Here is LL’s advice on Lieder interpretation from her final book, Eighteen Song Cycles: Studies in their Interpretation, published in 1972. The unused introduction can be found below.
Interpretation means: individual understanding and reproduction. How then is it possible to teach interpretation? It seems almost paradoxical to emphasize the necessity for individuality in interpretation and at the same time want to explain my own conceptions of singing. First and foremost I want to say that this book will fail in its purpose, if the young singers, for whom I am writing it, should consider my conceptions as something final and try to imitate them instead of developing their own interpretations which should spring with originality and vitality from within themselves.
For imitation is, and can only be, the enemy of artistry. Everything which has the breath of life is changeable: a momentary feeling often makes me alter an interpretation. Do not build up your songs as if they were encased in stone walls. They must soar from the warm, pulsing beat of your own heart, blessed by the interpretation of the moment. Only from life itself may life be born.
What I want to try to explain here is not any final interpretation, but an approach which may be an aid towards the development of your individual conceptions. I want to point a way which might lead from the lack of understanding of those singers, who seem to consider only voice quality and smooth technique, to the boundless world of expression. And it will be seen that there is not just one, but an infinitely varied pattern of ways, which lead to this goal. Only he who seeks it with his whole heart will find his own approach to interpretation.
I have listened to many young singers, and have found with ever increasing astonishment that they consider their preparation finished when they have developed a lovely voice, a serviceable technique and musical accuracy. At this point they consider themselves ready to appear before the public.
Certainly no one can question that technique is the all-important foundation—the a b c of singing. It goes without saying that no one can master too carefully the technique of voice production. Complete mastery of the voice as an instrument is an ideal towards which every singer must work assiduously. But that technique must be mastered to the point of being unconscious, before you can really become an interpreter.
That God-given instrument—the voice—must be capable of responding with the greatest subtlety to every shade of every emotion. But it must be subordinate, it must only be the foundation, the soil from which true art flowers.
It is only with the greatest hesitation that I dare put into words my ideas regarding the interpretation of Lieder and of French Chansons. For is it not dangerous to give definite expression to something which must essentially be born from inspiration and be, above all things, vitally alive? Yet I have so often been urged by experienced musicians to help the younger generation with such a book as this, that I have decided to put down my ideas in spite of my hesitation. But I should like to take as the motto of this book Goethe’s words from Faust: ‘Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie —und grün des Lebens gold’ner Baum.’ (‘Grey, dear friend, is all theory and green the golden tree of life’.) So may you young, aspiring singers, for whom I write this book, take the fullness of my experience, of my studies, of my development and discoveries as the simile of the golden tree, but it is for you to pluck the fresh, living fruit from its branches. It is for you to infuse with your own spirit, that which comes to you as advice, as suggestion. When you have a deep inner conviction about a song—the words as well as the music—then be sure that your conception is a right one, even though it may differ from what is traditional.
For what is tradition?
The mother earth, from which springs everything which may grow and flower. The creator’s conception of an idea, a work of art, which has been handed down from generation to generation, which has been cherished and developed until it spreads before us as a network of determined paths which are to be followed without questioning. Strict tradition dictates that not a single step may be taken from these paths.
But you are young and the youth of every generation is eager and should be eager for new ways. You have a different viewpoint from that of your parents and teachers. You do not necessarily care for the old, recommended, well-travelled roads. You want to venture into new, alluring fields, to lose yourselves in the mysterious depths of the forests. I know that I am committing a fearful sin against holy tradition when I say: Excellent! Seek your own way! Do not become paralysed and enslaved by the set patterns which have been created of old. Build from your own youthful feeling, your own hesitant thoughts and your own flowering perception—and help to further that beauty which has grown from the roots of tradition. Do not misunderstand me: naturally I do not mean that you should despise the aspirations and the knowledge of earlier generations. I only mean that tradition is not an end but a beginning. Do not lose yourself in its established pattern but let your own conceptions and expression be nourished from it as a flower blooms from the life forces provided by its roots. Simply let them bloom more richly in the light of your own imagination. Certainly you will make mistakes. You will often take the wrong road before you find your true way, just as I have. I grew up in Germany, in the tradition of Lieder singing. I might have come much earlier to that holiest of all—the Lied, had I not been so completely immersed in the theatre. I lived, so to speak, in the opera house and took my few concerts on the side without much preparation. May Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf forgive me for the sins which I committed in their name!
As the reputation which I had won through my work in opera became known in other countries, concerts became more frequent, so that there dawned upon me a new and overpowering realization: that as a Lieder singer, I was at the very dawn of an awakening.
This was the first step: the awareness of my ignorance.
My approach was a hesitant one and I often went astray. In the beginning I felt that this came more from the words than from the music. If I had not been born a singer, endowed with a touch of the golden quality of voice of my good mother, I would without doubt have become an actress. Actually, throughout my whole life I have envied those who are free to express without the limitation of opera singing. So in singing Lieder, the words, the poem became the main thing for me, until—much later—I found and captured the true balance between words and music.
In general I find that the words are too much neglected. On the other hand I should like to protect you from the stage which I had to go through: of feeling first the word and only finally the melody. Learn to feel as a whole that which is a whole in complete harmony: poem and music. Neither can be more important than the other. First there was the poem. That gave the inspiration for the song. Like a frame, music encloses the word picture—and now comes your interpretation, breathing life into this work of art, welding words and music with equal feeling into one whole, so that the poet sings and the composer becomes poet and two arts are born anew as one.
That is the Lied.
Dynamic shadowings are like sketches but the enchanting in-between colours alone can give the tone picture a personal quality. There is a clear, silvery pianissimo which sounds light and ethereal, and there is a veiled pianissimo which trembles with passion and restrained desire. There is a bright forte–strong and forceful like a fanfare—and a darkly coloured forte, which breaks out sombrely, in grief and pain. The ‘veiled’ piano which I have mentioned is a vibration of tone which has no place in the realm of technique and yet, in my opinion, it cannot be neglected in inspired singing; in fact, it is of the utmost importance. How much restrained passion can be conveyed by a veiled tone and how much floating purity in a clear flute-like pianissimo!
One seldom hears a voice which is capable of altering its timbre. For me it goes absolutely against the grain to sing always with the same tone colour. Dynamic gradations seem dead without the animating interplay of dark and light, clear and restrained.
It almost seems superfluous to emphasize that a phrase must always have a main word and, with it, a musical highpoint. Yet it is incredible how often this elementary and self-evident fact is neglected. Again and again I am astonished by a lack of musical feeling for the essential nature of a phrase. Every phrase must be sung with a sweeping line, not just as a series of words which have equal weight and no grace. It is the floating sweep, not just a long breath, which makes the beautifully rounded phrase. The best help in learning to feel how a phrase should sound is to recite the poem. In speaking, you would never give equal emphasis to every syllable as you so often do in singing—through eagerness to hold the tempo or to give each note its exact value or above all to show that your singing is supported by excellent breath control. In my opinion, more important than all these factors, valuable as they are, is giving life to the phrase through emphasizing what is important and making subsidiary the words which have only a connecting value.
Singing should never follow a straight line. It should have a sweeping flow, it should glide in soft rhythmical waves which follow one another harmoniously. (I am referring here to the musical line of a phrase and not to sliding from syllable to syllable which generally has a sentimentalizing effect and should only be made use of most sparingly.) Each new sentence should have a new beginning, the new thought should live, should breathe, emerging from the previous sentence. Create yourself each new thought as if it had just come to life in you. Let it arise from your own inner feeling. Do not sing just a melody, sing a poem. Music lifting the poem from the coldness of the spoken word has transfigured it with new beauty. But you, the singer, must make your listeners realize that the poem, far from losing its beauty through becoming music, has been ennobled, born anew in greater splendour and loveliness. Never forget: recite the poem when you sing—sing the music as you recite the words of the poem in the Lied. Only from the equal value of both creations can perfection arise.
I should like to touch here upon a question, which often arises, as to whether a woman should sing Lieder which, according to the poem, are written for a man. I say with emphasis: Yes!
Why should a singer be denied a vast number of wonderful songs, if she has the power to create an illusion which will make her audience believe in it? It would be a very sad indication of incapacity if one could not awaken in the listener sufficient imagination to carry him with one into the realms of creative fantasy. If you sing of love and happiness, you must be a young person convincingly—and perhaps in reality you are neither young nor beautiful. The stage sets limitations which simply do not exist on the concert platform: on the stage you see the person who is represented, your representation must in some measure correspond outwardly to the character which you portray. The imagination of the audience has its limits: it sees the figure before it in the framework of the role, surrounded by the characters of the story which is being unfolded. In a certain sense it is very much more difficult to retain the illusion of a portrayal when the limits are set by reality. On the other hand on the concert stage it is the unlimited power of your art which must change you into just that figure which you seek to bring to life. You are without any material aids, without any gestures, without the footlights which separate so wonderfully the world of the stage from the world of reality. You stand close to the audience. Almost one with it, you take it, so to speak, by the hand and say: ‘Let us live this song together! Forget with me that I cannot have a thousand real forms, for I will make you believe in all these forms as I change my personality in every song. Let us together put aside reality, and let us, singing and hearing, soar away into the limitless realms of fantasy.’ As Mignon says in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister—‘und jene himmlischen Gestalten, sie fragen nicht nach Mann und Weib . . .’ (‘And there each celestial presence shall question naught of man and maid . . .’)—so the singer soars above all limitations, is young, is beautiful, is man or woman, longing and fulfillment, death and resurrection.
It is my hope that through this book I may open a door which may lead you to feeling what you understand—and understanding what you feel.
The road to the ever unattainable goal, perfection, is long and hazardous. No success with the public, no criticisms however wonderful, could ever make me believe that I have reached ‘perfection.’ Everyone has his own limitations and imperfections. Everyone is to a certain extent the victim of his nerves, his momentary mood and disposition. I am rightly reproached for breathing too often and so breaking phrases. This is one of my unconquerable nervous inadequacies. It is often not enough to know and to feel and to recognize. Human, all too human are the weaknesses under which all of us suffer, each in our own way. In a certain sense, it seems that perfect technique and interpretation which comes from the heart and soul can never go hand in hand and that this combination is an unattainable ideal. For the very emotion which enables the singer to carry her audience with her into the realm of artistic experience is the worst enemy of a crystal-clear technique. Perhaps, in this case, I am the well-known fox for whom the grapes hang too high! But I have found, again and again, that a singer who delights in technique (much as I may admire her virtuosity) still, in some way, leaves my heart cold. Do not misunderstand me: control of the voice is the soil from which interpretation springs. But do not despair over small imperfections, over mistakes which are difficult to eliminate. For if your spirit can soar above technique and float in the lofty regions of creative art, you have fulfilled your mission as a singer. For what mission can be greater than that of giving to the world hours of exaltation in which it may forget the misery of the present, the cares of everyday life, and lose itself in the eternally pure world of harmony ?
Introduction (unused) to Eighteen Song Cycles
Here is Lehmann’s unused introduction to her last book, Eighteen Song Cycles. As you read it, you’ll understand that, though it expressed Lehmann’s thoughts, it wasn’t something that a publisher would choose to put at the front of a book.
“In writing this book I feel very strongly that the young generation of singers will not care for it. The world has changed so much – there are really very few singers who can afford to give Lieder recitals of German songs. One can count them on the fingers of one hand. Opera companies have been built up – and I am the last one not to be grateful for that! But the audiences [missing word] easily guided, like more the more spectacular and understandable stories of operas, and the recitals go slowly into oblivion. And yet I feel almost forced to say what I have to say about Lieder, to keep up the interest in them, the subtle and wonderful message of beauty which they – indestructibly – tell the willing listener…Everything in life goes in circles, I believe. There may also come a time again in which one longs for the Lied. May be that then this humble book will come into its own….
I have taken some of the Cycles from my book, “More than Singing.” This book is for a long time out of print. But how could I leave out in this new book, for instance Schubert’s famous and moving Cycles? Therefore I have put together what in my opinion has to be assembled in one place: This book, which I send into the world, asking for understanding and kind acceptance.”