasphemous ironical attitude, the Gospel according to John is clearly cited, and he makes fun about Faust and Jesus in one person. So here...

CV: Note: Irony.

ChG: Yes, this happens... And it is followed up with Goethe in the voice of the choir, which agitatedly hurled: “Es ist vorbei” [It is over.] and Schumann is setting this text not like this to music, but he lets the choir sing too „Es ist vollbracht.“ [It is done.]. So, here is a clear – here Schumann propagates an apotheosis of Faust which is not intended by Goethe and may even be problematic in certain respects. Another scene as a point of comparison: The exaggeration of Faust as target point of hu- man striving recurs in the third part of the oratorio, which was as target point of human striving which was with Goethe less related to the person Faust itself, but simply to the souls to be elevated in a pantheistic world outlook – so, what happens with this entelechy in the end. I think, this was more important to him that the person Faust. Schumann himself considers the person Faust in this scene as very, very important.

CV: Insofar this here is a dignified place. Where can you talk better about Goethe’s Faust than in this university? Finally, dear Mister Gerhaher, we now so to speak tried to discuss the sum of your experiences with Schumann only rudimentarily in available time. But please, to conclude, tell us, how did you got to know this, which is described as “Liebe zu Schumann”, how did you get to know this love?
Where and when did you perceive this music consciously for the first time and told yourself that this music will most probably never let go from me again?

ChG: I had a tape, which I unfortunately don’t have anymore, and it doesn’t exist on CD of Deutsche Grammphon, where, as I think, one of the best Schumann pianists, Christoph Eschenbach, yes, where he recorded a few of Schumann’s piano works. There were the Abbegg variations, which I consider divine, his opus 1 and then Kinderszenen of course and Waldszenen... Oh, Waldszenen, I can’t help raving when I think about it... And then it became clear to me that the love to classical music was somehow the starting point. But, that you say that, why I love Schumann. Well, I would say with Mozart or Bach: I love the music of Mozart or Bach. But with Schumann, I’d even dare to say, well I am..., I adore Schumann, and he is my favorite composer. But I would like to come back to this, well, I would, even if it’s not legal, as human and singer I would characterize him as one of first conceptional artists, not a distant intellectual conceptional artist, this of course not, but one, who transcends music as way of expression, and this always. And then not even in an ethical meaning like Mahler – he does that too, but in a very personal way. In this case, I would say he is maybe the musical romanticist par excellence. He is free from all these neoclassical trends and he exceeds every formal tradition.
A lot of Schumann haters say that it is due to inability. I believe, it is because of “Not-able-elsewise”. When you listen to the violin concert, which I consider highly impressive as work, when you listen to the first movement, then you, then I, then I always have the feeling that he’s trying to live up to the form, he could do, of course he can. He is missing it on purpose and this is no coincidence, only sometimes. I don’t bother.

CV: You’re not a violinist either.

ChG: Yes, but it should not bother an intelligent violinist either. But this sounds – I always have the feeling that here advances this very personal faith. And he is not able, and this is what I find very likeable, he is not able to fulfill a common form, so as for example sonata main movements form, for the sake of its own. Maybe he is not even capable, as Joachim Kaiser would say. But I think it’s especially then likeable and artistical when he isn’t it – if he’s not, what I don’t think. So, I’m well convinced that his music is not imaginable without the person Schumann – and it is a very rich character, also in his biography.

CV: Insofar you already formed this definition, which must be music to Misses Bodsch: Robert Schumann is the romanticist par excellence. Insofar I believe that there is no better opportunity to officially push the Schumann Forum at this point. Mister Gerhaher, I thank you very much. And tonight we talked about Schumann, tomorrow night he will sing, Gustav Mahler, the second love, can I say it like this?

ChG: Well, there are still other...

CV: Yes. Yeah well. Women are excluded here for now. Thank you very much for sharing your personal opinion about Schumann as well and also get well soon. You arrived slightly damaged and therefore special thanks for being ready to answer questions and singing tomorrow.

Transkript of the conversation according to the DVD by Petra Sonntag, proofread and revised by Ingrid Bodsch and Christian Gerhaher. Translation by Katharina Ma (conversation) and Florian Obrecht (introduction).