A life in Lieder

By Richard Stokes

My first encounter with the German language occurred when I was fifteen: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the radio singing Die schöne Müllerin accompanied by Gerald Moore. I bought the LP mono recording – with Corot’s ‘The Mill’ on the sleeve – that afternoon, and was hooked. By the time I started German as a boy at Repton School a month later, I already knew all the words (arrogantly and imperfectly) and annoyed my teachers who couldn’t understand that anyone who could recite so many poems could litter his German homework with so many howlers – and this state of affairs continued at university where I persuaded a girl from Somerville to do my proses.
It was also at university that I thought I might eventually become an even greater Lieder singer than Fischer-Dieskau. I phoned a singing-teacher in North Oxford (she must remain anonymous), a coloratura soprano with a good career singing roles such as the Königin der Nacht (Queen of the Night), and she agreed to see me, suggesting that I bring my favourite song. For some reason I put on a tie (I’ve not worn one since), set out with huge excitement, rang the bell, was shown in and told to stand in front of a long mirror. As soon as she played the opening chords of Gute Nacht, I knew she was a fine pianist and had hopes of being asked to perform the entire Winterreise. I proceeded to give what at the time I considered to be the finest performance ever of that great song, and, carried away by my own beauty of tone and depth of interpretation, I did not look into the mirror until after the magical modulation to major that ushers in the final verse: ‘Will dich im Traum nicht stören ...’. All I could see in the mirror was my teacher’s back rippling, then shaking with mirth. Manfully, I got to the end, but my singing career was over.
Aged 24, I joined the teaching staff at Bedales School, where I mastered German grammar through the need to teach it to others. Each term I hired a large coach and together with some forty students would travel to the Royal Festival Hall or Royal Albert Hall to hear Fischer-Dieskau in recital. We studied the poems and music in advance, sang the songs in cacophonous unison most of the way there and back and returned to school tired and wonderfully elated. One particular moment lingers in the memory: for his fifth encore of a Schubert recital with Barenboim at the Albert Hall Fischer-Dieskau sang the most moving ‘Nacht und Träume’ I have ever heard. The first to break what seemed like a minute-long silence was an elderly German woman who, wishing to preserve the magical moment, whispered audibly into the huge arena, with tears rolling down her cheeks: ‘Schluß jetzt!’ (‘No more!’) Not all my outings were so successful, however. I remember our first theatre visit to nearby Southampton, where the university film society was showing a film in German, without subtitles, of Gottfried Keller’s Romeo und Julia auf dem Dorfe. Alas, the performance was in broad ‘Schweizerdeutsch’ (Swiss dialect), neither my students nor I understood a single word, and we returned to Bedales in silence.
Six years later I moved to Westminster School as Head of Modern Languages, and it was after a year there that I consciously began teaching German almost exclusively through music and literature. Students who begin their second modern language at the age of 14 do not like to be patronised or fed a diet of baby dialogues and heavily adapted texts; nor do they like coursebooks that come in three parts, the first of which gets no further than the present tense after 250 pages of feeble jokes and coloured cartoons. So we covered most of German grammar within a year and started after the first term to read carefully selected examples of German literature: Goethe, Heine, Eichendorff, Brecht, Kafka (Gib’s auf is ideal), and so on. Music was invaluable in helping students to memorise poems by heart: favourites included Schubert’s Erlkönig and Der Atlas, Weill’s Mackie Messer, Mozart’s Ein Vogelfänger bin ich ja, Lehár’s Lippen schweigen, Bach’s O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, and so on. All these we sang together in unison (the composers would have been horrified), backed by recordings, and I soon realised that students, who memorised poems and music that they loved learned more about the rhythm and grammar of the German language than by reading a hundred newspaper articles.
Two flourishing exchange programmes with schools in Berlin and Munich, one before GCSE and one before A level, helped enormously with the oral part of each exam – so much so that it was not, thank goodness, necessary for me to waste much time on impersonating bankers, conductors, shop assistants, waiters, telephonists, customs officials, travel-agents and so on. My greatest thrill as a teacher was always to see students reach a point when they were capable of reading selected stories, novels and poems without any help from me – like riding a bike without stabilisers! I have always thought that the primary aim of studying French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian etc. is to learn how to read in those languages. Speaking will come later.
Some ten years into my career at Westminster, it occurred to me that as well as teaching German through music and taking students to concerts in London, we could run our own Liederabend series ‘Up School’– the curiously named Assembly Hall. And so it was that I started inviting Lieder singers and pianists to perform to students past and present and their parents. Before each concert, we would often for weeks on end study nothing else but the poems to be sung, so that when the evening came the students would understand almost all the words without burying their heads in the programme and so miss the magic on stage. The Steinway is lifted onto a platform, and the audience (capacity 480) placed in a semi-circle round the stage, thus creating an intimate atmosphere that is hard to match. Highlights have been Winterreise (Matthias Goerne and Eric Schneider), Schwanengesang (Robert Holl and Roger Vignoles), Dichterliebe (Gerald Finley and Julius Drake), Die schöne Müllerin (Wolfgang Holzmair and Imogen Cooper), Frauenliebe und -leben (Felicity Lott and Eugene Asti); Wolf Lieder (Thomas Allen and Malcolm Martineau), Mahler and Schubert Lieder (Simon Keenleyside and Julius Drake) and Schumann Lieder (Joan Rodgers and Sholto Kynoch), among many others. Another venue at Westminster was the recently acquired Millicent Fawcett Hall, where Eva Meier, the great German cabaret singer, accompanied by Paul Cibis, performed Brecht songs by Weill and Eisler to a packed theatre on two consecutive evenings.
Westminster School lies in the heart of London, with easy access to concerts, films and theatres. Art galleries could be visited in a double lesson, and memorable outings included a guided tour of gory German art at the National Gallery, the Charlotte Salomon and Kirchner exhibitions at the Royal Academy, the Beckmann blockbuster at the Tate Modern and the John Heartfield show at the Hayward – ideal opportunities to talk about German history and, in the case of Heartfield and Salomon, to read a lot of easy German on the exhibits themselves. And Lieder recitals were of course legion. I shall never forget Peter Schreier at Queen Elizabeth Hall. Accompanied by Norman Shetler, he sang Die schöne Müllerin, and after the concert we all went backstage. A confident seventeen-year-old Japanese girl was first in the queue and, having told Schreier how much she had enjoyed the concert, asked him whether he knew Ich grolle nicht, adding that she and her class adored it. Schreier rose magnificently to the occasion. Smiling from ear to ear, he replied that he did indeed, looked over his shoulder, shouted to his agent ‘Hol mal den Norman!’ (‘Fetch Norman!’) and guided Ayako and the entire group back onto the QEH stage as the last concertgoers were filing out. Schreier and some ten or fifteen friends/ hangers-on positioned themselves in the front row of the stalls, Shetler arrived a few minutes later, sat down at the Steinway on stage, surrounded by twenty unbelievably excited Westminsters, who proceeded to murder Schumann’s great song. And Schreier, unlike my teacher, had the good grace to control his giggles and applaud!
My early days at Westminster coincided with the boom in New German Cinema, and it was not long before I discovered how right Marshall MacLuan had been: give students an image on screen and they will remember not just the image but the words connected to it. This proved especially true of Herzog’s Kasper Hauser, Fassbinder’s Angst essen Seele auf, Wicki’s Die Brücke, Schlöndorff’s Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum, Hauff’s Messer im Kopf, Hirschbiegel’s Der Untergang and Tykwer’s Lola rennt.
After 30 years at Westminster I was appointed Visiting Professor of Lieder at the Royal Academy of Music where I now work three days a week, coaching singers and pianists in the interpretation of Lieder. Most of the singers have not studied German at either school or university – but, being excellent parrots, their pronunciation (apart from a few vowel sounds such ‘er’, ‘sehr’, ‘Meer’) is usually acceptable. More important than mere pronunciation, however, is an understanding of syntax, of how a poem is constructed. Hugo Wolf would often insist that the singer, before performing a song, should recite the poem on stage, and I wish that more teachers would insist on the same practice. Coaching celebrated singers can be an eye-opener: ask some of them to recite, say, Goethe’s Meeres Stille, and the whole edifice crumbles.
As a non-practising musician, I am often astonished that my working life is now devoted to the world of Lieder. Astonished – and delighted. As Eichendorff would have said, ‘Schläft ein Lied in allen Dingen’ (‘A song sleeps in all things.’)
Richard Stokes’s
publications include The Book of Lieder (Faber, 2005) with a foreword by Ian Bostridge, and translations of Metamorphosis and The Trial by Kafka and Kleist’s The Marquise of O (Hesperus, 2002, 2005 and 2003).