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Monday, 7 October 2019

Stepping up

Plastic Yamaha may have a more important role to play
I hate missing singing lessons. They’re an essential fixture and will be until I succumb to gagaism, fire, flood or any other Act of God. V has said if old age deprives me of car insurance she’d drive over each week. “You’d accompany me on my plastic Yamaha?” I asked, knowing we haven’t space for a Joanna. “I’m up for that,” she said, cool as a Dry Martini. I was touched.

Last night my runny nose morphed into tight coughing; today I was due at Little Dewchurch for my estimated 171st. lesson. My bedroom warm-up (Ah-ah-AH-ah-ah) sounded precise and plangent, though singers are poor judges of their own voice. In the car, sucking a mentholated pastille, I warmed up again; still OK. I decided that if my throat turned out to be crap I’d opt for purely verbal instruction. As it happened, V gave my voice thumbs up.

Which was just as well. This morning turned out to be a big musical step forward, only exceeded by January 5, 2015, when V first said my voice had a future. It will take more than 300 words to do it justice, it may not be comprehensible or even interesting to many, but forgetfulness compels me to provide some sort of permanent record. Pardon my indulgence.

The song. Nun wandre Maria (Journey on, now, Mary). Hugo Wolf, one of Europe’s greatest German-speaking song-writers along with Schubert, Schumann and Mahler. Previously (ie, as a listener) I could never get on with Wolf, finding him austere, remote and – musically – slightly odd. The German lyrics are genuinely poetical and were written by Paul Heyse, a writer and translator awarded the 1910 Nobel Prize for Literature.

What’s it about? Joseph urges a tiring Mary on towards Bethlehem (“... your strength is weakening, I can hardly – alas – bear your agony...”) . The song’s musical heart is the refrain, Nah is der Ort (The place is near), repeated five times, each progressively more heart-rending.

The difficulties. It has a comparatively small dynamic range and many of the prominent intervals are quite small. The impression is one of musical subtlety. Also Wolf frequently favours sequences in which one note is repeated – in one case nine times. Wolf introduces time variations, again quite subtle, to these one-note wonders and the singer must concentrate to make the best of them.

It’s a masterpiece and this morning – with V’s help – I uncovered a tiny example of how masterpieces happen. The revelation lay in that refrain. Unfortunately for monoglot Brits, the translation above has been anglicised. A literal translation of Nah ist der Ort would be: “Near is the place”; this maintains the order of the German words and is vital. “Place”, a humdrum almost anonymous word, has been deliberately chosen by Heyse the poet to label the exact spot where Christianity originated. A word without the frills at the end of a line! A gift to the composer which Wolf receives with eager hands and reacts appropriately.

Recognising these small acts of genius – on behalf of the composer and the lyricist – helps put those one-note lines into perspective but it’s harder for me to focus usefully on that causal relationship. This is all new stuff to me.

I can do no more now than provide the means whereby you too can share this masterpiece. Here’s Olaf Bär gently acceding to Hugo Wolf’s bidding.

Readers with better memories than me will recognise I posted about Nun Wandre Maria (and Olaf Bär) as recently as May 6 this year. But that was pre-revelation. Today I’m more grown up.


  1. Robbie! Your "A word without the frills at the end of a line!" had me smiling.
    Olaf the Bear gives a fine rendition. The many nouns ending in -lein also made me weep.

  2. RW (zS): We frequently come together about German things and the German language, don't we? What I posted here was written from the point of view of the singer, but I'm delighted it has other associations. Yes "-lein" is a poignant suffix, not only through its creation of diminutives but it's also great to sing. Parenthetically I had to look up the related word Kleinod (that second syllable not so good to sing) - couldn't even guess its meaning. Olaf the Bear made me laugh even if he doesn't sing like one - so soft and reflective.

    The lesson was important for several reasons:

    • It removed my prejudice about Wolf.
    • It demonstrated vividly the inter-dependance of composer and lyricist.
    • Music can be created from a single note repeated. There's another example in the Beatles' song Can't Buy Me Love:

    I don't care too much (for money)

    as I discovered from a book of their scores which someone gave me as a present before I could even read a score.
    • Songs that seem simple are often the hardest to sing properly.

  3. Indeed! Simplicity is very complicated, a good friend in Japan once told me.

  4. I listened to your link of Olaf Bär singing. I like his baritone voice, but have to admit it’s hard for me to warm up to the german language. I tried to learn german once, in Paris, but I was trying to learn russian at the same time, and russian won. German was too guttural for me, even though I enjoyed trying arabic. It might be melodic, but to my untrained ears, I don’t find it very romantic, it does not have the Italian je ne sais quoi that you get with Rossini, Verdi and Donizetti. But then I have to confess that I really like the operetta “Die lustige Witwe“ of Lehár that I saw performed last time in Toronto, Canada. But wasn’t it in austrian german rather than standard german? Isn’t that a warmer sound than regular german?

  5. RW(zS): You may remember the account of my first singing lesson which appeared in Tone Deaf in early January 2015. V asked me why I wanted to sing (an almost impossible question to answer) and I responded almost randomly: "To be able to do Schubert's An die Musik". It's very short. I'd heard it sung many times and thought it would be simple to learn (In fact I was deluded enough to imagine I was halfway there without any lessons, as I hummed it around the house). Four years have almost elapsed and it gets harder every month. For you, there will be the example of the haiku which gets to the heart of simplicity. The real ones seem effortless, the amateur ones seem laboured. They key word is "seem".

    Vagabonde: I agree technically and phonetically with everything you say about German. Except I must then go down on my knees and profess I'm in love with the language. And how can a soppy, indiscriminate lover possibly justify the object of his adoration?

    Take the first piece of music V (my teacher) put in front of me, long before I could make head nor tail of a musical score. Sarastro's aria from The Magic Flute:

    O Isis und Osiris schenket
    Der Weissheit Geist dem neuen Paar
    Die ihr der Wand'rer schritte lenket...

    How on earth could anyone rhapsodise about those "sch" bramble bushes, or "lenket" which sounds like an engineering term? Well one reason is that they are set to music by a certain ne'er-do-well Austrian called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and it's the music rather than the words that assaults you first.

    But that's a cop-out. Obviously I'm in love with the music, less obviously I'm in love with Germans, Germany and the language that goes with both. I love German seriousness, Germany's political attitude towards the EU, their helpfulness, even their wry responses to British incompetence as Brexit grinds it weary way. And all this despite the fact that my German is vestigial: an ability to order beer and to make a few three-word jokes.

    For forty years or more I've pursued French, owning a house in Loire Atlantique and deliberately engaging the French in conversation whenever possible. I've read fifty or so novels in French and interviewed French people as a journalist. I am quite obviously Francophile and French people have said so. They have also said (erroneously) I speak French well. They are wrong; what I can do is make myself interesting in non-idiomatic French.

    But here’s a possible tragedy. I came to singing late in life and quickly realised (if I hadn’t known it instinctively all my life) that German music in many forms is what pleases me most. When it comes to opera and lieder I find myself having to resort to the dictionary; had the words been in French I wouldn’t have needed do. Should I have spent those forty years concentrating on another language?

  6. “Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point. » (Pascal.) If you heart was with the German language then I have nothing to add and you should have studied it more strenuously years ago. I always loved Italian and still try to speak it whenever I can (such as last Saturday at a chalk festival with an Italian artist) but I also love the sounds of Portuguese and Russian – have studied them both but need a lot of practice. In Lisbon I never spoke but in St. Petersburg where I went twice I was able to speak a little. My reason for Portuguese was also music. Growing up I listened to many records of Amalia Rodrigues singing fados and wanted to understand the lyrics, then later it was Cesária Évora from Cape Verde. I flew from Atlanta to Paris just to hear Cesária sing at the Grand Rex in Paris, a year before she died. She was fabulous.

  7. Amalia Rodrigues singing fados! Ahh, I don't understand a word of Portuguese, but fado is amazing.

    My native language is Hessian (I hesitate to say German, because people tend to hear those Prussian-accented staccato/gutteral syllables barked by the evil soldiers in John Wayne war movies). When I hear the German dialect spoken in Frankfurt a/M, my heart melts and I feel cosy and warm. The other night, I celebrated good news with a group of Russians from St. Petersburg, and I revelled in their talk, though I understood only a word here and there. It's all about the people, the speakers, in the end. What are they talking about? Who are they talking or singing to? Friends? Loved ones? That's when most any language becomes beautiful, I think.

  8. Somehow this post made me sad about the lovely heritage of the past. Sweet that V offers to drive to you, if needed...