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LPI'23 - My introduction to the art of Artsongs (Lieder)

One of the LPI projects this year, was working on a Lied which was led by Carolyn Herrington and Cheryl. They introduced us to the art of the artsong or Lied(singular) or Lieder(plural). So you are probably asking what exactly is this? While writing this blog post, I decided to look it up. I came across this link What are Leider? | Faculty of Fine Arts & Music | UniMelb which included an article written by Dr. Graham Johnson OBE, a world renowned Lieder expert. I thought it was very well written and have copied below some portions of his article. I will then delve into my personal takeaways on this project.

'Lieder in a nutshell

The plural German noun Lieder (singular Lied) simply means “songs” – any kind of songs. But for classical music enthusiasts, the word signifies songs with piano accompaniment circa 1800–1900 – the birth of the form which coincided with the rise of the poetry-enjoying European middle classes in the wake of the French Revolution.

Great 18th-century composers like Hadn, Mozart, and Beethoven had written songs, but it was the young Franz Schubert in Vienna who became the Shakespeare of Lieder, composing over 600 songs in his short lifetime and more than 200 in 1815 alone, at the age of 18.

How they’re written

All songs have lyrics, but in many cases the tune comes first. With Lieder the opposite is true: the poet is often more than the composer’s equal and the poem is often a great work of art in its own right, known and loved without music.

The composer’s task is to give this poem a heightened existence through their own vision and imaginative skill. The song’s melody and text are the singer’s responsibility, but it is the addition of a piano accompaniment, subtle and sometimes highly complex, that adds harmony and character to the whole. The greatest Lieder composers conjure an astonishing variety of narratives, moods and atmospheres, a synthesis of word and tone employing almost minimalist means that can take the listener’s breath away.

Performers have to be very word-aware when presenting a poem through this musical prism – a great Lied may be first and foremost an unforgettable piece of music, but the poem that breathes within the structure is its life-force.'

I had not given much thought about Lieder before LPI'23 but as you know, I am always game for something new. On the first day of the camp, Carolyn and Cheryl, briefed us on all the ways we could start to study a Lied. First, they impressed upon us that if we as pianists are part of a duo performing a Lied, we must study the Lied in depth as much as the vocalist if not more. We must learn our piano accompaniment but in addition also learn the melody that will be sung by the classical vocalist and examine the poem itself in both meaning and spoken rhythym and beauty. And it is because of this intensive study that a pianist does in preparation for a Lied that we should think of ourselves as collaborative pianists rather than as accompanying pianists. The latter impies that the pianist is secondary to the vocalist. But this is not the case in a Lied. The pianist plays a shared role in the creation of the Lied performance with the vocalist.

Learning the poem has its challenges and this is because the poems are written in German, French, etc. And as many of us do not speak mulitple languages, we have to research the phonetic translation of the poem. Accurate phonetic translations are essential for us so we can speak and hear the aural beauty of the poem in its original language. So our first point of study is to obtain the phonetic transcriptions for our Lied poem. Phonetic transcription is the visual representation of speech sounds. It is usually written in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), in which each English sound has its own symbol. There are a lot of tools available that will allow you to hear the correct pronunciation when you input the foreign language text. Then next is to delve into the meaning of the poem. Carolyn and Cheryl discussed the differences between the word for word translations versus the poetic translation. The poetic translation would usually capture the essence of the poem but you have to go via the literal translation to understand the end result of the poetic translations. The internet is a great resource to do this research. Cheryl and Carolyn provided us with the phonetic, literal and poetic translations of our poems. We had a week to work on this before we met the following week with the classical vocalist and actually do a rehearsal with her.

My Lied was Schubert's Heidenroslein by the German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. I was really surprised by how fascinated I became with this Lied once I started my research. This was how my research unfolded during the week. Youtube was my first resource. First, I listened to the song sung by different classical singers to get the melody in my head. Then I backtracked and listened to a reader reciting the poem a number of times to get an aural impression of the poem by itself. And while listening, I was referencing the sheet that was provided, that had all the phonetic, word for word translation and the poetic translation. I was really moved by the poem in both its lyricism and meaning. I began to get emotionally invested in it as I have done in the past with certain English poems while I was in high school and University. (It has been over 40 years since I have actually read poetry on a regular basis though.)

i became so interested in the poem and the poet that I ended up doing a deep-dive into the life of the poet Goethe himself. i read about all of his really different interests as a scientist on botany and anatomy and his interests in drawing, theatre and his udies in law. I found this so interesting that it became a detriment as it took a lot of time away from learning and perfecting my accompanist part. During my lesson with Deanna on the second Saturday, she helped me to simplify my part by dropping my right hand. In doing this, Deanna said that I could at least provide the beat and support the soprano vocalist which made me feel less anxious.

Bet even armed with this simplification, actually just thinking of performing with a classical vocalist was very stressful as it was the first time that I had ever done anything like this. And I was not alone. I spoke to Graham who is now a member and he was very apprehensive as well. This was unknown territory that all of us were entering. The vocalist that we pianists were paired with that Saturday afternoon was Jaimee Jarvie. She has a BMus in vocal performance from the U of L in 2013, and is currently a MMus candidate studying voice and health benefits of singing.

Jaimee was acually really wonderful to collaborate with and was so supportive of me as a really green pianist that my stress started to dissipate during the workshop. And the research and contemplation that I put into Heidenroslein during the week? Well it really paid off as Jaimee and I were able to have a good conversation about the meaning of the poem and what my interpretation of the song was. She was on the same page as I was, which made me feel more connected with her and really quelled my nerves. But I did comment afterwards, that I wish I were a better pianist so I could do the lied justice and give more support to Jaimee. (It reminds of the point in the movie "As Good As It Gets" when the character played by Jack Nicholson says to the character played by Helen Hunt - "You make me want to be a better man") I wish I was a better pianist so I could have risen more to the challenge. But that's okay - my skills as a pianist is a "work in progress" and I am okay with that.

During this lieder exploration/workshop, I now understood why "collaborative" pianist is so much more apt than "accompanying". In a performing duo, the role of the pianist is to collaborate equally with the vocalist so that both can create a compelling and emotional performance together. This was a wonderful experience for me as I was able to see it from the other side of the fence as I am already familiar with the vocalist's viewpoint. And this was why I loved this workshop so much, it gave me a lot of insight as to how much work, a good collaborative pianist has to invest into learning a lieder. And the lieders themselves are interesting because you not only learn about the music and the composer but the poem and the poet as well. You have both the music and the words to learn, discover and interpret. The work that both the pianist and vocalist puts into the lied culminates in a rich performance brimming with the range of the theatre of human emotions. And it for this reason, that Lieder become such exciting performances to showcase for audience members. It truly is a work of total art! I thank the piano clinicians of LPI and Jaimee Jarvie for creating the opportunity, for learning pianists like me, to experience this wonderful workshop!


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