Growing up in Los Angeles, I didn’t know much about German Romantic poetry. I did read some Goethe and Heine (because I had excellent high school German teachers) but I didn’t exactly grasp the scope of that literary movement. And I couldn’t have guessed that those poems would change my life.
But when I moved to Salzburg to study opera, I discovered that other singers had moved to Salzburg to study Lieder. They wanted to make a career of singing art songs, and they were there to study with the great German pianist, Hartmut Höll.
Professor Höll is an inspiring musician, famous for his recordings with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Mitsuko Shirai and Renee Fleming. And his music doesn’t sound like anybody else’s. He has his own sound; his interpretations are always creative and original. The students at the Mozarteum had tremendous respect for him. They only wanted to show him their very best stuff. And to do that, they had to first understand the poems that the great composers had set to music.
Fortunately, poems were thick on the ground in Austria! People were always throwing around names like Eduard Mörike and Hermann von Gilm zu Rosenegg (which is a long name to throw around). I found that I could absorb a great deal of information just by standing around and eavesdropping on conversations! That’s how I discovered the Heidelberg poets like Brentano, Arnim and Eichendorff.
There is a special pleasure in reading poetry in a second language. It feels mysterious, like cracking a secret code. You have to let the words linger a bit longer in your mouth to catch the full flavor, but it’s worth the wait. I was floored when I first read Nikolaus Lenau’s “Frühlingsblick” out loud. I was so excited to sing Mendelssohn’s setting of that poem!
My first coach at the Mozarteum was a stellar pianist, Francisco Poyato, who has since become a Lied professor at a major conservatory in Barcelona. Francisco fed me a steady diet of Lieder throughout my undergraduate career! He introduced me to the art form. So when I got to the graduate level, I decided that I was ready for the big leagues of Lieder. I declared a double major in opera and Lied.
Even so, I entered Professor Höll’s classroom with fear and trembling. When I walked in, a young soprano stood at the piano. She and her pianist were performing a Schumann song for the entire class. Twelve other students were watching intently, literally on the edges of their chairs. After the first verse, Professor Höll interrupted and asked the class about the metaphorical meaning within a line of verse, and how to best capture that emotion musically. The students responded by comparing this song to three other songs. I drew in my breath. I remember thinking, “I’ve only just discovered Lenau. These people eat Lenau poems for breakfast!”
But I was so excited about the music that I experienced in that classroom. The songs sizzled with energy. Professor Höll taught us how to get inside the music, “behind the notes,” and create nuanced sounds. The creative possibilities were limitless.
He also stressed the importance of relationship between the singer and the pianist. A Lied is a conversation between a voice and a piano, performed by partners who have a shared vision for the song. The singers and pianists in the class worked closely together in “Lied Duos,” practicing until they could respond to each other like figure skating pairs or dance partners.
That first day in the Lied class, I approached a pianist named Ayako Watanabe and asked her if she might collaborate with me on a song by Richard Strauss. That was the beginning of a musical partnership that has lasted more than ten years. Because Ayako was preparing for her master’s recital, I had the opportunity to learn almost sixty Lieder in my first year alone! Ayako and I have since performed together in six different countries.
Professor Höll had a busy performance schedule, and he also taught another Lied Class in Karlsruhe, so he usually only came to Salzburg for one week out of each month. When he was in town, we would cut back on our other classes and camp out in the Lied class, performing art songs for each other from morning until night. We would eat, breathe and sleep Lieder. It was wonderful!
Looking back, what I most appreciate about Professor Höll is the way that he cultivated young artists. Gracious and kind, he gave thoughtful attention to every musician he met. He challenged us to stretch ourselves artistically; he inspired us to do our best work. And he continues to guide young musicians today. He is now the rector at the Hochschule für Musik in Karlsruhe.
Whenever I prepare cycle of art songs, I look for those subtle sensations that can be found in between the notes. And I get nostalgic for those long days in the Lied Class, when we had time to soak up all that music. I’ve had so many happy moments at the piano, just musing about poetry and phrasing; these are the little things that make a musician happy. My life is so much richer because I had the chance to study Lieder.