“Most Individual Song” -
the Songs of Wilhelm Petersen
Wilhelm Petersen (1890-1957) was one of the 20th century composers who pursued a path away from the avant-garde. Although he went along with the revolutionary beginnings of expressionism with understanding for the need for new forms of expression, around 1925 after an experimental phase on the fringe of tonality he arrived at a tonally centred and formally clarified tonal language. He was interested in the latent opportunities for developing traditional material, whilst the ethical claim of his composition was oriented to the great symphonic tradition of the 19th century. His interest lay not so much in reviving romantic subjectivism as rather in finding the essence of tonal language by returning to what he called “basic musical qualities”.
Whilst his first three numbered works continued the symphonic tradition, particularly that of Bruckner, in a short phase of intense creativity from 1919 to 1924 Petersen tried working with contemporary musical language. Out of these highly dissonant works of a greatly polyphonic making which never departed from tonality, Petersen left only his 2nd Symphony, the String Quartet op.8, Prelude and Fugue for violin and piano op.11 and Three Odes by Klopstock op. 13 (included on this CD) in their original form. Other works of this phase he either altered (as he did the songs from the early version of the Wunderhorn-Lieder op.12 on this disc) or he removed them entirely from his collection of works. The works written after this “change of creative direction” around 1925, as he called it, reflect his efforts to “let personal expression take a back seat to objective form”. A newly discovered liking for individually extended harmonics became his leading principle: “Tonality as a form-building power regained importance for me, chromaticism and escalated linearity were simplified in the interests of a clearer sound form.”
After successful first performances of his first two symphonies at the beginning of the 1920s, Petersen had a good name in Germany. His compositional skill and the truth of his expression were never doubted, although he was found to be off the potentially historic paths. The few highpoints of his public performance included the first performances of his Große Messe op.27 under Karl Böhm (1930) and his opera Der Goldne Topf (1941).
Poet or composer - the young Petersen had vacillated as to which path to follow. As a scholar he was drawn to both literature and philosophy. He felt “most intimately related” to Hölderlin, as he wrote in his notes in his high school days. For him lyrics were an adequate language for expressing the inexpressible: “The best poems are those which seem to be spoken from an endlessly distant and endlessly close mouth.” Or “A poem is like a shadow in Hades: you embrace it, you cannot feel it as it is thinner than smoke.”
At age 17 he published his own volume of poetry: Träume und Rätsel (Dreams and Mysteries) followed the antinaturalist and neoromantic streams of the turn of the century which were to flow into art nouveau. It was not surprising that the circle of poets surrounding Stefan George took an interest in the young poet. Friedrich Gundolf, at the time a close friend of George’s, gave him a “warm” welcome to the circle of poets in a letter dated 20th June 1908. During his time as a student in Munich - Petersen studied composition with Friedrich Klose and Rudolf Louis - he became one of the adepts of the “poet king”, only to break from this circle later.
Petersen’s dual gift for poetry and music were a godsend for his songs. His brilliant sensitivity is shown in his choice of poems and particularly in his ability to arrange the poems from one or more poets into a cycle: the individual works seem to acquire their ultimate meaning when they join the context of a cycle. In the cycle Sechs Gesänge op.45 the poems of Matthias Claudius, Stefan George, Nikolaus Lenau and Georg Trakl gather around the central verses of Friedrich Hölderlin’s “Hälfte des Lebens”: its diametrically opposite metaphors mark the framework of content for all the other poems.
Petersen’s approach to song composition after 1925 becomes visible against the backdrop of a comparison of the different versions of the Wunderhorn-Lieder op.12. In the early 20s he wrote the five songs for a deep voice (entitled here Version no.1) which shortly afterwards he altered and transposed for a middle-range voice. In about 1945 Petersen extended his collection of the Wunderhorn music by another 25 songs, including those hitherto classed as op.12, giving them their final, sometimes entirely new shape. If we compare the two versions of “Es fiel ein Reif”, then a tendency to simplify the sound picture in its musical parameters is evident which is typical of all songs he wrote after 1925: the chromatically characterised melody is reduced in favour of a diatonic, almost folk-like melos. The piano setting is more independent in the early version, phrases of melody are completed on the piano and the instrumentation tends towards polyphony; later there are often simple homophonic accompaniments which surprise us with new fresh-sounding harmonic turns.
One has the impression that the composer wanted to add nothing to the poem. His music is the setting for the poem. We can feel his intention of communicating “directly” without distancing himself from the audience by means of artificial devices. So the songs gain that property of poignant simplicity so typical of Petersen, which must have sounded suspicious to the 20th century ear trained to avant-garde.
This recording of the five Wunderhorn songs op.12 in the final version is the selection which Wilhelm Petersen made himself around 1946/47 and transposed for a low voice. The bass singer Fred(erik) Dalberg, Scottish by birth, soloist at Mannheim Nationaltheater and the Bayreuth Festival, and protagonist of first performances of works by Britten, showed great interest in Petersen’s songs. With the composer at the piano he sang his songs on numerous occasions, including the first performance of Six Songs op.45. Bruno Walter, who met Petersen at the beginning of the 50s and prized his Mass highly, sent a letter to the composer dated 13th July 1953 in which he referred to the Wunderhorn-Lieder op.12 (he had the later version) as “most individual song” and a “masterful composition”.
The Three Odes by Klopstock op.13 was the only circle of songs from his earlier works which he included unaltered in his later catalogue of works. The piano version was not first performed until 1998, in Darmstadt, by Hans Christoph Begemann and Matthias Gräff-Schestag. There is an orchestral version which approaches the hymnal gestures. The composition (1923-25) was inspired by the poet Klopstock’s symbolic linguistic creations with their antiquated scansion and metre; Klopstock provided much poetic inspiration for George’s circle, where he was held in high esteem.
The Songs from Shakespeare’s Dramas op.46 must have been written in the second half of the 1940s and were performed in the 50s by singer Olaf Hudemann at the SŸddeutscher Rundfunk. They clearly demonstrate Petersen’s ability to bring together lyrics of very different origins into a new meaningful context to form a new self-contained circle of songs. Petersen also wrote an orchestral version of these nine songs.
His song writing formed a central field within his composition, the most important part of which was symphonic. At times song composition took the foreground: op.12 (Wunderhorn, 1st version) and op.13 (Klopstock) before the decisive change of style around 1925, then shortly afterwards op.19 (Seventh Ring. Stefan George), op.20 (Hölderlin and George) and op.23 (Chinesisch-deutsche Jahres- und Tageszeiten. Goethe). Two other cycles op.31 (Hebbel) and op.32 (Eichendorff) were written in 1931/32; a last long phase from 1939 to 1945 was spent on the songs op.40 (Goethe), op.41 (Morgenstern) op.44 (The old Garden. Eichendorff), op.45, op.46 and the final version of the Wunderhorn Songs op.12.
Wolfgang Mechsner, translation by Jenny Poole-Hardt
Wolfgang Mechsner: Wilhelm Petersen - Leben und Werk (Frankfurt, Thiasos Musikverlag, 1996)