Art Songs Oubliees: Duets. Part 1: Vocal chamber duets by Felix Mendelssohn.
Duets in art song literature have been largely neglected. In performances, duets from operas, oratorios, and sacred vocal works are more recognizable and often more popular. The duets in the art song field, however, are scarcely known and often overlooked. Not only are these duets engaging and musically gratifying, they also could be programmed as individual musical numbers, as a group on joint recitals, or as complete recital programs.
It should be noted that these duets were specifically composed for performance in an intimate setting. They were typically sung by amateur performers or music enthusiasts in familial gatherings. They are vocally much less taxing than most operatic ensembles, lending themselves well for use in the voice studio. In addition, these duets afford practical performance opportunities in chamber ensembles for less experienced singers, and in lyric diction courses for in-class presentations. Collaborative singing at any level promotes a healthy dose of competition among young singers as it heightens their attention to musical, poetic, linguistic, and dramatic details of the specific material.
Although the duet literature may not be as vast as the solo song, it is still impossible to provide an exhaustive list of all neglected repertoire within the length of this column. This issue will discuss vocal chamber duets by Felix Mendelssohn with the hope of continuing the discussion on other composers in the future.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) composed over a hundred songs, thirteen duets, and sixty part songs. Unfortunately, these elegantly crafted works are rarely heard. Works by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf continue to enjoy popularity in voice studios and in recitals, whereas songs and duets by Mendelssohn remain truly neglected.
To some degree this neglect is due to the structural simplicity of Mendelssohn's songs. His aesthetic of song was very different from those of his contemporaries. Although his romantic idealism is always evident in his compositions, some of his songs and duets reveal a willingness to experiment with form and highly expressive harmonies. They go beyond the graceful melodies, accessible vocal lines, clear textures, and strophic forms for which he is best known. His songs and duets were not intended for grandiose musical showcases, but rather for intimate salon gatherings. They may lack Schubert's pathos, Schumann's elegant flair for the drama, or Brahms's rich harmonic language, but they possess an innate sense of humor, a youthful exuberance, and effortless melodic invention.
The duets examined here range in difficulty. Most of them provide excellent ensemble repertoire for young singers and are effective in various voice pairings.
"Scheidend," op. 9, no. 6 (Johann Heinrich Voss) Separating. Composed 1830.
Although not originally conceived as a duet, the two verses of this beautiful song are often shared by two voices. Particularly effective for tenor and soprano voices, this song is a perfect example of Mendelssohn's lyricism without a sign of self-indulgence. The melodic curve and expansive vocal lines underscore the warmth and power of the poem.
Sechs Lieder op. 63 (Six Songs)
This set of six duets was composed variously between 1836 and 1844. Although it would be ideal to perform the opus in its entirety, each individual duet would be just as effective as stand-alone recital pieces or when grouped with another one or two from the set.
No. 1 "Ich wollt, meine Lieb' ergosse sich" (Heinrich Heine)
I want to declare my love to you. Composed 1836.
This is a joyful expression of love. Heine's descriptive poem combined with Mendelssohn's masterful use of the compound time signature, gives the song an uninhibited flow and forward motion. It is equally suitable for soprano/baritone, soprano/tenor, or soprano/mezzo pairings.
No. 2 "Abschiedslied der Zugvogel" (August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben) Farewell Song of the Migratory Birds. Composed 1844.
Mendelssohn captures the somber longing for summer in a plaintive G minor. A brief and subtle modulation to E-flat major reflects the changes in the text without disturbing the general mood of the piece. Although not a difficult duet, it requires strict and unified attention to the dynamics, especially through the sustained passages. Soprano/baritone or soprano/mezzo.
No. 3 "GruB" (Joseph von Eichendorff) Greeting. Composed 1844.
This is a simple, strophic setting in which the two voices echo the sentiments of the text. Its pastoral quality is heightened by descending scale figures within the vocal interchanges. Soprano/baritone, soprano/mezzo, tenor/baritone, tenor/mezzo.
No. 4 "Herbstlied" (Carl Klingemann) Autumn Song. Composed 1836.
This perfect example of a Mendelssohn microcosm is quite possibly the finest in the opus. "Herbstlied" is a breathless expression of longing and sorrow. The steady allegro agitato prevents the sorrow from saturating the music and generates a constant move forward. A clean and crisp diction for both voice parts and a perfectly synchronized rhythmic execution are prerequisites for this beautiful lied. Soprano/mezzo, two mezzos, soprano/baritone, or mezzo/baritone.
No. 5 "Volkslied" (Ferdinand Freiligrath, after Robert Burns) Folksong. Composed 1842.
This is an enchanting setting in which the tranquil beauty of the text is perfectly highlighted in tuneful vocal lines. A brief piano prelude opens the duet, adding just a hint of harmonic color. The two voices are unified throughout the piece, bolstering the serene characteristic of the musical flow. This is particularly ideal for a mezzo/baritone pairing, but could be suitable for various other voice groupings.
No. 6 "Maiglockchen und die Blumelein" (August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben) Lily of the Valley and the Little Flowers. Composed 1844.
This high-spirited duet rounds off the opus, recalling a Mozartian charm and playfulness. Both voices need to be in sync with the piano accompaniment here, especially through rapid changes in tempos. A brief harmonic shift infuses a more serious hue to the storytelling, intensified by an exchange in the vocal lines. A short piano interlude reintroduces the mischief from the beginning of the duet. Soprano/baritone.
Drei Lieder op. 77 (Three Songs)
The three duets in op.77 were variously composed between 1836 and 1847 and were all posthumously published 1847-1849. Each duet can be easily excerpted, as the set is not unified by any thematic elements. All three duets work particularly well for soprano/baritone, soprano/mezzo, mezzo/baritone, or mezzo/mezzo pairings.
No. 1 "Sonntagsmorgen" (Johann Ludwig Uhland) Sunday Morning. Composed 1836.
This is a simple but sophisticated duet in which the beauty of the vocal lines and an economical piano accompaniment establish a radiant quality not often found in strophic settings. The duet has a very intimate feel overall and careful attention to dynamics is a must to preserve that intimacy.
No. 2 "Das ahrenfeld" (August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben) The Wheat Field. Composed 1847.
"Das ahrenfeld" is a particularly beautiful example of one of Mendelssohn's hallmark pastoral settings. Here, the exuberant staccato energy heard at the beginning beautifully contrasts with the legato ending. Subtle changes in tempos should not be overdramatized by the voice parts in order to make the adagio finale more effective.
No. 3 "Lied aus Ruy Blas" (Victor Hugo, trans. Carl Ferdinand Draxler-Manfred) Song from Ruy Blas. Composed 1839.
It is often mentioned that Mendelssohn greatly disliked Victor Hugo's play and was dissatisfied with his own composition, Overture to Ruy Blas op. 95, which was not published until after his death. The slow and stately quality of the overture is not found in the duet. It is, rather, a restless expression of love, shifting ambiguously between major and minor keys. All of these harmonic shifts are carefully initiated in the piano accompaniment and developed in the vocal lines.
Drei Volkslieder Three Folksongs--No opus number
The three duets collected under the title, Drei Volkslieder, were not assigned to a particular opus. Each is relatively short and not vocally demanding. The texts of numbers 1 and 3 are gender specific, but number 2 offers more flexible voice pairings.
"Wie kann ich froh und lustig sein?" (Johann Philipp Kaufmann) How can I be cheerful and merry? Composed 1833.
This beautiful song of yearning is elegantly cradled in a compound time signature. The piano accompaniment gently introduces the theme and assumes a supporting role as soon as the two voices enter. The entire duet proceeds without any significant changes. To be sung by two female voices only. Soprano/mezzo or mezzo/mezzo.
"Abendlied" (Heinrich Heine) Evening Song. Composed 1833.
This dreamy setting effortlessly captures the subtle idealistic undertones of Heine's poem. There is a sense of freedom and ease in the way the vocal lines are formed. This freedom continues to the end of the duet where it finishes with a short piano postlude. Soprano/baritone, soprano/mezzo, tenor/mezzo, or tenor/baritone.
"Wasserfahrt" (Heinrich Heine) Journey on the Water. Composed 1833.
In complete contrast to "Abendlied," "Wasserfahrt" is quite tempestuous. It restlessly emerges from an agitated piano introduction as two voices join, equally agitated, depicting a sailor's bitter farewell to an ungrateful lover. Tenor/baritone, tenor/tenor, or baritone/bass.
All of the above except "Scheidend" are collected in one volume, edited by Max Friedlander and published by Edition Peters (no. 1747). The same volume also contains six duets selected from some of Mendelssohn's sacred works, oratorios, and Singspiel, as well as a duet by his sister Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. Hyperion offers a five-volume collection of Mendelssohn's songs and duets on compact disk that features some recently published works and songs and duets by Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn (see references).
This interesting body of Mendelssohn duets is largely unknown to many young singers. It is hoped that this discussion will propel them to explore and to become better acquainted with these vocally accessible and musically gratifying pieces. It should be noted that all posted voice pairings reflect the author's subjective preferences. Readers are encouraged to explore different voice pairings within the dictated boundaries of the text.
Berry, Corre. Vocal Chamber Duets: An Annotated Bibliography. Jacksonville, FL: The National Association of Teachers of Singing, Inc., 1981.
Cooper, John Michael. Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: A Research and Information Guide, revised by Angela R. Mace. New York: Routledge, 2010.
Deaville, James. "A Multitude of Voices: The Lied at Mid Century." In James Parsons, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Lied. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 142-167.
Haylock, Julian. Liner Notes. Mendelssohn: Songs and Duets. Sophie Daneman, soprano; Nathan Berg, baritone; Eugene Asti, piano. Hyperion CDA66906, 1998
Mendelssohn, Felix. Duette: Zwei Singstimmen und Klavier, edited by Max Friedlaender. Frankfurt: C. F. Peters, 1997.
Todd, Larry R. Mendelsson: A Life in Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Youens, Susan. "Mendelssohn's Songs." In Peter Mercer-Taylor, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 189-205
Baritone Serdar Ilban has performed with many prestigious opera companies in the United States, Europe, and Israel. Equally at home in opera, oratorio, and recital repertoire, he has sung with organizations that include New Israeli World Festival Opera, Las Cruces Symphony, Henderson Symphony, The New York City Opera National Tour, Sarasota Opera, Opera Manhattan, The Bronx Opera, and Il Piccolo Teatro dell'Opera-New York. Some of his notable roles include Escamillo in Carmen, Silvio in I pagliacci, The Professor in Carl Nielsen's Maskerade, Dr. Malatesta in Don Pasquale, and the title role in Gianni Schicchi.
Dr. Ilban earned his Bachelor of Music degree in Opera Performance from the University of Istanbul, completed his Master of Music degree at The Boston Conservatory with a full scholarship, and received his DMA. from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where he was a student of Dr. Carol Kimball.
In 2011, Dr. Ilban joined the faculty at Lamar University Mary Morgan Moore Department of Music as Assistant Professor of Voice. He currently serves as the vocal area coordinator and director of the Lamar Opera Theatre. Previously, Dr. Ilban taught at Southern Utah University, and the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where he was the interim director of UNLV Opera.
A recipient of the 2010 National Association of Teachers of Singing Emerging Leaders Award, Dr. Ilban is an active member of NATS and a frequent adjudicator for regional and national competitions. His current research interests are Holocaust-related vocal music literature, specifically the songs of Lori Laitman, and dramatic adaptations of art songs and art song cycles. He remains active as performer, opera director, and clinician.