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German Lied Interpretation: Do we really have to keep digging up Fischer-Dieskau????

Okay, so I'll set the scene for you: yesterday evening I had an impromptu audition for the Sueddeutsche Schubertgesellschaft e.V. (which translates to Southern German Schubert Society, a Non-Profit, here's their website, if you're curious) which was organized only the day prior, and which I was looking forward to for a few reasons. Actually, I found out about about them through a flyer I'd seen where they were advertising for a series of concerts of Schubert's music where the profits from the performances were to go entirely to benefit the Refugees here in Munich, so that made me think, "Yeah, what a good cause! Maybe I can help by offering my singing and then they'd have more concerts and make more money and it'd be great!" You get the picture.

Then, I thought about it some more and decided to call them and see what they said. At least I'd get the chance to sing some German Lieder (aka Art Song) which I hadn't done in a while, even if I wasn't getting paid anything to do it. After all, it was for a cause which I believe in, and which I really would like to support, and considering that I have this ability, why not use it if there is the chance? (That was my train of thought, anyway. Soon to be derailed as you'll find out, but nonetheless, a pretty good one, right?)

I practiced the day before pretty intensely the two songs that I wanted to sing, and then I went there the day of being pretty positive that I'd done good work and I could offer something of value. At least I was certain that I wasn't making a fool of myself. After all, I'd had Lindsey Christiansen's German Lieder class (Westminster Choir College students will appreciate this reference to a very beloved professor) and I was no dummy! I knew all the "rules" and I was going to do what I could do adhere to them while also making my own individual artistic statement through my interpretation.

So, I get there and I'm confronted with a man probably in his late 50's or early 60's who gives the impression of a scholarly individual, surrounded with his walls and walls of Classical Literature and Art Song scores and Composers' Biographies, etc. He was the Vorsitzender (aka guy in charge) of the Schubert Society and also the Pianist who played for all of their concerts (Coincidence? I think not.). He took my coat and I told him I'd like to sing "Gretchen am Spinnrade" and "Heidenroeslein", two pretty standard pieces, which many people know and love. I have coached both of these pieces countless times with professional musicians in the USA and I know that I sing them well. It's a simple fact. I don't sing them with intonation problems, pronunciation problems, or rhythmic mistakes. Those things are objective and can be precisely determined to be correct or incorrect. Besides, technical perfection doth not a transcendent performance make! (How many times has that been proven to us as Audience Members (<--i a="" after="" because="" been="" behalf="" br="" capitalizing="" cold="" emotional="" investment="" left="" m="" missing="" of="" on="" performance="" performer="" s="" that="" the="" ve="" we="" when="">

So I sing the first piece ("Gretchen am Spinnrade", here's a link of Jessye Norman singing it, which is NOT unlike my interpretation in terms of dynamics...) and I did what I do- I painted my interpretation of Gretchen's inner turmoil by using different dynamics, emphasizing certain words in the sentences by making them louder or pronouncing them especially distinctly, and certainly altering the treatment of words that are repeated so that each restatement is different in some way. These techniques are all commonly taught to us singers to help make our performance unique, and also allow us to 'make an Artistic Statement'.

Well, you can imagine that I was then completely baffled to hear after I'd finished singing that I had done it completely and utterly wrong. First of all, I had not adhered to Schubert's dynamics (to which my brain replied "There are only dynamics written in the Piano part, not in the vocal line, so it's more of a suggestion for us singers. If Schubert had wanted the dynamics to be in the vocal line then he'd have written them there. Obviously he didn't have any issue writing them in the piano part so....."), and then he went on to tell me that I had interpreted it WAY too dramatically and that I hadn't observed the many Pianississimos which were in the score (again, in the PIANO part of the score), and that I also had some pronounciation issues with consonants and vowels (convient, since I'm not a native speaker, always an easy thing to pick on and a thing upon which I cannot defend myself, since what am I supposed to say to that?, but funnily enough when I asked him which ones he just said "Oh, all the um-lauts" which, uh specific. (NOT!)) [Let me just insert at this moment that I have worked with Brigitte Fassbaender in a week-long Masterclass on Strauss Lieder and Zerbinetta's Aria (all of which have many um-lauts in them!) and she only corrected the way that I said the the vowel in the word 'Herz' (mine was too closed) and that's it! She even went on to congratulate me, out of all the participants- some of whom were German!!- in having the cleanest diction! So, let me just say.....this guy was full of bull.]

Then he asked me where I  had studied and after I told him (Undergrad at Westminster Choir College, Master's at Hunter College, private studies with J. Dornemann and G. Martin Moore as well as working with a whole slew of other notable teachers and coaches in the USA and in Germany), he proceeded to tell me that studying German Lieder (= Art Song) was a special two-year degree program at German Music Conservatories and that in order for me to properly be able to master the discipline of singing this type of music I'd have to study AT LEAST two more years, and he kindly inserted at this point too (after I'd told him I was 31) that it may not even be possible for me to study this anymore because I'm getting too old to be accepted into the Conservatories here and that they also have a "very difficult" entrance audition exam and they don't take everyone. Of course, IF I studied with him to prepare for it, PERHAPS I'd make the cut.

It was at this point that I'd heard enough and wanted to get the hell out of there when he said "Well, perhaps I could hear your second piece" and whereupon I thought "What the heck for?!" but kindly and with as much dignity as I could muster said "Sure," thinking all the while that perhaps he just didn't like the Gretchen interpretation and he'd find this one better. Or, I could still win him over. WRONG! Oh, gosh- how wrong I was!

After singing "Heidenroeslein" for him, he just said, "Yes......hmm. Well, make sure to call the voice teacher I recommended and talk with her about all these issues that I just explained to you, because if you keep singing like you are now, you won't have a voice left in 15 years."

I was shocked. No, that's an understatement. I was mad at myself for listening to that kind of crap without calling him out on his wrongness, AND I was upset that it was bothering me so much to hear what he had to say, because who was he, anyway?! I would have never even HEARD of the Schubert Gesellschaft if it weren't for a flyer that I'd seen on the street, so it can't be a monumentally important organization. And, to top it all off, I KNEW that the Germans have this strange affinity for the "Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau" approach to Lieder singing (i.e. a very 'precious' way of singing everything with very little dynamic contrast and rather as if one was entranced, with a sort of dreamy quality), and I shouldn't have expected my interpretation to be well-recieved, since I was singing it in a more dramatic way. (Although, apparently even this was not entirely correct of me to think, because after some thorough YouTube research this morning of the most notable singers in the past decades who sung this piece (including Germans!), even they were dramatic in their interpretations! So, yeah. Take that, stupid dude.)

After a lot of feeling shitty about this whole situation (and some crying to just let out the pressure!), I thought about it and realized some important things, many of which I had already known, but which this helped me to remember. The first thing: Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one. The second thing (and most important!): Next time when I'm confronted with someone of this particular level of close-mindedness (because I'd honestly never be interested in working with someone like this, whether they gave me the gig or not) I might as well tell them what I think of them, just as they did to me, and make it plain that I entirely disagree, that I will not be looking for any chance to work with them in the future, and that their kind of small-mindedness is what contributes to the stasis of their art. I mean, for crying out loud, if they want to hear a freaking Fischer-Dieskau-esque interpretation of all the Schubert Lieder forever, then why not just play a damn CD!? (Don't get me wrong, his interpretation was great, but also uniquely his!)

We don't need to train new generations of singers for that---to be machines that will simply spit out an interpretation which is exactly the same in every nuance as that which someone did 50 years ago!!!! How does that offer artistic freedom? How does that bring into the song something new and exciting? How does that help the singer make their own statement with the piece? How does it show to younger listeners the relevance of Schubert still today? It doesn't. It doesn't do any of these things, and it simply leads to people (like this dude) who think that any other way of doing it is wrong. 100% wrong. To which I say, well, I certainly wouldn't want to make music like that, and I'm not going to! AND, my conscious choice to perform these pieces differently will gain me an audience who is entirely unlike this dude, and who is instead, open-minded, looking for something fresh and new, interested in realizing all the different chances that each piece of music offers, and able to appreciate the differences for what they are- an informed Artistic Perspective that is individual and was carefully considered and lovingly crafted, and therefore worthy. Worthy in all musical and psychological and humanistic senses. Worthy to be heard.

So, I'm going to continue to look for those types of opportunities because I would never want anything less for my singing, and for myself.

And uh, yeah, fellow Singers....about the Schubert Gesellschaft e.V.- maybe steer clear of them....


  1. Yeah, listen to your instincts Julia - you are a fine artist and at this point - trust in yourself. I completely agree that we have to make new, honest and original interpretations of all art songs - I mean, how many thousands of singers have already tried to copy the Fischer-Diskau approach for Christ's sake?? It's that kind of mindset that makes outsiders from the classical music world beg for musical theater (and I love musical theater too)!

    For many of these people at these not-for-profit organizations, it's the highlight of their year to sit in on auditions and tell singers how WRONG they are. It makes these people feel powerful and important.

    1. Hi Kasia!,
      Totally- I totally agree with you. And I think it's this kind of boring old repetition and predictability of performance that you're right- does make the audience members bored with our art. I mean, who wouldn't be? In all things we must evolve and change and most importantly, be true to our own experience of them. So, yeah- I'm SO glad that you feel the same way (being a fellow singer that I very much admire and appreciate in your artistry and opinions in all things musical and otherwise). :)

      Also, you're right- oftentimes people who are working in this business seem to relish the chance to put us singers down whenever they can in often very malicious ways. It's sad that we let them get away with this behavior all too often. We should take control of our power more in the industry as Singers- without us who'd do the singing? :) I hope we can all remember this more often- I know I am surely going to after this experience!

      As always, thank you dearest Kasia, so very much for your thoughtful and astute comments and taking the time to share your opinions. It helps myself and all the other readers so very greatly! :) Wishing you all the best!!


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