The Other Erlking - Songs and Ballads of Carl Loewe
The Other Erlking: Songs and Ballads of Carl LoeweNicholas Mogg and Jâms Coleman explore the remarkable versatility of Carl Loewe in a new release for Champs Hill Records. The Other Erlking sheds a deserved light on Loewe’s less well-known songs and astonishingly arresting ballads, and is the first Loewe album recorded by UK performers.Mogg and Coleman began performing Loewe’s ballads to captivated audiences over six years ago, during a residency at the Two Moors Festival and a subsequent concert tour. Mogg comments: “The residency was a chance to explore new repertoire, and we were drawn to Loewe's strong narratives and variety of colour. We were delighted that audiences were equally captivated by the songs. They quickly became cornerstones of our programmes.”In the years since, their appreciation of Loewe’s songs has grown. Many of Loewe's ballads form part of the regular Lieder repertoire, but less known and equally deserving are the lyrical Lieder of Frauenliebe, and settings of such poems as ‘Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’’ and ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’ which rival those versions by Schubert, Schumann and others. Loewe has been referred to as ‘the north German Schubert’, a description apparently given to him by Prince Albert in London in 1847.The album takes its name from comparisons with Schubert’s Erlkönig, which Mogg and Coleman performed together in concert: "We have introduced many audiences to Loewe using a comparison with Schubert’s Erlkönig. While Schubert’s setting is without doubt exhilarating, we were struck by the way Loewe conjured different moods through his choice of colour. It is our hope that this album will show the remarkable versatility of Loewe and encourage exploration of his less well-known works.”
- Sleeve Notes
The ballads and Lieder of Carl Loewe
It is the ballads that most of us know: ‘Erlkönig’, ‘Archibald Douglas’, ‘Herr Oluf’, ‘Tom der Reimer’, ‘Odins Meeresritt’, ‘Edward’ and many more have for years formed part of the regular Lieder repertoire. Much less known but equally deserving are the lyrical Lieder of Frauenliebe, and settings of such poems as ‘Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’’ and ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’ that do not pale in comparison with versions by Schubert, Schumann and others. As for comic songs, Loewe and Wolf stand head and shoulders above all other Lieder composers, and ‘Die wandelnde Glocke’ is as witty as anything in German song. Apart from a few rarely heard operas, oratorios and piano music, Loewe (1796–1869) composed virtually nothing but songs – some 500 in all – which he would sing in his high baritone voice on Lieder tours throughout Germany, to his own piano accompaniment. With the exception of a handful of juvenilia, there is no real sense of development: Opus 1, which includes ‘Edward’ and ‘Erlkönig’, already reveals the mature composer.
This recital opens with Tom der Reimer, a late setting composed around 1860. Based on an anonymous 18th-century Scottish ballad (‘Thomas Rhymer’), Theodor Fontane’s poem occurs in his travel book, Jenseits des Tweed (Beyond the Tweed), and concerns the legend of Thomas of Ercildoune, a 13th-century bard who allegedly owed his gift of prophecy to his association with the fairy queen. The prelude is unusually long for Loewe, and resembles a camera focussing in on the scene, which shows us the poet being ensnared by the Queen of the Elves, with whom, in the final bars, he rides away, to the ringing accompaniment of her horse’s jingling bells. Loewe dedicated Der Komet (Friedrich von Gerstenberg), composed a quarter of a century earlier, to privy councillor Sophie Caroline Auguste Tilbein with whom the poet was unrequitedly in love. Gerstenberg attempted to exorcize the trauma by addressing a series of poems to her, which, like ‘Der Komet’, were scarcely veiled descriptions of the emotional impasse in which he found himself.
Die Uhr sets a once famous poem by Johann Gabriel Seidl; marked Andante serioso, it is a somewhat sentimental allegory on the transience of human life. It is also undeniably graphic and has delighted young and old since its first performance in 1830, as the following anecdote testifies. When Loewe performed the song at the house of a friend, a little boy called Chausseestaub [so named – ‘Street dust’ – because he had been found in a gutter] sighed and said how much he’d like to have such a watch. When one of the guests offered his own, Chausseestaub declined and said, pointing to Loewe’s song: That is the watch I should like to have.’ Loewe offered the song for 2 Fr. d’or to Haslinger (the publisher of Schubert’s Schwanengesang) in 1853, a year after he had composed it. Haslinger scribbled ‘retour’ on the back of Loewe’s accompanying letter, and so missed the chance of publishing one of the composer’s most endearing and popular ballads. It did not appear until 1856.
Loewe, like the two-months-younger Franz Schubert, was obsessed throughout the fifty years of his song-writing career by the genius of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, setting him no fewer than 51 times – Lieder and ballads of a literary pedigree that are not eclipsed by Schubert’s 70-odd settings. Loewe’s Erlkönig, though less well-known than Schubert’s, is every bit as powerful and, arguably, truer to the original poem. Loewe told his daughter Frau Julie von Bothwell that Schubert had not found the true ballad-tone for the poem: ‘Man kann es auch anders machen’ – ‘It can be done in another way’. Instead of Schubert’s pounding hooves, Loewe’s accompaniment depicts the shimmering of the alder leaves; the Erlking’s utterances with their spooky grace notes have a hypnotic quality absent from Schubert’s version; and the final two bars of Loewe’s song, with their fermatas and sforzando, are more theatrical than Schubert’s more conventional close. Both songs are in G minor, but there the similarities end. Anyway – Wagner preferred it, and the sadness is, that when Loewe met Goethe in Jena to talk about balladry, there was no piano on which he could accompany himself.
Goethe wrote Die wandelnde Glocke at Telpitz, where he was taking the waters. The poem was prompted by a joke played by his son, August, on a timid boy, who was told that the enormous church bell would climb down from the belfry and gobble him up – August, apparently, illustrated the threat with the aid of an umbrella. Loewe in his 1832 ballad is more subtle, and depicts the moment when the bell pursues the boy, by doubling in the bass the semiquavers of the right hand, and beginning each of the 16 bars in the middle of the song with threatening sforzandi.
Edward, which Loewe set in Herder’s translation, tells the grisly story of Edward who, at his mother’s command, murdered his father. The singer Eugen Gura, in a letter to Max Runze, reports Wagner’s opinion of Loewe’s song. ‘After a time’, he wrote, ‘a conversation about musical declamation developed, the talk turning to Weber and Marschner. Wagner referred to Carl Loewe as a particular master in that regard. [...] He then hurried to his library [...] and brought out a beautifully bound folio volume of Loewe’s ballads from his earliest period, from ‘Edward’ on. Wagner placed the volume on the piano-stand and spoke with enthusiasm and in detail of several ballads. ‘Edward’, he remarked, was a masterpiece.’ Gura, having sung the ballad, observed that the repeated exclamations of ‘Oh!’ might be wearying for the listener. To which Wagner replied that not a single one could be omitted. Loewe composed his song at the age of 22; 9 years later, the 30-year- old Franz Schubert set the same words in ‘Eine altschottische Ballade’, a version that fails to match Loewe’s masterpiece.
There is no more frequently anthologized poem in the German language than Goethe’s Wandrers Nachtlied (‘Über allen Gipfeln’). Part lyric, part epigram, its theme – the transience of existence – has attracted more than 60 composers, including Reichardt, Zelter, Loewe, Schubert, Schumann, Liszt and Charles Ives (‘Ilmenau’). The poem was written by Goethe on the evening of 6 September 1780; apparently spontaneous, it was scribbled by the poet on a wall of Duke Carl August’s shooting-box on the Gickelhahn, the highest of the hills surrounding Ilmenau, near Weimar. On the same day he wrote to Charlotte von Stein: ‘I spent the night on the Gickelhahn to get away from the turmoil of the town and the incorrigible confusion of human kind. The sky is utterly clear and I walk to enjoy the sunset. The view is immense but simple.’ The notion of impending death is suggested by the progression from large open spaces (‘Gipfeln’), via tree-tops (‘Wipfeln’), to the enclosed forest and the coffin. Loewe’s setting, which predates Schubert’s by five years, unfolds to a gentle succession of crotchet chords, and to enhance the mood of peace, the singer is asked to sing sotto voce, the pianist to use the soft pedal. The song dates from about 1817 and was published in 1828, the year of Schubert’s death, together with Der du von dem Himmel bist that was also composed then, a decade after the first ‘Wandrers Nachtlied’. The raging brook of Der Hirt auf der Brücke is announced in the prelude and can be heard intermittently throughout this little-known gem from 1859.
Mention of shepherd, bridge and river suggests that Karl Ziegler’s poem might have something in common with Franz Xaver von Schlechta’s saucy ‘Fischerweise’, immortalized by Schubert in 1826. But no; Ziegler’s poem is a succinct allegory on how religious faith can sustain human beings when threatened with danger – beautifully expressed by Loewe’s cantabile melody.
The text to Spirito santo was written by Emilie Freifrau von der Goltz, a friend of the Loewe family. The song dates from 1864 and is generally considered to be Loewe’s last. Dedicated to ‘his dear pupil, Frau Geheimräthin Tee Schillow’, the devout nobility of the song breathes an atmosphere of impending peace, and seems to foreshadow the composer’s death. Loewe suffered a stroke soon after he had finished it, never regained his health, and died five years later.
Odins Meeresritt, composed in 1851 during a voyage Loewe made to Norway after the tragic death of his daughter Adelaide, is perhaps the most Wagnerian of all his ballads. The song inhabits the same world of Northern mythology as Der Ring des Nibelungen which had not yet been published. Loewe’s Odin, Oluf the Smith, the eagles and the war-horse correspond to Wagner’s Wotan, Mime, the ravens and Grane. And Loewe’s ability to find tonal analogues rivals that of Wagner: the horse paws the ground, the eagles soar, the sky glows red and, most memorable of all, the horseshoe expands. This ballad has always been a favourite with audiences, and Peters placed it at the head of their two-volume edition of Loewe’s Balladen und Lieder.
Süßes Begräbnis describes the burial of a young shepherdess, at which the breezes sighed, lilies-of-the-valley chimed their bells, the torch was carried by a glow-worm, night mourned and all the shadows formed a choir. It is one of Loewe’s most beautiful songs, and a favourite of his second daughter Adelaide (so named after the Beethoven song), a soprano of some distinction who with her husband often sang Loewe Lieder in the concerts arranged by her father at the homes of close friends. Ironically, she performed ‘Süßes Begräbnis’ at such a concert a few days before her unexpected death in December 1850.
Heinrich der Vogler, composed in 1836 to a poem by Johann Nepomuk Vogl, concerns Henry the Fowler who, in the course of the poem, is elected Emperor of Saxony – the same König Heinrich who turns up 14 years later in Wagner’s Lohengrin. Loewe’s catchy tune begins in 2/4, as Henry prepares at dawn to set out hunting. Then, as the dust billows and the messengers ride up, it rings out in joyous 6/8 time, as they inform him that he has been elected Emperor. Loewe, a fervent patriot, used to sing the ballad with great brio, and would often elaborate cadenzas in the penultimate bar.
Ich bin ein guter Hirte was composed on 10 June 1860, and published later that year with four other songs under the title Liedergabe. It is one of Loewe’s many songs to religious texts and sets a translation of the Gospel according to John, chapter 10, verses 14–16, in the translation by W. M. L. de Wette. Written four years before he suffered the stroke which rendered him unconscious for six weeks, this andantino molto moderato setting, to be accompanied by either piano or organ, breathes reverence in each of its 37 bars. Die Mutter an der Wiege sets a gently witty poem by Matthias Claudius, whose homely and occasionally moralistic verse has inspired many great Lieder, including Schubert’s ‘Der Tod und das Mädchen’. Marked andantino innocentamente, this charming song describes a mother who fondly muses that her little boy, though resembling his father, definitely does not have his nose! The song is the first in a group of Lieder which were described by Loewe as ‘Heitere Gesänge’ (humorous songs). Dr Max Runze, however, in his notes to Volume 16 of his complete edition of Loewe songs, writes of ‘Die Mutter an der Wiege’: ‘The only other thing to say about this world-famous song is to warn that the deeply serious tone should not turn jokey’. Loewe sets the words to a beguiling lullaby. Der alte Goethe was published in 1835 as the fourth of Vier heitere Gesänge (Four Comic Songs). The opening three are all settings of Goethe: ‘Die verliebte Schäferin Scapine’,
‘Mädchenwünsche’, ‘Freibeuter’. ‘Der alte Goethe’ was written by the poet and historian Friedrich Förster – a delightful trifle on the nature of fame. Förster wrote of the poem, originally called ‘Lauf der Welt’ (‘The way of the world’), that he had no idea how it had come to be regarded as a work by Goethe but that he was more than happy that it had.
Richard Wagner considered Herr Oluf (1821) to be ‘one of the most important works of musical literature’. Herder’s poem tells the story of Oluf who, while out one night inviting friends to his wedding, encounters the Erlking’s daughter. Infatuated by the handsome Dane, she invites him to dance and attempts to seduce him with gifts and blandishments. When he refuses, she deals him a blow to the heart. He rides home, and the next morning is found dead by his bride. What so impressed Wagner was Loewe’s skilful use of the leitmotiv: Oluf, his mother, his bride and the evil elf are all sharply characterized by different motifs, which Loewe binds together in modified strophic form.
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