Wagner & Sibelius insights with Margarete von Vaight

There’s so much to know about some repertoire, a little flash of insight about this song or that role can get lost in the massive store-house of knowledge.

It used to be said among my circle of friends at university that Wagner was the third biggest subject in libraries after Jesus & Napoleon. I wonder now, was that English only? Were China & India included? And have more recent famous figures –such as the Beatles or Donald Trump –possibly pushed Wagner out of that position (if he ever had it)?

I enjoy working with singers, if you can call making music “work”.

I had two very distinct revelations today, one concerning a Sibelius song, the other concerning a Wagner solo (some might call it an aria). Both insights come to me courtesy of Margarete von Vaight. You may recall an interview I did with her awhile ago. She has recently returned to Toronto after a trip to Europe.

The photo might hint at the whimsy that’s possible in a tiny room with a piano & some scores, especially when the voice is larger than life.


Margarete captioned her photo “the singer as critic”

I have loved Jussi Bjorling’s version of Sibelius’s song “Svarta Rosor” since childhood, a song I didn’t understand: even when I read a translation.

And I enjoyed the way Margarete sang it in our session this week. I don’t speak Swedish, so I’ve been experiencing this song since childhood, without really knowing what it’s about. It’s a puzzling text. Here it is, courtesy of http://www.lieder.net (who you should support if you can).

Josephson’s original poem:

Säg hvarför är du så ledsen i dag,
Du, som alltid är så lustig och glad?
Och inte är jag mera ledsen i dag
Än när jag tyckes dig lustig och glad;
Ty sorgen har nattsvarta rosor.

I mitt hjerta der växer ett rosendeträd
Som aldrig nånsin vill lemna mig fred.
Och på stjelkarne sitter [tagg]1 vid tagg,
Och det vållar mig ständigt sveda och agg;
Ty sorgen har nattsvarta rosor.

Men af rosor blir det en hel klenod,
Än hvita som döden, än röda som blod.
Det växer och växer. Jag tror jag förgår,
I hjertträdets rötter det rycker och slår;
Ty sorgen har nattsvarta rosor.

In English, the refrain (“Ty sorgen har nattsvarta rosor”) roughly translates as “for grief has roses black as night”.  Svarta rosor, which is of course also the title, means “black roses”.

I never understood what this might signify, other than emotions of sadness, grief. It simmers with passion that explodes in the last phrase, whether it’s a soprano or a tenor singing that line.

Margarete offered some additional insight. I wonder indeed what Bjorling might say (were he alive) if he knew that for the Finnish Sibelius, writing this song in Swedish, there were other possible ways to read the symbolism? The mysterious & inexplicable grief she suggested that underlies the song, is politics, history. We know of Sibelius’ nationalist voice. She saw the song as an expression of the grief of oppression, a tightly controlled well-articulated anger within that context.

It certainly changes my understanding of the song to consider this added dimension, to say nothing of my respect for Sibelius…(!)

I had always wondered about what it really means., mysterious and incomprehensible, the explosion of pain & rage at the end of the song.  It makes no sense to me, without something like Margarete’s additional subtext.

Her reading of it that she sang was tightly controlled, punctuated by a powerful last phrase. It was especially overwhelming in the tiny studio.

Dare I say it: I think I get the song now.

We also went through parts of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin. I sang a bit of it –when she asked me—but that was after she was done in the whimsical selfie posted above, after a ferocious bit of singing. People don’t always recognize the physical effort involved in singing but it’s perfectly clear when the sound is overwhelming. In passing, I think I understand Ortrud better than ever before.

I have been blessed with opportunities to hear Margarete’s voice at close range, including some of the most difficult soprano passages you can imagine:
• “Dich teure halle” from Tannhaüser
• The hojotoho cries at the beginning of Act II of Die Walküre
• “In questa reggia” from Turandot (bet you thought she only sings Wagner)
• Both of the big arias from Ariadne auf Naxos
• Isolde’s Liebestod as well as much of the Siegfried Brunnhilde

A soprano wouldn’t usually sing more than one of these at a time, but her voice is not the usual kind of voice.

I think what I heard this time fits her better than anything else she’s sung. I say that thinking of both the text and the singing: namely the big pieces from Ortrud:
• “Entweihte Götter” from Act II
• “Fahr’ heim” near the end of Act III (which she sang only partially…I recall some giggling and laughter too)

When we’re not making music, I might be hearing about engineering or some other aspect of her life. She is charming but speaks very directly, the quintessential example of a no BS person who tells it like it is. That quality is what came through in her Ortrud, a character who sometimes turns Lohengrin into something melodramatic, unsubtle. If her singing isn’t really excellent the opera becomes two dimensional. She is in some respects like the character Iago who must seem trustworthy to be trusted by Otello, even though we heard of evil plans. Unless those extremes can be reconciled, you make everyone else on stage look naïve. The other Ortruds I’ve heard scream their way through the part.

Margarete showed me another way to sing it, very much like the directness of her Sibelius.  The first time I started playing she giggled something about my forte.  I played louder: because I needed to be louder, much louder. Wow. Yes the singing was powerful but without the wobbling or struggling one gets from some singers. I have never heard such powerful singing sound so easy.

I’ve never heard such a big voice up close. My ears were ringing for awhile afterwards.  It was pretty amazing.

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