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ClassicsOnline Home » CORNELIUS, P.: Lieder (Complete), Vol. 2 (Landshamer, M. Schäfer, Begemann, Hausmann, Veit)
Peter Cornelius composed under the spell of Wagner and of Liszt, but his songs reveal a remarkable artistic independence. Volume 2 of this complete edition, a collection of songs set to texts by a variety of poets, not least Heine and Hölderlin, includes several gems and rarities. They range from Cornelius’ time as a student in Berlin to his final years in Vienna and Munich. Volume 1 can be heard on Naxos 8.572556.
Peter Cornelius (1824–1874)
Complete Songs • 2
Peter Cornelius, who was born in 1824 in Mainz and died there shortly before his fiftieth birthday, saw himself as a Poet-Musician, as an artist who could create equally valid works in word and sound. He succeeded in this better than most. His literary output consists of more than 700 poems, three librettos, as well as numerous essays and translations. As a composer, Cornelius concentrated wholly on vocal music, apart from some early instrumental works. That he went his own way stylistically in this respect is all the more astounding, because he remained under the spell of personalities such as Liszt and Wagner throughout his life. His independence is documented especially in his songs, which were mostly composed to his own texts. Therefore, the present complete recording closes an important gap in the repertoire.
At first everything had suggested that the young Cornelius would follow the calling of his parents and become an actor. Instead he started studying music in Berlin after the death of his father, supported by his uncle, the well-known painter Peter von Cornelius. His conservative education with Siegfried Dehn could not erase his inclination to the music of the Neo-German school of Liszt and Wagner, and a visit to Liszt in 1852 confirmed him in this, in an artistic as well as personal aspect. Liszt gave Cornelius advice and help, and through him he got to know the works of Berlioz and Wagner, later the composers themselves. As a collaborator of Liszt he spent the following years mostly in Weimar, where his Barber of Baghdad was given its première in 1858. More than half of his songs originated during this time. He spent five years working free-lance in Vienna, before Wagner summoned him to Munich in 1864. Not only did he start his first permanent job as a lecturer there, but he also became the happy father of a family. He remained ambivalent in his relationship with Wagner, whom he admired, but whose monopolizing and authoritarian nature, he feared, would burn him up. Afflicted with diabetes, Cornelius died on a visit to his home town of Mainz.
Almost all of the creative life of Cornelius is reflected in the songs on this recording. The earliest pieces go back to his time as a student in Berlin, while the last ones were finished in Munich in 1869, shortly before he became preoccupied with Gunnlöd, a late opera project. That only few of them were ever published is not a judgement on their quality. Rather, the high ambitions with which these unpublished songs were imbued would have hindered a ready sale. In other words: real pearls are to be found especially among the unpublished songs. Whereas Cornelius usually preferred to set his own texts, here songs from the pens of other authors predominate, renowned names all: Hebbel, Heine, Bürger, Platen-Hallermünde, Eichendorff, Droste-Hülshoff, once even Hölderlin. This is a remarkable contrast to the practice of the Romantics Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, whose songs are replete with the names of second- and third-string authors. Incidentally, it should be noted that the poet Cornelius also had his texts set by his musician friends; Alexander Ritter, Felix Draeseke, Eduard Lassen, and even Franz Liszt wrote songs to his texts, none of which, however, managed to gain acceptance.
Cornelius’ Op 5 gathers together compositions from his time in Vienna (1861/62), to which he added an older Rhenish song, Botschaft (Message) [Volume 1, Naxos 8.572556]. For the composer it contained nothing less than a ‘quintessence of my time in Vienna’, as he wrote to its dedicatee Josef Standhartner. A rather restrained piano setting and tame rhythms cannot hide the fact that Cornelius is here inclined to experiment. So No 2, Auf ein schlummerndes Kind (To A Slumbering Child) , soon departs from the home key of E flat major and reaches A major, the harmonic opposite, in the second verse—symbolizing the remote spaces occupied by the sleeping child. The hymn to the mysterious stranger (No , Auf eine Unbekannte)  also traverses extreme harmonic distances, both in the declamatory outer sections and in the turbulent central segment. Cornelius himself told of the ‘great emotion’ which this song triggered in both singer and listeners, among them Liszt. Something similar can be said of the setting of August von Platen-Hallermünde’s Ode 3, even though here the means of expression seem distinctly reduced, especially by the highly simplified rhythm. Unerhört (Incredible)  after Annette von Droste-Hülshoff begins with a literally ‘incredible’ phrase, namely the melodic gesture of Wagner’s Tristan: the loss of a loved one is mourned. Cornelius knew the opera, not yet performed in full, from the already published score. And again we come to Wagner, but this time from the opposite perspective: Cornelius’ idea, to begin the ‘Harp’ song, No 6, Auftrag (The Task)  with a chord that imitates the basic tuning of a guitar, returns years later in Beckmesser’s song in the Meistersinger. Apart from this, Auftrag, to a poem by Ludwig Hölty, obtains its effect from compressed harmonic colours, but with extreme economy of means.
All the other songs on this recording were only published posthumously. They are partly ordered chronologically, partly by the authors of the texts. For instance, the two Heine settings are separated by fourteen years, although this is hardly noticeable in the music. Both compositions are fed from the same basic feeling of love’s anguish—the song of the lonely tears is framed by the soliloquy, whereas in the song of the pale roses, the gesture of the funeral march leads to a twofold intensification. If Cornelius ever composed ‘romantically’, then it was here. The three settings of texts by Gottfried August Bürger from December 1859 have been described as his version of the Wesendonck-Lieder, since they form, in a similar way to Wagner’s cycle, the lyrical concentrate of a larger dramatic design. They were conceived exactly in the phase between work on the text for his Cid and its composition. And harmonically, they do not hesitate to go for broke: while the first two grow almost programmatically from dissonant chords, the third one begins with the severe key sequence F minor / A major / E flat major. No wonder the publishers decided to keep a low profile.
The partly rhapsodic singing voice is contrasted by a largely rhythmically regular piano accompaniment (quaver metre in the first song, quaver triplets in the second and double dotting in the third). But the compositional details are very different: In Der Entfernten (To The Distant One)  the initial motif is given on the piano, which Cornelius uses to build his structure, partly in the upper part, partly in the bass, and not only in its original form, but also in inversion and broadened. In Liebe ohne Heimat (Love Without A Home)  the shrill initial chords function as a hinge to the strophic structure, and in Verlust (Loss)  breathless suspense grows out of the ever more unbearable contrast between rigid rhythm and striving harmony.
During and after the work on his Cid, Cornelius set further poems, mostly texts by Friedrich Hebbel, with whom he was personally acquainted. In 1861 he composed Dämmerempfindung (Twilight Feelings) , which reflects the unrest of the lyrical self through a nervous 6/8 rhythm and sweeping harmonic progressions. In the next year an extremely contrasting pair of works followed: Abendgefühl (Evening Feelings)  and Reminiszenz (Reminiscence) : on the one hand the softly pulsating lullaby, existing in two versions, which seems to waft away increasingly because of a lack of rhythmic focus; on the other the darkly earth-bound song of pain with its eerie chromatic triplet motif in the bass, which leads to an eruption in the penultimate verse. It is tempting to associate the gesture of suffering in Reminiszenz with the despair and grief of love which Cornelius mentioned in letters at this time.
Also in 1862, Cornelius set a poem by Hölderlin and two by Droste-Hülshoff, and they also astound by their contrasting character. Sonnenuntergang (Sunset)  is an orchestrally structured, gripping hymn of Brucknerian pathos, with motifs in the style of fanfares over tremolos, repeated chords and a daring harmonic progression from D flat major via B and B flat major back to D flat. It is only against this background that the methodical simplicity of the two other songs with their oriental influences becomes tangible. Here the moderation of the compositional means constitutes the particular appeal of the setting.
Vision  and Die Räuberbrüder (The Robber Brothers)  go back to the Munich years. The latter, a show-piece of black Romanticism from the pen of Josef von Eichendorff, indulges in a ballad-like tone, while the setting of Platen-Hallermünde’s poem is conceived as a dramatic scene. As simple as the means are, Cornelius utilizes them quite effectively: nervous repeated notes without any foundation in the bass, an accompaniment in thirds which always seems to be hurrying along a crotchet behind the sung melody and, later, the chromatic screwing up of the singing that exposes the dance as being only seemingly innocuous. Ambiguous the ending in redemption-saturated F sharp major, which cannot cancel out the asynchrony of the beginning.
Am See (At The Lake)  and Im tiefsten Herzen (Deep In My Heart)  were composed by Cornelius to his own texts. The first song, written by the 24-year-old, depends on the figuration in the accompaniment which the piano forms from the beginning of the singing part, as well as a simple minor-major opposition. In the second song, written in Vienna and supposedly fashioned after a Berlin broadside ballad, the accompaniment follows the sung melody bar by bar, but this simplicity only masks a complex inner structure. This is because the principal key, in this recording D major, is given up after just a few bars and replaced by B major. And if Cornelius did not have the last lines of the texts repeated to return to D major, the song would end ‘wrong’—a sign of the gap between love and reality.
English translation by Bernd Mueller
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