Drei Gesänge (Opus 56), by Hermann Reutter (1900-1985)

The compositions of Hermann Reutter are not well known, though his musical career was one of great excellence and long duration. Reutter was, at one time or another, a teacher, administrator (Director of the Hochschule für Musik  first in Berlin and later in Stuttgart), composer, recitalist and accompanist. His song output demonstrates a remarkable sensitivity to poetry and awesome musical originality. It also encompassed an amazing breadth of poetic sources; a variety of Russian poets, Rilke, Rückert, Lorca, Icelandic poems, Hölderlin, ancient Egyptian poems, Goethe, Sappho and Langston Hughes, amongst many others.

Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Music and Musicians, a reference not much given to overstatement, calls Reutter 'an outstanding German composer', and this opus of three songs, composed in 1943, to marvelous poetry by Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843), finds the composer at the peak of his most sonorous and expressive period. The closing song of the set, Abendphantasie, is a masterpiece, and I consider it one of the finest songs written in Germany since the death of Alban Berg.

The poem is a Hegelian structure, presenting an opening thesis of tranquility and order, an antithesis revealing the poet's inner turmoil and insecurity, and a concluding synthesis offering peace and serenity.


The ploughman rests, sitting in the shade
 Near his hut; his hearth smokes contentedly.
  The traveller hears the friendly vesper bells
   Welcome him to a peaceful village.

It is time for the boatman to return to his harbour.
 The sound of noisy marketplaces in distant towns
  Subsides. In quiet summer houses, friends
   Join together to enjoy a glistening meal.

But where shall I go? For mortals must live
 By wages and labor. Alternating toil and rest
  Makes everything joyous; why then am I the
   Only one with a constant thorn in my breast?

Up in the evening sky a springtime blossoms.
 Countless roses bloom there and a peaceful,
  Golden world is shining; O transport me
   There, you purple clouds! On high let

My love and sorrow dissolve into the light and air!
 Yet, as if frightened by my foolish plea, the
  Magic vanishes; darkness descends and, as
   Always, I am alone, under the heavens.

Come then, gentle sleep! For the heart desires
 Too much; yet in the end, the restlessness
  And dreaminess of youth will burn away
   And peace and serenity will fill my old age.

A rather more elegant translation, which better preserves the rhythm and flow of Hölderlin's lines, may be found in Michael Hamburger's book, Friedrich Hölderlin, Poems and Fragments, published by The University of Michigan Press. This source also includes the poet's original German lines, showing Hölderlin's archaic spellings and punctuation, which Reutter has modernized without changing anything of substance.

Reutter's setting is through-composed: First a series of shapely vocal phrases, linked with exquisitely expressive interplay from the piano, establish the peace and tranquility of the opening quatrains. Then a powerful dramatic eruption in the piano marks the onset of the fears and doubts that assail the poet, and quickly leads to a powerful climax...Warum schläft denn nimmer nur mir in der Brust der Stachel?  A brief but glowing section in 9/8 meter follows, expressing the poet's plea for relief and release. Next, a short recitative passage returns him to his lonely reality, after which the voice and piano share equally in presenting a sublimely expressive, hauntingly disjunct melody that forms the basis for the transcending beauty of the closing section.

This three-song set is a marvelous addition to the repertoire of any low-voiced singer. The first song, An die Parzen, uses only an octave of range D-sharp to D-sharp. The second, Hälfte des Lebens, encompasses a ninth, A-sharp to B, and Abendphantasie, requires an octave and a forth, reaching from A-sharp up to D. But be advised: Reutter's advanced neo-Romantic style demands solid musicianship from the singer and a particularly accomplished and sensitive accompanist.

Drei Gesänge  makes a powerful impression as a recital segment. Indeed, its effect is so strong I would recommend positioning it to conclude a recital program lest anything performed after it prove anticlimactic.

Hermann Reutter's Drei Gesänge nach Texten von Friedrich Hölderlin  is published by B. Schott's Söhne, in Mainz.


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Copyright 1999, John Koopman. All rights reserved. No part of these websites, designated A BRIEF HISTORY OF SINGING and UNSUNG SONGS, or their contents may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means--electronic, photocopying or otherwise--without the written permission of the copyright holder. For information about the use of this material please contact the author through the Conservatory of Music, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI , (U.S.A) 54912-0599. Fax 920 832 6633