200 years ago, Schubert completed his sleek and touching song cycle “Die schöne Müllerin.” When tenor and lieder expert Christoph Prégardien sings the work, his voice has a lean tone and a silvery shimmer; each verse seems to flow out of him, both freshly invented and fully formed. Prégardien’s voice embodies Schubert’s actual protagonist: a young, sensitive man making his first acquaintance with the void of unrequited love. I spoke with Prégardien on video call about Schubert’s essential work.
VAN: How many times have you sung “Die schöne Müllerin” by now?
Christoph Prégardien: Around 130 times.
Your next performance of the piece is in Karlsruhe in December, with pianist Hartmut Höll. How do you prepare at this point?
There’s a lot of text to memorize in “Die schöne Müllerin,” especially in the songs with several verses. If I have a long break between performances, the first thing I need to do is rememorize the text. Hartmut and I have also never done the piece together, even though he’s played it often and I’ve sung it often. First, we’ll go through the piece and talk about all the musical and interpretative things that might come up. I don’t like to plan to the extent that every note has been discussed in advance; that would be much too constricting. But the lucky thing about working with someone like Hartmut is, I know that other things are allowed to happen in the concert than what we discussed.
Your interpretation of “Die schöne Müllerin” includes lots of ornamentation. Why?
I recorded the piece for the first time in 1991 with Andreas Staier, who comes from the historically informed performance scene. He told me, “You know, Christoph, you should really be doing a lot more ornaments.” He explained to me that in Schubert’s time, ornamentation, rubato, and dynamic variations were presumed to be part of the performance. If you hear really old recordings, you’ll notice that pianists and singers are much freer with the music than we’d allow ourselves to be now. But at the time, I didn’t feel free enough, and so I only did a little bit of ornamentation.
In 2008, I did a recording with Michael Gees, and the idea was to give a sense of how the songs would have sounded in Schubert’s time. The amazing thing is that back then, the singers could come up with it on the spot. It was off the cuff, which gave their interpretations a much more personal quality.
Will you do your ornaments off the cuff in December too?
Hm. That’s not so easy for someone singing in the 21st century, since we don’t learn how to do it anymore. We’re told, “You have to sing what’s in the score.” It takes time for us to learn that music doesn’t work that way. And there’s still a certain shyness. I don’t do as many ornaments as my son does, for example. But Julian is from a different generation—besides, he’s a free spirit. He comes up with all kinds of great ornamentation, not just in Schubert songs. I like it, but I can’t just copy him. It has to come from me, otherwise it wouldn’t be authentic.
Lots of ink has been spilled about performance practice in Schubert. Soprano Lotte Lehmann and accompanist Gerald Moore each wrote books on the subject: They give singers extremely precise instructions, from the right vocal color of a phrase to the best tempo for a song. What do you think of such advice?
It’s fantastic when great artists spill the tea: I get to learn what they think about it. Take for example Hermann Prey’s writings on “Winterreise” and Ian Bostridge’s book on the same cycle. Both are really interesting. It only starts to get problematic when ideas turn into requirements; when everyone has to do it a certain way. Instead, you could just look directly at the sources. Johann Michael Vogel was Schubert’s favorite singer, and he had a sketchbook. He wrote down exactly what ornamentation he was doing in certain Schubert songs. When you see it, you won’t believe the stuff they were adding: fermatas, long runs and all kinds of things. If somebody did all that today, we’d say he’s nuts.
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Were singers more experimental then?
Yes, definitely. But back then they were only experimenting with contemporary music, that’s the big difference. We have a museum. We’re responsible for music from the Middle Ages to now.
You could probably fill an entire museum with recordings of “Die schöne Müllerin.” Which one would you recommend to someone who is new to the cycle?
My introductory CD was always Fritz Wunderlich’s; he was our main model at the time, too. There are still many young tenors who wish they could sing like him. Wunderlich’s interpretation is very ‘60s, it’s not how I’d do it. But I do think you should listen to a recording by a tenor.
Because the piece was originally written for tenor?
Exactly! And because for decades lied song has been shaped by baritones—to the extent that you almost need to apologize for singing “Winterreise” as a tenor. You’re constantly telling people that baritones need to transpose “Winterreise” and “Die schöne Müllerin” before they can even sing them.
How do singers approach “Die schöne Müllerin” differently now than they did in the ‘60s?
When I sing or teach the piece, I tell people: “You can’t look at Schubert from the perspective of Schumann, Wolf, or Brahms. You have to go back and look at his music from Mozart and Beethoven’s perspective. You have to know how musicians phrased and articulated in the late 18th century.” Many young singers dislike singing Schubert, because he has such high expectations for your ability to handle the instrument.
Almost like Bach.
Yes, it’s very similar. Bach, Schubert, Mozart. Your voice needs to be very flexible, you have to have an almost instrumental control over it. In the last 50 years, I think, there’s been an increased awareness that you can’t smother Schubert in late-Romantic excess. You have to enjoy it pure, like a good single malt whisky or a nice bordeaux.
What song in “Die schöne Müllerin” is especially challenging for you?
“Der Müller und der Bach.” You’re constantly going up to F# and G, but in an extremely light voice. If you’re not a very high tenor, then the piece is extraordinarily uncomfortable. It has a high tessitura and it’s easy to sing yourself to exhaustion. It’s very challenging—“Winterreise” is much easier to sing.
How do you go about learning all that text by heart?
The best thing you can do is memorize it between the ages of 20 and 40. My knowledge of the songs I memorized then is indestructible. But the pieces I sung a few times in the ‘90s and 2000—those are gone. I’ll often do mixed programs including both songs I could do in my sleep, and others that are relatively new. For those concerts I have a music stand in front of me, but the score isn’t there—it’s just the lyrics. If I’m singing and start to feel like I don’t know where I’m going, I’ll look at it briefly. For many singers that’s their biggest fear: standing on stage and not knowing what comes next.
Has that never happened to you?
It has! The worst time I blanked out was in the “Winterreise,” and during the lied of lieder: “Der Lindenbaum.” This was in December 1997, at the end of the Schubert year. I started singing: “Am Brunnen vor dem Tore, da steht ein Lindenbaum. Ich träumt in seinem Schatten gar manchen süßen Traum…” Gone. The microphone was there, but the text wasn’t. I had nothing. I simply couldn’t remember what was next. And I looked helplessly at Andreas [Staier], who was playing that evening, and all I could do was hum the melody until I remembered the text. It was so embarrassing. It took a few songs before I’d gotten over my shame and was inside the piece again.
The protagonists of both the “Winterreise” and “Die schöne Müllerin” are young men disappointed by love and life. Still, women also sing both cycles. Do you think that does justice to the stories?
It’s problematic with “Die schöne Müllerin” because the roles really are very clear. It’s about a very young man, a boy, 13, 14, or 15 years old. When a mature singer interprets the piece, I have my problems with it [too]. Same as when a baritone sings [Schumann’s] “Frauenliebe und -leben.”
It’s different from “Winterreise,” which is about the journey of a soul. It’s not as gender specific. It’s really about the depths to which we can sink, and a woman can express that just as well as a man. Brigitte Fassbaender’s recording of “Winterreise” is magnificent, for example.
In opera there are many examples of women singing from the perspective of young men—in pants roles. Why does that work in opera but not in lied singing?
It does work in lied singing. As a listener, you just have to free yourself from the fact that a man’s perspective is being sung by a woman.
Pants roles have a different historical connotation, related to the castrati era. That role reversal between men and women had a certain sexual association—a wonderful subject for the theater. But in lied, it’s not about a role that you’re playing: You have to perform an entire spiritual condition.
Lied was intended for intimate spaces that were only partially public; it was never meant for the large concert hall. The early Schubertiades were salon concerts. These days, conservatories offer degrees in lied singing, and lied competitions are everywhere. Don’t you think that this degree of professionalization somewhat contradicts the basic aesthetic of lied as music accessible to amateurs?
There’s something to that. If you look at the history, you’ll see that the first lied compositions in the late 18th century were very simple. Almost anyone who was even a little musical could sing them. But that changed a lot in the 19th century. The vocal and piano parts became more ambitious, so that a true art form developed out of what were originally folk songs. It became something that took real ability and real artistic sincerity. I’m a supporter of amateur singing, but as soon as you get to Brahms, Wolf, or Mahler, an amateur will be out of his league.
What insights, ideas, or feelings do you want an audience to take with them after spending time with you, Schubert, and his miller boy?
They should try to locate what is happening with this young man, who goes out to wander, meets his first great love, and, in the inequality of this relationship, loses himself to the extent that he kills himself at the end. On his journey, he tells everything about his suffering—the trees, the forest, the stream, the colors, the flowers—but he doesn’t speak to the girl he loves. The audience should try to experience that, and try to remember what their first time being in unrequited love was like. Then they should take pleasure in the beautiful music and Hartmut’s piano playing. And maybe I’ll sing quite nicely too. ¶
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