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Graham Johnson, Not Lost in Translation

Leave it to the veteran pianist and vocal accompanist Graham Johnson, author of a brilliant lecture-performance of Schubert's Die Schöne Müllerin last year, to create yet another alluring recital of songs. As part of a Vocal Arts D.C. recital next Thursday, bringing together songs by Haydn, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann, and Strauss with German soprano Lydia Teuscher in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (January 26, 7:30 pm -- see below for a half-priced ticket offer), Johnson will lead a brief guided tour of the ways that 19th-century German song was inspired by English literature. Known for his savant and appealing song recordings, devoted to many composers, as well as worthy recital-lecture programs here in Washington, the urbane Johnson rarely disappoints. He kindly responded by e-mail this week, to share his thoughts on the subject of his newest program and how it came about in his mind.

When coming up with programming concepts, Johnson said, "It is always best to start with a core of repertoire already learnt and build outwards from there." He continued: "When I was discussing repertoire with Lydia Teuscher and she mentioned her fondness for Haydn and Mendelssohn I immediately remembered these were two composers with strong English links. We went from there." Shakespeare, of course, was widely known in Europe in the 19th century, and Germany was no exception (Haydn's She never told her love, taken from Twelfth Night, and Schubert's Ständchen (Horch, horch die Lerch), based on Cymbeline are on the program), but beyond that? "I think it is sometimes forgotten what an important part English literature played in influencing German writers, and this is inevitably also reflected in Lieder texts," Johnson replied. "A number of German poets, like Hölty, for example, were proficient in English because they had gone to university in German towns ruled by the Hanoverian English kings, like George III, who was simultaneously King of England and Elector of Hanover. These universities offered bilingual courses in literature." After the American revolution was past and Napoleon had fallen, he added, "the sense of the English ascendancy became even stronger and Britain seemed very glamorous to smaller countries, perhaps similar to the cultural and political sway of the United States in the present-day world."

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Songs of Robert Schumann I, Christine Schäfer, Graham Johnson

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Songs of Johannes Brahms I, Angelika Kirchschlager, Graham Johnson

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Hyperion Schubert Edition 1, Janet Baker, Graham Johnson
"Shakespeare was already counted a world figure in the German-speaking world of Haydn's time thanks to Herder and the younger Goethe," Johnson pointed out. "The amazingly faithful translations by August von Schelgel (and then completed by Ludwig Tieck) of all the plays were to set the seal on this reputation. Schubert's interest was aroused by the participation of his close friend Eduard von Bauerneld in the Wiener Shalkespeare Ausgabe, another edition in 1826." Beyond Shakespeare, there are songs, in English or translated into German, by other English poets on this concert, among them the lesser-known poet Anne Hunter, represented in two songs by Haydn on the program, A Pastoral Song and The Mermaid's Song. "She was the wife of the famous surgeon Sir John Hunter," Johnson informed me, "whom Haydn allowed to operate on his nasal polyp before wisely backing out at the last minute." Anne Hunter was one of Haydn's hostesses in London during his visit in 1795-96, and "the composer's settings of her poems are a kind of gallantry and repayment of hospitality.

Finally, there was Sir Walter Scott, whose works were "simply a world craze," notes Johnson. Schubert set three songs sung by Ellen in Scott's The Lady of the Lake, as well as a setting of the Lied der Anne Lyle (a poem by Andrew MacDonald that was quoted Scott). Two of the Ellen songs (Ellens zweiter Gesang (Jäger ruhe von der Jagd) and Ellens dritter Gesang (Ave Maria) will be heard on this recital. Schubert may have taken his interest in Scott from his most famous interpreter, the retired opera singer Johann Michael Vogl, who "delighted to read these works in the English original," Johnson wrote. "In my mind," he continued, "there is no doubt that Schubert's decision to set poems from Scott'e epic poem The Lady of the Lake was due to the huge success in Vienna at the time of Rossini's opera based on the same poem, La Donna del Lago."

We often think of the German Lied as a genre in which English-speaking singers work so hard to achieve the right diction and pronunciation, but Johnson also sees it as something that has important connections to the English-speaking world. "The difference today perhaps is that whereas all young Germans must learn English as an obligatory subject in their schools and study the language for many years," Johnson observes, "there is a large decrease in British and American schools of the teaching of foreign languages. At the turn of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries the study of the German language was a favorite subject" in the United States, even more so than in Great Britain. "Longfellow's translations of poems into English from German and other languages were once one of the glories of American literature," Johnson continued. The two World Wars, he added, did "immense damage" to Germany's cultural reputation in the U.S. although the reverse is not necessarily true. "Huge numbers of translations of living English and American authors are still made for the German market, which is famously open to the literature of other countries," Johnson observed. By contrast, he went on, "as a German you have to be a Mann, Hesse, Böll or Grass to get similar attention from the English and American market, or a huge best-seller like the German Patrick Susskind with his novel Perfume."

Vocal Arts D.C. presents this recital by Lydia Teuscher and Graham Johnson next Thursday (January 26, 7:30 pm) in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater (January 26, 7:30 pm). Ionarts readers are encouraged to take advantage of an offer of half-priced tickets, available for $20 instead of the normal $45, to this concert. Use the code "VADC20" when you order tickets by phone or in person from the Kennedy Center Box Office, at (202) 467-4600.


Doundou Tchil said...

Graham Johnson is a venerable institution, or, as the Japanese say, "a living national treasure".

Charles T. Downey said...

I am generally not one for "lecture-recitals," I have to say. What Johnson will say will be informative, compact, witty, and well worth hearing.