After studying law and serving as an officer in WWI, Janssen studied with Oskar Daniel and made his late debut at the Berlin State Opera in 1922 as Herod in Schreker’s Der Schatzgräber. He was regarded as the outstanding exponent of the lighter Wagnerian baritone parts (Kurnewal, Wolfram, Amfortas, Gunther, Telramund, Lothner, Donner, Heerrufer) and appeared at Covent Garden and Bayreauth.
Janssen is a good example of know your Fach and sticking to it. In his case, not sticking to it. When he was young, his voice was glorious without any of the grab of the swallowing muscles or squeezing the muscles of the throat to emit a sound, which are, unfortunately, what we have today.
Die Nacht, Richard Strauss
Aus dem Walde tritt die Nacht,
Aus den Bäumen schleicht sie leise,
Schaut sich um im weitem Kreise,
Nun gib acht.
Alle Lichter dieser Welt,
Alle Blumen, alle Farben
Löscht sie aus und stiehlt die Garben
Weg vom Feld.
Alles nimmt sie, was nur hold,
Nimmt das Silber weg des Stroms
Nimmt vom Kupferdach des Doms
Weg das Gold.
Ausgeplündert steht der Strauch,
Rücke näher, Seel an Seele;
O die Nacht, mir bangt, sie stehle
Dich mir auch.
The Night, Richard Strauss
Night steps out of the woods,
And sneaks softly out of the trees,
Looks about in a wide circle,
All the lights of this earth,
All flowers, all colors
It extinguishes, and steals the sheaves
From the field.
It takes everything that is dear,
Takes the silver from the stream,
Takes away, from the cathedral’s copper roof,
The shrubs stand plundered,
Draw nearer, soul to soul;
Oh, I fear the night will also steal
You from me.
Reunited with his true love Elisabeth after spending a year with Venus, the goddess of love, Tannhauser seeks absolution and a return to his earthly life.
The story takes pieces of several German myths for its plot: a singing contest known as the Sangerkrieg, the role of Venus and her underground grotto, and the story of a 13th-century poet named Tannhauser. It’s one of Wagner’s most controversial operas.
Wolfram Sings ‘O du Mein Holder Abendstern’
The title of this aria translates to “oh, my gracious evening star.” Wolfram is in love with Elizabeth, but so is Tannhauser. One evening, Wolfram has a premonition of Elizabeth’s death and prays to the evening star to guide her to heaven.
Wie Todesahnung Dämmrung deckt die Lande,
umhüllt das Tal
mit schwärzlichem Gewande;
der Seele, die nach jenen Höhn verlangt,
vor ihrem Flug durch
Nacht und Grausen bangt.
Da scheinest du, o lieblichster der Sterne,
dein Sanftes Licht entsendest
du der Ferne;
die nächt’ge Dämmrung teilt
dein lieber Strahl,
und freundlich zeigst du den Weg
aus dem Tal.
O du, mein holder Abendstern,
wohl grüßt ich immer dich so gern:
vom Herzen, das sie nie verriet,
grüße sie, wenn sie vorbei dir zieht,
wenn sie entschwebt dem Tal der Erden,
ein sel’ger Engel dort zu werden!
Dusk covers the land like a premonition of death,
Wraps the valley
in her dark mantle;
The soul that longs for those heights
Dreads to take its dark and awful flight.
Then you appear, O loveliest of stars,
And shed your gentle light from afar;
Your sweet glow cleaves the twilight gloom,
And as a friend you
show the way
out of the valley.
O you, my gracious evening star,
Gladly have I always greeted you:
Greet her, from the depths of this heart,
Which has never betrayed her,
Greet her, when she passes,
When she soars above this mortal vale
To become a holy angel there!
There are a few lines of introduction before Janssen gets to the aria. I have not included these.
Gounod, Faust, “Dah ich nun verlassen soll”, sung in German
Da ich nun verlassen soll
Mein geliebtes Heimatland,
Sei, Herr des Himmels, inbrunstvoll
Mein Flehen zu dir gewandt.
Schütze die Schwester mir,
Herrgott, so bete ich zu dir,
Schütz, o Gott die teure Schwester mir.
Gram und Sorgen, sie mögen entfliehen,
Voll Mut will ich dem Feinde entgegenziehn!
Wo die Schlacht wild und heiß, wo
furchtbar die Gefahr,
Biet ich dem Feinde mutvoll mich dar.
Und ruft mich Gott zu Himmelshöhen,
Will schützend ich auf dich herniedersehn,
O Margarethe! usw.
Gounod, Faust, sung in German
Before leaving this place,
Native soil of my ancestors,
To you, Lord and King of Heaven
My sister I entrust.
Deign from all danger
always, always to protect her,
This sister, so dear,
please protect her from all danger,
Please protect her from all danger,!
Delivered from a sad thought,
I will go in search of glory,
Glory in the midst of enemies,
The first, the bravest,
In the heat of the fray,
I will go to do combat for my country,
And if, to him, God calls me back,
I will watch over you loyally,
Before leaving this place,
Native soil of my ancestors,
To you, Lord and King of Heaven,
I entrust my sister!
Oh King of Heaven, look down (on her),
Protect Marguerite, King of Heaven!
September 22, 1892; Cologne, Germany – June 3, 1965; New York, NY
Herbert Janssen — with his fine-grained voice, keen intelligence, aristocratic musicianship, and (not incidentally) handsome appearance — was the leading German baritone in several major theaters during the 1920s and 1930s. After studying law and serving as an officer in WWI, Janssen studied with Oskar Daniel in Berlin. Janssen made his debut as Herod in Franz Schreker’s opera Der Schatzgräber in 1922. He remained at the Berlin State Opera until 1937 singing both lyric and dramatic roles, many of them in the Italian repertory. Elsewhere, his roles were confined largely to the German repertory, with an occasional excursion into a role such as Prince Igor, which he performed at Covent Garden in 1935. In this production, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham, Janssen received high praise while the rest of the cast were criticized for sounding too Germanic.
Janssen was a fixture at the Bayreuth Festival from 1930 to 1937. His Wolfram in Tannhäuser set a standard not approached since, and, fortunately, it was recorded in a somewhat truncated 1930 production. During that decade, he established benchmarks for several Wagner roles, particularly Kurwenal, Telramund, Gunther, and — especially — Amfortas. His interpretation of the latter was an exquisitely sung realization of a soul in torment, achieving a remarkable unity of voice, movement, and makeup. His doggedly loyal Kurwenal is preserved on complete recordings of Tristan und Isolde made live at Covent Garden in 1936 and 1937. His tortured Dutchman is also available in a live recording made at Covent Garden and featuring Kirsten Flagstad as Senta.
In addition to his stage work, Janssen acquired a reputation as a superior singer of Lieder. The exceptional beauty of his voice and his interpretive acuity made him a prime candidate for Walter Legge’s Hugo Wolf Society venture of the 1930s. Among the finest singers Legge could pull together, Janssen was given the largest assignment and his subscription recordings made throughout the decade remain supreme, even in the face of the best achievements of post-war Lieder singers.
Janssen was very unpopular with the Nazi regime, especially for a number of derisive remarks. Warned to leave Germany in 1937, he traveled first to England, then settled in Austria. When the Nazis invaded, he fled to France. After a season in Argentina, he came to the United States where he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1939, remaining at that theater until his stage retirement in 1952.
World War II made access to many established European singers impossible, and so Janssen was induced to assume Hans Sachs and Wotan. Although Janssen’s was a powerful voice, it lacked the sheer weight and the low pedal tones needed. This was a grave mistake on Janssen’s part, and the more he sang heavy roles such as Wotan, the more his voice suffered. Perhaps because of the strain, Janssen cancelled performances often, increasingly incurring the displeasure of Met management.
Despite the stress of roles too heavy during his final decade of performing, Janssen retained most of his beauty of voice and all of his musical integrity, a scrupulous and regal artist to the very end. Following retirement, he remained in New York as a respected teacher.