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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the July 7, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

German Lieder: Still Engaging 100 Years Later

Against an American landscape of hyper-this and mega-that, the prospect of four consecutive evenings devoted to art songs from circa 1900 has three strikes against it. The musical forms are small. The content is delicate. And the language is German.

Not to worry, says Lindsey Christiansen, professor of voice at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, organizer of the series. Who can argue with her conviction that the performance-oriented public has an inborn love of words, melody, and drama? Who can claim that such a public can resist the intrinsic allure of the programs she has organized? And what recourse is left to doubters when Christiansen promises to leave the lights on so the audience can follow the texts in either German or English?

The performances take place from Monday through Thursday, July 12 through 15, in Bristol Chapel on the Westminster campus. Billed as “German Lieder: Fin de Siecle,” the events are part of week-long set of seminars that conclude a three-week summer-session course. The title uses the German word for songs, which, unlike the English, encompasses both folk song and art song. And it uses the phrase cultural insiders employ for the period surrounding 1900 in Europe.

J. J. Penna accompanies the various prize-winning vocalists who appear, never more than two a time, in concerts at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. The concerts are preceded by pre-performance lectures at 6:45 p.m. On Monday Courtenay Budd, soprano, and Randall Scarlata, baritone, perform Hugo Wolf “Italienisches Liederbuch.” Sarah Pelletier, soprano, Abigail Nims, mezzo-soprano, Aurora Micu, soprano, and Margaret Cusack, soprano, sing songs of Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Alexander Zemlinsky, Arnold Schoenberg, and Alban Berg on Tuesday. On Thursday Pelletier and Cusack join Tory Browers, soprano; and Anthony Beck, baritone, in Schoenberg’s Brettl Lieder and his “Buch der hangenden Garten;” the program also includes Schoenberg’s “Four Songs” and Berg’s “Lieder,” Op. 2.

Wednesday’s event is a 7:30 p.m. lecture, with live vocal examples, by the eminent Susan Youens, professor of music at Notre Dame, who writes prolifically about all aspects of art song. Her eight published books consist of six about Franz Schubert and two about Hugo Wolf. Youens’s lecture, “Divine Morike: a Poet and his Composer,” deals with Morike and the songs Wolf drew from his lyrics. Recognizing the poet’s profound influence on the composer,Christiansen notes that, “When Wolf discovered Morike, he found his voice.”

Are Lieder an acquired taste? “Yes, and no,” Christiansen says during an interview in her Westminster studio. “If you love words, then you love art song. German Lieder use such good texts. Audiences love them, especially if they have a translation. The human voice appeals to audience members. People love to hear tunes and they like drama.”

“Some songs are appealing at once, simply as music, even without the text,” she says. “But you must have the text to get the maximum benefit.”

“Singers adore Lieder,” Christiansen adds. “It gives them an opportunity to try out their love of language in a small form. What we’re doing has the dramatic scope of opera on a small scale.”

To the extent that a taste for Lieder must be acquired, Christiansen has some advice. “Obviously,” she says, “you can listen to recordings. But live is better than recorded. You can see the face of the performer. Art song is most easily grasped if you hear and see wonderful singers, which we’ll have for our series. It hits you on all kinds of levels.”

“Body language is important,” Christiansen says. “You need small gestures for small forms.” She moves her hands decisively within a very limited space. “But even if you stand still, there’s body language.” She turns her head left and right, taking in vistas that suggest drama; raises her chin; and flashes her eyes.

Christiansen is an animated person, attractive to look at. She has a quiet good posture. Slender and tall, she wears white pants and a lavender shell under a purple jacket. Her necklace, a single thick silver band, and her silver earrings add to the elegance. Her light brown hair, gently blond-streaked, is tamed without being stiff. She moves with energy. Her face is alive. Her gestures are free. Her brain is engaged.

The scheme of the concert series is “basically late Romantic music,” she says. The earliest piece dates from 1880; the latest, 1913. “There’s no Brahms because he was so conservative, and conscientiously going against his time. The series tends to forward-looking music, not backward-looking music. It opens with Wolf. He started a new way of looking at song. The texts are very important.

“The last concert shows composers who went to 12-tone music, but their pieces in this series are late romantic. Schoenberg’s Brettl Lieder were written in 1901 for cabaret. They’ll make people giggle. They’re the beginnings of the Weimar cabaret tradition. They’re written to sound banal, but they have great subtlety. Kurt Weill picked up on this tradition.”

“By the end of the period, there was often sexual innuendo in the music,” Christiansen says. “Schoenberg’s ‘Book of the Hanging Gardens’ is very erotic, tracing a love affair. It’s steamy music. Bring your fan. Don’t forget, it reflects the time of Freud. It looks inward, but expresses itself in a big way outwardly.”

“Audience members should not fear highly modern sounds in this series,” Christiansen says. “The music is tuneful. Only at the end of the period does it tend toward dissonance. The music is difficult. Schubert can be sung by amateurs, but this is written for professionals, not for performance in the parlor. It requires significant vocal chops, lots of vocal acumen. You have to be able to sing high and low, loud and soft, fast and slow.”

Christiansen was born in Roanoke Virginia. Her father was a Methodist minister. “My mom had a wonderful voice,” Christiansen says. “My father’s voice was horrible, but loud. He could play anything on the piano by ear.” Neither of her parents was musically trained.

After she showed an interest in piano at age two, her father taught her to play. Not until she was nine did Christiansen have piano lessons. “I took over the piano,” she says. The eldest of three, she tersely characterizes her brother. “He has perfect pitch but was a football jock. Now he’s a Methodist minister.” Her sister is a plastic surgeon.

“Since my father was a minister, I thought I wanted to be an organist,” Christiansen says. Her choice for college was the University of Richmond because it had a good tracker organ. With a tracker design, the organ is an instrument that responds immediately, rather than requiring a delay after the key is depressed. Playing a tracker organ gives musicians a chance to express themselves immediately, rather than calculating how to achieve a desired effect when there is a delay.

Christiansen majored in music history. A mezzo soprano, she started singing in graduate school. She holds graduate degrees in voice and organ from the University of Illinois. After graduate school, she studied at the conservatory’s Opera School in Hamburg, Germany. She returned to the organ in the early 1990s after a gap of 20 years when Nassau Presbyterian Church, of which she is a member, needed an emergency substitute. “It was February,” she says. “I’ll never forget it.” Since that time she has played organ intermittently.

As keyboards go, the piano has eclipsed organ in Christiansen’s life. “I play piano all day long,” she says. “I teach voice so I can play piano.”

Under the Yamaha grand piano in her studio sits a large purple exercise ball. She uses it as a piece of instructional equipment for her voice students. Other instructional tools in her studio are a video camera on a tripod, and a venerable tape recorder. “I’m a technophobe,” she says.

Unobtrusive lamps in Christiansen’s studio emit pleasant illumination. “I find that students sing better with soft light,” Christiansen says. The atmosphere serenely honors the giants of her profession. Pictures of Goethe, Schubert, Wolf, and others, hang on the walls along with the diplomas. Quantities of books and scores are at hand.

Christiansen has taught at Westminster Choir College since 1977, and was chair of the vocal department for 17 years. She left a tenured position at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, because of her husband’s career. She is married to Knud Christiansen, who was born in Germany near the Danish border, and is employed by a German plastics company. The couple has two children, both of whom play piano and sing. Daughter Molly, a Brown graduate, works in the field of public health in Peru. Son Andreas, educated at Leslie University, works at the Nassau Inn.

Christiansen started teaching at Westminster part time when her children were young. Now, teaching full time, her original interest in music history forms the foundation for her understanding of music’s technical details. She and Barry Seldes of the Rider political science department jointly teach courses that touch on both music and society. “I’m fascinated by how music fits into the rest of culture,” she says. “That’s why music history is so fascinating.”

Talking about the culture into which the “Fin de Siecle” concert series fits, Christiansen shows how she conflates the music with its culture. “This was a time when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was falling apart,” she says. “Simultaneously, music was beginning to fragment. Traditional harmony and standard musical structures were giving way. The traditional resolution of dissonance was yielding to the idea that all tones were equal. Both society and music were tending toward the chaotic. We see the demise of the Austrian-Hungarian empire through its composers. The year 1888, when Wolf wrote the Morike songs, is the year Hitler was born.”

— Elaine Strauss

German Lieder Series, Westminster Choir College, Bristol Chapel, 609-921-2663. Pre-performance lectures on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, July 12, 13, and 15, at 6:45 p.m. followed by concerts at 7:30 p.m. $15. On Wednesday, July 14, lecture and vocal presentation are at 7:30 p.m.

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