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ClassicsOnline Home » CORNELIUS, P.: Lieder (Complete), Vol. 4 (Landshamer, M. Schäfer, Begemann, Hausmann, Veit)
Alongside his creativity as a ‘Poet-Musician’, Peter Cornelius was a devout Christian who wrote church music throughout his life. His groundbreaking sacred songs include strokes of genius such as the Vater unser or Lord’s Prayer cycle, which adapts plainsong chant into a deeply personal musical language. The Marienlieder mix sacred and erotic vocabulary, combining the lyrical inwardness and more passionate tones also reflected in the Ave Maria. Unusual for their numerous revisions, the Weihnachtslieder are successful contributions to the Christmas music of Cornelius’s time. This is the last of a four-volume edition of Peter Cornelius’s complete songs.
Peter Cornelius (1824–1874)
Complete Songs • 4
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, 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 ordered him to come 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.
English translation by Bernd Mueller
Cornelius, a devout Christian and liberal Catholic, wrote church music throughout his life, though not consistently. His training in Berlin already involved composition in the strict style—fugues, canons, Psalm settings and sections of the Mass. His Stabat Mater with orchestra of 1848 signals a fresh direction, moving towards freer forms and a more modern harmonic language. In Weimar Liszt advised the young man to focus on composing sacred works. Although the Masses and choruses that Cornelius went on to produce secured him a place among “the most important German Mass composers” according to his biographer Max Hasse, they failed to offer any clear professional direction. Further sacred choral settings and the famous Requiem to commemorate the death of Hebbel were written in Vienna, but Cornelius’s main focus was, from then on, dramatic works and Lieder. The present recording demonstrates that religious themes could also become the basis for solo songs with piano accompaniment.
“My Pater noster will interest you”, Cornelius wrote to Franz Liszt at the beginning of September 1854. “Nine Lieder over the cantus firmus! This is new, and I have had some success with it.” Elsewhere he speaks of a “good, solid work”, which one has to admit “stands apart poetically and compositionally”. And it is true that there were no models for a poetic version of the Lord’s Prayer or for the use of Gregorian intonations in the song with piano accompaniment genre. “Stands apart” can also be taken literally: To escape the suffocating fascination of Weimar, Liszt and Berlioz, Cornelius had withdrawn to the Bernhardshutte mill in Thuringia where his relatives lived, in order to compose.
Being reflections on a prayer—a kind of versified sermon, as it were—the emotional range of the texts is quite limited. Not so the settings, which begin calmly, then become increasingly agitated until they reach a climax in the turmoil of No. 6 before gradually returning to the devotional tone of the beginning. This is only possible because Cornelius allows himself considerable freedom in his treatment of the plainsong, regarding its melodies less as official ecclesiastical chant than as source-material for his own personal utterance. Thus, in the first song, the cantus firmus already appears in different registers and keys, sometimes monophonically, sometimes with four-part harmony. No. 2 is a piece of model counterpoint with its strettos and augmentations, in which the voice part also joins. The piano’s postlude is typical: it begins while the voice-part is still singing of the soul praising God and, naturally, again develops the cantus firmus.
By means of a free use of strict counterpoint, advanced harmony, and tone colour, Cornelius avoids any feeling of archaism. The transfiguration of No. 3, the austere rhythms of No. 4 and above all the tone painting of No. 6, the storm song, are couched in a very individual and personal musical language. Even No. 8’s pilgrim song, which strikes the listener as being so traditional, opens out at the end into a dramatic tableau that concludes with the sounds of deliverance. And it is reserved for the very simple final song, with its equally simple musical symbolism, to open the heavens with high off-beat quavers inspired by the Lacrymosa from Mozart’s Requiem.
The Lord’s Prayer cycle was an early stroke of genius on the part of Cornelius when it came to breaking new ground in the sacred song, but not the earliest. When he was 25, he set three verses from Petrarch’s Canzone XXIX, written on the death of the poet’s muse, Laura. These prayers to the Virgin (“Vergine”) mingle sacred and erotic vocabulary, images associated with the Mother of God and the beloved. Cornelius’s settings also strike this balance between profession of faith and confession of love. They are characterized primarily by a lyrical inwardness, which gives way at least once in each song to more passionate tones. Thus in No. 1 a passage explicitly designated as a duet (the piano part is marked “the melody is to be played like a duet, with the voice to the fore”) ushers in a period of harmonic ambiguity which is finally resolved in the C sharp major cry of “guerra” (“war”). And while the singer is still mesmerised by this outburst, the piano leads the music back to the soothing opening theme. In the other two songs, Cornelius’s unobtrusive but masterful use of imitation between the voice and the accompaniment ensures the ardent feelings an aesthetic veneer. Whilst in both cases the singer breaks free in passages that culminate in dramatic appeals to the beloved, in the end artistic restraint triumphs.
The Ave Maria, composed while Cornelius was staying in Salzburg in September 1862, is clearly a later work than the Petrarch trio. In Salzburg Cornelius completed his opera Der Cid, while trying to improve his financial situation by publishing songs. He was also once again hopelessly in love. A diary entry that refers to the woman he adored as “stella matutina” (“morning star”), adding “Ora pro nobis!” (“Pray for us!”), shows the extent to which religious enthusiasm and personal passion were intertwined in his case. These words, “Pray for us!”, represent the musical climax of the Ave Maria, which is a mere 29 bars long. At this point the solemn invocation of the Virgin gives way to a reference to human sinfulness and mortality that is underlined musically by the vocal line descending more than an octave between “nobis” and “hora mortis”.
Towards the end of 1856, at the same time as he was starting work on Der Barbier von Bagdad, Cornelius once again addressed the point where sacred and secular meet, though naturally with a different emphasis. The six carols which were, like Op. 2, written at the Bernhardshutte, were not only conceived as music for domestic consumption, but also dedicated to a member of Cornelius’s family: his sister Elise, who was four years his elder. Cornelius described them as “well conceived and typical [of the genre]”, “quite a grateful little work” of “unaffected piety”. In the same breath, however, he expressed his hope of offering his “publisher and public an acceptable work of art”, so he did not see his Christmas cycle restricted to domestic music-making. “How conscientiously and artistically I worked on it”, he wrote. And this he did more than once, revising the cycle in 1859 and 1870. The existence of several versions—which is very much the exception with Cornelius—is all the more remarkable as he completely reworked two songs, partially changing the text. For example, he changed the four-verse shepherd’s song of No. 2 into a pastoral narrative in which the angel’s message serves as the musical focal point. Still more striking is the way he altered the following song, which was originally conceived as a slow march. Here, Cornelius took up a suggestion made by Liszt and underlaid the text with the chorale melody “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (“How brightly shines the morning star”), heard in the accompaniment. And in No. 4 he undermined the tonic key of G major with a piano introduction in the “wrong” key of B major, which only finds its true application in Simeon’s proclamation of salvation. All in all, Cornelius’s Op. 8 may be regarded as a successful contribution to the Christmas music of its time—perhaps even as the only successful one. His liking for the middle-class sense of the idyllic is time and again offset by harmonic tricks and the musical independence of the setting, in particular in the jaunty tone of the final song. Even posthumous reworkings of the cycle with linking texts in the manner of a Liederspiel—a nineteenth-century German variant of vaudeville in which existing songs were inserted into a spoken play—which bring out its dramatic structure, do nothing to change this.
English translation by Susan Baxter
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