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Musical Series – The voice – Part 2


From the oldest music to modern composers, much has been written for the voice. Where to start? Three pieces of music are highlighted. They represent the different ways the voice is used in the classical music tradition. Vocal music is pre-eminently decisive for how we experience the music when we play it on a hi-fi set. Our hearing is very sensitive to voices and the emotion that can be heard in a voice. Classical singers not only have an excellent command of their voice, they also use this technique to get the most out of the music. Music experience in optima forma.

The Song, with a Sharp Edge



You can’t have an article about the voice without embracing “the song. The song emphasizes the text. The singer tries to bring it across as best he or she can and the accompaniment is often a piano. This is a form of music that we also know outside of classical music.

Schubert composed well-known song cycles such as ‘Winterreise’ and ‘Die schöne Müllerin’. These cycles have often been recorded and there are many wonderful recordings to be found. I was searching for what to select from that sea of available music, until I stumbled upon the ‘Entartete Musik’ box on my NAS and started listening to some tracks there. My memory was refreshed and it was immediately clear to me which music I want to share with you.

At the end of the 19th century there was a slow change in music, which we have retroactively come to call ‘modern music’. After World War I, that change accelerated. That was visible and audible in all art forms; it was the spirit of the times. The Nazis didn’t want any of that and labelled a lot of art, including music, as ‘degenerate’. The Jewish background of many of these artists played a major role in this. Many an artist who had fallen into disfavor fled Germany and some weeks out to the United States.

Among them were playwright Bertold Brecht and the composer Hanns Eisler. They were friends and already worked together extensively in Germany. Eisler got work in Hollywood as a film composer.

They found their life in exile tough. They incorporated their frustrations into a series of songs recorded as ‘The Hollywood Songbook’. Titles like ‘Über den Selbstmord’ and ‘Despite these Miseries’ reflect the state of mind. Many of the lyrics are sharp reflections on the state of the world and Europe and are a processing of the traumas of World War I where Eisler was a soldier in the army. No cheerful songs, but as so often, from misery comes the most beautiful art.

Matthias Goerne places the songs in the long musical tradition and interprets the emotions of the texts convincingly. Eisler’s music is a wonderful blend of Hollywood show tunes, Cabaret music from the Berlin 1930s and the modern 12-tone compositional technique that he further developed as a student of Arnold Schoenberg. The piano is not just accompaniment for the singer, but the singer’s melody and the piano give Brecht’s lyrics impact and color. Here is a composer at work chiseling his soul into the notes.

Nothing so personal as a preference for a voice, but Goerne’s clear baritone is very pleasant to listen to. It reminds me of a classic version of Paskal Jakobs of Bløf, someone who is also able to give meaning to lyrics with the color of his voice. Our hearing can pick up on the smallest nuances in voices. Voices have to sound right on your hi-fi equipment, otherwise listening to a lot of music, from Rihanna to Matthias Goerne, becomes unpleasant. This wonderful Hollywood Songbook will, if all goes well, make you forget about the equipment altogether. Eisler: The Hollywood Songbook – Matthias Goerne (baritone) and Eric Schneider (piano), Decca, 1998

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