Pre-concert talk: Thomas Hampson at MRC

Thomas Hampson, baritone - Maciej Pikulski, piano

June 7, 2018

Good evening and welcome to tonight’s pre-concert talk in this magnificent Elizabeth Murdoch Hall.

My name is Andrea Katz and I’m the founder, pianist and Artistic director of Songmakers Australia.

Thomas Hampson is one of today’s best know and respected singers, equally at home on the operatic and concert platform and Lieder recital stage. He is also an enthusiastic promoter of Lieder and Art Song recitals and supporter of young singers and pianists interested in this art form through masterclasses and festivals.

Together with pianist Maciej Pikulski he starts tonight’s program with Heine’s half of Schubert’s last song cycle Schwanengesang

Let’s travel back in time to Vienna in the early 19th century

Up until his death in 1827, Beethoven (b.1770) was the undisputed king of musical Vienna. He was famous for his long Festival type concerts highlighting his latest compositions, including 2 or 3 symphonies, piano concertos, string quartets and choral fantasies and lasting 4 or more hours.

He’s fame was universal, and he was revered by audiences and fellow composers and performers all around Europe.

After Beethoven’s death, Schubert, then only 30 years old, questioned who would carry the musical torch now that the giant was gone. He didn’t think himself worthy of it as he was not inclined to parade himself as a virtuoso, but slowly came to realise that indeed, he was the heir apparent.

In March 26, 1828, to mark the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death, Schubert gave his first and only Vienna Concert Hall performance. Fighting insecurity, and an overbearing unsupportive father, lack of money and previous bad reviews, he really fought to be recognized as Beethoven’s successor.

The eclectic repertoire included Auf dem Strom with horn obbligato, specially written for the occasion, his Piano Trio in B-flat major, D.898, the String Quartet No. 15 in G Major, D887 and a number of songs. 

This is his first public success, even though the concert was overshadowed by a Paganini performance. To put it in modern terms that’s like competing with Lady Gaga!

Good reviews and more demands for published songs contributed to a bigger sense of self-worth and to accept that he was indeed the greatest composer alive.

Little did he know he only had a few months to live...

In the final 14 weeks of his life, he also wrote his last three piano sonatas (among his most transcendent), the C-Major String Quintet D956 and Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, D.965 among other masterpieces.

Schwanengesang (Swan Songs) was published posthumously and comprises two different collections by 2 different poets.

Eleven songs by Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860) were first intended for Beethoven and given to Schubert by Beethoven’s secretary Schindler after the anniversary concert. In April 1828 Schubert chose 7 and started composing them. They are individual love stories, long passionate songs that work like mini-operas, without a connecting narrative.

At the same time, always the avid reader, Schubert came across a poem collection by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) published in 1827: he chose only 6 out of 88. At the time of their posthumous publication the songs were organised the way we’ll hear them tonight. 

However, if we follow the poems published order, they reflect the totality of the love story narrative: boy meets girl (Das Fischermädchen), boy goes away to sea (Am Meer), he comes back to a deserted town (Die Stadt), looks at his reflection on the window (Der Doppelgänger), looks at the portrait of his beloved who has moved away (Ihr Bild) and feels the weight of the world on his tired shoulders (Der Atlas). 

Together with Die Taubenpost, his very last song on a poem by Johann Gabriel Seidl (1804-1875), they form a collection of 14 songs published at the initiative of his closest friends. It is unclear if he intended to publish them together or in separate collections, but the Swan Song stands together with Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise as 3 monumental and unsurpassed song cycles.

Only days before his death he wrote his last letter to his best friend Schober:

“Dear Schober,

I am ill. I have eaten nothing for eleven days and drunk nothing, and I totter feebly and shakily from my chair to bed and back again. Rinna is treating me. If ever I take anything, I bring it up again.

Be so kind, then, as to assist me in this desperate situation by means of literature. Of Cooper’s I have read The Last of the Mohicans, The Spy, The Pilot and The Pioneers. If by any chance you have anything else of his, I implore you to deposit it with Frau von Bogner at the coffee-house for me. My brother, who is conscientiousness itself, will most faithfully pass it on to me. Or anything else.

Your friend,


Let me play for you part of the first movement of his String Quintet op 163 performed by Isaac Stern, Alexander Schneider, Milton Katims, Pablo Casals and Paul Tortelier

In the next bracket we’ll hear a selection of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) songs from his Knaben Wunderhorn cycle.

“The boy’s magic horn: old German songs” is a collection of German folk poems and songs edited by Achim von Arnim (1781-1831) and Clemens Brentano (1778-1842). The book was published in three editions: the first in 1805 followed by two more volumes in 1808.

The collection includes love songs, soldier’s tales, wandering pilgrims and children’s rhymes and highly influenced the Romantic nationalism of the 19th century with its scenes of idealized folklore.

Goethe, who had influenced Brentano earlier in his writing career and was the most influential poet of the time, declared that Des Knaben Wunderhorn “has its place in every household” cementing the books wide popularity across the German-speaking world.

Arnim and Brentano, like other early 19th-century song collectors, such as the Englishman Thomas Percy and his Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, freely modified the poems in their collection.

The editors, both poets themselves, inserted some of their own poems, others were modified to fit poetic meter and follow contemporary German spelling, or otherwise to conform more closely to an idealized, Romantic “folk style” (Naturpoesie).

One cannot deny the importance of the collection even though Brentano was more motivated by writing his own material than by a strict preservation of the original folk songs.

Many young poets and writers, following the wave of nationalistic sentiments awaken after the Napoleonic wars, devoted themselves to the collection and study of the origins of Germanic history in folk songs, fairy-tales, myths, sagas (this includes the Nibelung saga thus reaching as far as Wagner), and Germanic literature.

New society rules dictated by censorship, Biedermeier aesthetics and a natural human need for soul healing and rebuild led to consider nature and anything untouched by the negative effects of modern civilization as good and helpful for the “Gesundung der Nation” (Recovery of the nation).

The enduring popularity of the poems is evident by the number of settings by a number of composers, Weber, Loewe, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, and Webern just to name a few.

The collection was one of Mahler’s favourite books and he set its poems to music throughout much of his life. He also followed Brentano’s example and based his own text for the first of his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen directly on the Wunderhorn poem “Wann mein Schatz”.

Some two dozen settings of Wunderhorn texts, several of which were incorporated into (or composed as movements for) his Second, Third and Fourth symphonies were written between 1887 and 1901.

His song cycle ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ was published in 1899.

Let’s hear a few minutes of the first movement of Symphony #4 by Mahler in a live performance by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter.


Last night I had the great pleasure to listen to our artist give an extraordinary masterclass at the Salon. He worked with 3 singers on operatic arias by Rossini, Verdi and Mozart.

I then discovered that a piece by Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) had been removed from tonight’s program which left me in a bit of a dilemma.

I had this great paragraph about Paris in the 1830s and now I had to find a way to make it work. A lot of the masterclass focused on tone and beauty and the fusion between good diction and good singing, or bel canto. So I decided to stick to my plan as this is where a lot of today's voice production and technique started!

After a brilliant career in Italy and most of Europe Rossini moved to Paris in 1823. (Schubert was still alive, Meyerbeer was 33 years old and the most famous French operatic composer).
Having acchieved huge successes with Maometto II, Le Compte Ory and Guillaume Tell (where he also touches on the themes of nationalism and freedom), his contract with the Paris Opera was abruptly cancelled after the 1830 revolution.Always a bon vivant, very rich and a bit unstable, Rossini ‘retired’ at the age of 37.

At his Paris home and later at his villa in Passy, Rossini gave superb gourmet dinners attended by many of the greats of the musical and literary world of the mid-19th century.

An exceptional insight into the musical and artistic circles of the French capital at this time [1823] is given by the following paragraph from a paper of the time:
Some of the character are very relevant to the bracket of French songs you’ll hear tonight, as they were exponents and in some cases developers of the great Italian singing technique in use till this day.

"On November 15 some of the principal musical composers and theatrical performers of Paris united to give a dinner to Signor Rossini, in the great room of M. Martin, Place du Châtelet."Signor Rossini was seated between Mdlle. Mars and Mme. Pasta. M. Lesueur, placed exactly opposite to him, had Mme. Colbran Rossini on his right and Mdlle. Georges on his left; Mmes. Grassari, Cinti, and Denuri sat next to these.

MM. Talma, Boieldieu, Garcia, and Martin were in the midst of this group of elegance and beauty. All the arts, all the talents, were represented by MM. Auber, Hérold, Cicéri Panseron, Casimir Bonjour, Mimaut, Horace Vernet, &c."When the dessert was served, M. Lesueur rose and gave the following toast--

'To Rossini! whose ardent Genius has opened a new path and formed an epoch in the art of music.'

"Signor Rossini replied by this toast--'To the French School, and to the prosperity of the Conservatoire.'

"M. Lesueur then gave--'Gluck.'

"Signor Garcia proposed--'Gretry! the most sensible and one of the most melodious of French musicians.'

"Signor Rossini then gave--'Mozart.'

"M. Boieldieu offered his toast in the following words--'Mehul! I see Rossini and the shade of Mozart applaud this toast.'

"M. Hérold proposed--'Paisiello! Full of ingenuity and passion, he rendered popular in all parts of Europe the Italian School.'

"Finally M. Panseron (for M. Auber) gave--'Cimarosa! the precursor of Rossini.'

"With this the proceedings were brought to an official close and an unofficial commencement of others, which were doubtless continued into "the sma' wee hours."

(Extract from Mackinlay, M. S. (1908). Garcia the centenarian and his times. London: Blackwood & Sons, pp. 46-47.)
I’m grateful to my dear colleague Linda Barcan who forwarded this excerpt to me as part of our own Rossini project at the end of the year. 

I thank you for your attention tonight and leave you with the great Enrico Caruso singing Rossini's La Danza, a recording from 1911.

Good night!