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Dramatic Soprano

Elisabeth Rethberg, Jugendlicher-Dramatischersopran

By September 11, 2019April 4th, 2023No Comments

Rethberg, née Sättler, was born in Schwarzenberg (Saxony). She first studied the piano.  In 1912 she enrolled with the Dresden Conservatory first as a piano student Eventually, her vocal coach, Otto Watrin, persuaded her otherwise. In 1915, at the age of twenty-one, she made her debut at the Dresdener Hofoper as Arsena in Zigeunerbaron.

Elisabeth Rethberg is a “singer’s singer.” She is a master of perfect legato singing and of a wonderful messa di voce.

Many of Elisabeth Rethberg’s records belong to the most beautiful soprano treasures, above all, her splendid legacy of recordings she made from 1921 to 1934

I hesitated to label her with her German Fach because I’m not sure that it adds anything to description of Rethberg’s voice.  The Italian equivalent is spinto soprano.  This is the Fach in which some have put Callas.  Needless to say, Rethberg had a big voice, but she wasn’t a Brunhilde.

Choosing selections is very difficult for singer who go back this far and even farther.  This is generally because the recordings were recorded acoustically, which means that the sound quality may not be very good, or there has been an attempt to get rid of surface noise.  Getting rid of surface noise also gets rid of higher frequencies, and doing this removes a good chunk of the voice.  I have tried to pick selections where I don’t think that much manipulation has been done to the recording.  This means that you will have to listen through the noise, but you will hear more of the voice.  I am highly sensitive to this, and I have had to remaster many CDs myself when the manipulations to the sound have been too much for me to ignore.

There has never, I think, been anyone who has sung this aria better than this.

O patria mia, mai più ti revedrò!
O cieli azzurri, o dolci aure native,
Dove sereno il nio mattin brillò,
O verdi colli, o profumate rive,
O patria mia, mai più ti revedrò!
O fresche valli, o queto asil beato,
Che un dì promesso dall’amor mi fu;
Or che d’amore il sogno è dileguato,
O patria mia, non ti vedrò mai più!

Oh my homeland, I shall never see you again!
Oh blue skies, oh soft native breezes,
where the light of my youth shone in tranquillity;
oh green hills, perfumed shores,
oh my homeland, I shall never see you again!
Oh cool valleys, oh blessed, tranquil refuge
which once was promised me by love;
now that the dream of love has faded,
oh my homeland, I shall never see you again!

Deh, vieni, non tardar, oh gioia bella,
vieni ove amore per goder t’appella,
finché non splende in ciel notturna face,
finché l’aria è ancor bruna e il mondo tace.
Qui mormora il ruscel, qui scherza l’aura,
che col dolce sussurro il cor ristaura,
qui ridono i fioretti e l’erba è fresca,
ai piaceri d’amor qui tutto adesca.
Vieni, ben mio, tra queste piante ascose,
ti vo’ la fronte incoronar di rose.

Come, do not delay, oh bliss,
Come where love calls thee to joy,
While night’s torch does not shine in the sky,
While the air is still dark and the world quiet.
Here murmurs the stream, here sports the breeze,
Which refreshes the heart with its sweet whispers.
Here flowers smile and the grass is cool;
Here everything invites to the pleasures of love.
Come, my dearest, and amid these sheltered trees
I will wreathe thy brow with roses.

Ave Maria!
Jungfrau mild
Erhöre deiner Kinder Flehen
im Tal der Tränen sei uns Schild
lass mein Gebet zu dir hinwehen
Wir schlafen sicher bis zum Morgen
dein Sternenmantel deckt uns zu
O Jungfrau, siehe unsere Sorgen
O schenke unsern Herzen Ruh!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria!
Reine Magd!
Wir wollen gläubig dir vertrauen
du süsse Jungfrau, unverzagt
voll Hoffnung zu dir aufwärts schauen
und still uns Gottes Willen beugen
da uns dein heilger Trost anweht
O Jungfrau, wolle hold dich neigen
dem Kind, das bittend zu dir fleht
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! maiden mild!
Listen to a maiden’s prayer!
Thou canst hear though from the wild;
Thou canst save amid despair.
Safe may we sleep beneath thy care,
Though banish’d, outcast and reviled –
Maiden! hear a maiden’s prayer;
Mother, hear a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

Ave Maria! undefiled!
The flinty couch we now must share
Shall seem with down of eider piled,
If thy protection hover there.
The murky cavern’s heavy air
Shall breathe of balm if thou hast smiled;
Then, Maiden! hear a maiden’s prayer,
Mother, call a suppliant child!
Ave Maria!

This poem was originally written by Sir Walter Scott. It is from the third canto of the poem “The Lady of the Lake”, section 24, and it is a hymn to the Virgin Mary sung by one of the characters in the poem. There were several poems from “The Lady of the Lake” translated into German, and this song was written as “Ellen’s Third Song” by Schubert from a German translation by Adam Storck. I have given Scott’s poem and not the English translation of the German words that Schubert used. This song is now mainly known as Schubert’s Ave Maria even though Schubert wrote it with a different purpose in mind. It is Ellen’s Gesang III, D. 839.

Ave Maria, piena di grazia, eletta
Fra le spose e le vergini sei tu,
Sia benedetto il frutto, o benedetta,
Di tue materne viscere, Gesù.
Prega per chi adorando a te si prostra,
Prega nel peccator, per l’innocente,
E pel debole oppresso e pel possente,
Misero anch’esso, tua pietà dimostra.
Prega per chi sotto l’oltraggio piega
La fronte e sotto la malvagia sorte;
Per noi, per noi tu prega, prega
Sempre e nell’ora della morte nostra,
Prega per noi, prega per noi, prega.
Ave Maria . . .
Nell’ora della morte.
Ave!. . .Amen!

Hail Mary, full of grace, chosen
among wives and maidens art thou,
blessed be the fruit, o blessed one,
of thy womb, Jesus.
Pray for the one who kneels in prayer before you,
Pray for the sinner, for the one who is innocent,
and for the weak and oppressed, and for the mighty,
Pray for the wretched one who kneels in front of you in prayer, show thy mercy.
Pray for the one who bows his head
under injustice and under misfortune;
for us, pray for us, pray
Always and in the hour of our death,
pray for us, pray for us, pray.
Hail Mary . . .
in the hour of our death.
Hail! . . . Amen!

I believe that this excerpt has been taken from a live performance in 1938. Rethberg’s voice is now ten year’s older than the previous youtube clips and has become noticeably heavier. It is still a beautiful voice. There are two things that I’d like to point out in this aria from the 4th act of Verdi’s Otello. This is Desdemona praying before she goes to sleep. She knows that Otello is coming to see her, and, I think, that she knows that he will kill her. See if you can her what Rethberg thinks.

This aria is an exercise in messa di voce. Messa di voce is a bel canto device that means starting on a tone and then crescendoing and decrescendoing. See if you can hear Rethberg does this.

Donde lieta uscì
al tuo grido d’amore,
torna sola Mimi
al solitario nido.
Ritorna un’altra volta
a intesser finti fior.
Addio, senza rancor.
Ascolta, ascolta.
Le poche robe aduna
che lasciai sparse.
Nel mio cassetto
stan chiusi quel cerchietto d’or
e il libro di preghiere.
Involgi tutto quanto in un grembiale
e manderò il portiere…
Bada, sotto il guanciale
c’è la cuffietta rosa.
Se vuoi serbarla a ricordo d’amor!
Addio, senza rancor.

Once I happily left
to your cries of love,
I return now only
to my lonely nest.
I return again
to make flowers and bouquets.
Goodbye, without rancor.
Listen, listen.
The few things I’ve accumulated
I’ve left behind.
In my drawer
is a small band of gold
and the prayer book.
Wrap them in an apron
and I will send the concierge…
Look, under the pillow
there is a pink bonnet.
If you want to keep it in memory of our love, you may.
Goodbye, without rancor.

Not wanting to overwhelm you with Rethberg, I am stopping here. However, if you want to hear more of her, here are some suggested youtube sites:

Ach ich fül’s

Auf Flügeln des Gesanges

Ombra mai fu

A Lonely Forest Pathway
A Moonlight Song

Elisabeth Rethberg, German soprano, 1894 – 1976

Rethberg was born in Schwarzenberg (Saxony). Her parents, whose surname was Sättler, were good amateur musicians, and, as was so often the case in those days, there was always music in the home. She first studied the piano, and she is reputed to have sung the Winterreise cycle at the age of seven. In 1912 she enrolled in the Dresden Conservatory as a piano student.  Eventually, her vocal coach, Otto Watrin, persuaded her otherwise. In 1915, at the age of twenty-one, she made her debut at the Dresdener Hofoper as Arsena in Zigeunerbaron. Her exceptional musicality and her ability to learn new roles rapidly, enabled her to build up a considerable repertoire. By the time she left Dresden in 1922, her repertory included more than 100 roles. In 1923 she and her teacher, Otto Watrin, travelled to New York and headed straight for the Met, where an Aida rehearsal was underway. Still in her traveling clothes, she auditioned for Aida’s Ritorna vincitor. She remained on the roster of the Met for the next twenty seasons. She appeared as Aida, Desdemona, Leonora in La Forza del Destino and Il Trovatore, Santuzza, but also Donna Anna, Sieglinde, Agathe, Pamina, Elsa and Rachel in La Juive. She was never much of an actress. To some extent she compensated with her voice. Toscanini compared her voice to a finely played Stradivarius. The “Guild of Singing Teachers of America” had voted hers the most perfect voice in the world (1928). She frequently returned to Dresden where special “Rethberg weeks” were organized. She also sang at the Salzburg Festival in several Mozart roles. In the late 1930’s the decline of her voice accelerated (it is documented on the late live recordings), and in 1942 she retired.

Elisabeth Rethberg is a “singer’s singer.” She is a master of perfect legato singing and of a wonderful messa di voce. Rethberg feels through the music and the words, but she never imposes too much emotion on them. From 1934 there were limitations. However, she took over heavy roles as Rachel in La Juive and (1930) and the danger was probably not clearly audible then. But by the mid-1930s it was . In the late 1930s the decline accelerated and she retired in that year.

Many of Elisabeth Rethberg’s records belong to the most beautiful soprano treasures, above all, her splendid legacy of recordings she made from 1921 to 1934