I have hesitated in the past to post something sung by Birgit Nilsson. This is because she had an enormous voice, and enormous voices are notoriously difficult to record. However, when I listened to the Wesendonck Lieder, I felt that she recorded well here, and that people should hear her version of this Wagnerian piece.

There is brief explanation of the origin of the Wesendonck Lieder that follows below.

Der Engel

In der Kindheit frühen Tagen
Hört ich oft von Engeln sagen,
Die des Himmels hehre Wonne
Tauschen mit der Erdensonne,

Daß, wo bang ein Herz in Sorgen
Schmachtet vor der Welt verborgen,
Daß, wo still es will verbluten,
Und vergehn in Tränenfluten,

Daß, wo brünstig sein Gebet
Einzig um Erlösung fleht,
Da der Engel niederschwebt,
Und es sanft gen Himmel hebt.

Ja, es stieg auch mir ein Engel nieder,
Und auf leuchtendem Gefieder
Führt er, ferne jedem Schmerz,
Meinen Geist nun himmelwärts!

The Angel

In the early days of childhood
I often heard tell of angels
Who exchange heaven’s sublime bliss
For the earth’s sun,

So that, when a heart anxiously in sorrow,
Languishes hidden from the world
And would silently bleed to death,
And dissolve in floods of tears,

That, where fervent prayer,
Only pleads for redemption,
That an angel will float down,
And it gently lifts up spirit to Heaven.

And to me too an angel descended,
And now on radiant wings
Bears my spirit, free from all pain,
Towards heaven!

Stehe still!

Sausendes, brausendes Rad der Zeit,
Messer du der Ewigkeit;
Leuchtende Sphären im weiten All,
Die ihr umringt den Weltenball;
Urewige Schöpfung, halte doch ein,
Genug des Werdens, laß mich sein!

Halte an dich, zeugende Kraft,
Urgedanke, der ewig schafft!
Hemmet den Atem, stillet den Drang,
Schweiget nur eine Sekunde lang!
Schwellende Pulse, fesselt den Schlag;
Ende, des Wollens ew’ger Tag!

Daß in selig süßem Vergessen
Ich mög’ alle Wonne ermessen!

Wenn Auge in Auge wonnig trinken,
Seele ganz in Seele versinken;
Wesen in Wesen sich wiederfindet,
Und alles Hoffens Ende sich kündet,
Die Lippe verstummt in staundendem Schweigen,
Keinen Wunsch mehr will das Innre zeugen:
Erkennt der Mensch des Ew’gen Spur,
Und löst dein Rätsel, heil’ge Natur!

Stand Still!

Rushing, blustering wheel of time,
You measure out eternity;
Shining spheres in the distant All,
who surrounds our the earth;
Creation for always – comply:
Enough of becoming, let me be!

Stop yourself, procreating powers,
Primitive thought that always creates!
Catch your breath, still your urge,
Be silent only one second long!
Swelling pulses, shackle your beating;
End, eternal day of the will!

That in blessed, sweet forgetting
I would like to measure all my bliss!

When eye to eye blissfully imbibes,
Whole soul in soul drowns;
Being in being finds itself in again,
When all hope proclaims its end,
Lips hush in marvelling silence,
No further wish will the heart beget:
Man recognizes the trace of eternity,
And solves your mystery, holy Nature!

Im Treibhaus

Hochgewölbte Blätterkronen,
Baldachine von Smaragd,
Kinder ihr aus fernen Zonen,
Saget mir, warum ihr klagt?

Schweigend neiget ihr die Zweige,
Malet Zeichen in die Luft,
Und der Leiden stummer Zeuge
Steiget aufwärts, süßer Duft.

Weit in sehnendem Verlangen
Breitet ihr die Arme aus
Und umschlinget wahnbefangen
Öder Leere nicht’gen Graus.

Wohl ich weiß es, arme Pflanze:
Ein Geschicke teilen wir,
Ob umstrahlt von Licht und Glanze,
Unsre Heimat ist nicht hier!

Und wie froh die Sonne scheidet
Von des Tages leerem Schein,
Hüllet der, der wahrhaft leidet,
Sich in Schweigens Dunkel ein.

Stille wird’s, ein säuselnd Weben
Füllet bang den dunklen Raum:
Schwere Tropfen seh’ ich schweben
An der Blätter grünem Saum.

In the Greenhouse

High arching crowns of leaves,
Emerald canopies,
Children who dwell in far off places,
Tell me, why do you lament?

Silently you bend your branches,
You would paint your signs in the air,
Silent witness to your sufferings,
Rise upwards, sweet perfume.

Abundant in yearning desires
Spread your arms out,
And embrace in self-conscious delusion
Empty desolation’s gray void.

Well I know, poor plant;
We both share a fate,
Even surrounded by light and glory,
Our home is not here!

And just as the sun is glad to leave
The empty gleam of day,
The true sufferer veils himself
In the darkness of silence.

It grows quiet, a sighing whisper
In fright fills the dark room:
I see heavy drops suspended
From the green edge of the leaves.

Schmerzen

Sonne, weinest jeden Abend
Dir die Schönen Augen rot,
Wenn im Meeresspiegel badend
Dich erreicht der frühe Tod;

Doch erstehst in alter Pracht,
Glorie der düstren Welt,
Du am Morgen, neu erwacht,
Wie ein stolzer Siegesheld!

Ach, wie sollte ich da klagen,
Wie, mein Herz, so schwer dich sehn,
Muß die Sonne selbst verzagen,
Muß die Sonne untergehn?

Und gebieret Tod nur Leben,
Geben Schmerzen Wonnen nur:
O wie dank’ich daß gegeben
Solche Schmerzen mir Natur.

Sorrows

Every evening, sun, you weep
Your beautiful eyes become red,
When, bathing in the sea,
You attain an early death;

Yet you rise in your old resplendence,
The glory of the dark world,
When you wake again in the morning
As a proud and victorious hero!

Ah, why should I complain,
Why upon seeing you is my heart so heavy,
Must the sun itself be despondent,
Must the sun itself must sink?

And death only just gives birth to life,
Bliss gives only agony:
O how I thank Nature
For giving me such agony!

Träume

Sag, welch wunderbare Träume
Halten meinen Sinn umfangen,
Daß sie nicht wie leere Schäume
Sind in ödes Nichts vergangen?

Träume, die in jeder Stunde,
Jedem Tage schöner blühn,
Und mit ihrer Himmelskunde
Selig durchs Gemüte ziehn!

Träume, die wie hehre Strahlen
In die Seele sich versenken,
Dort ein ewig Bild zu malen:
Allvergessen, Eingedenken!

Träume, wie wenn Frühlingssonne
Aus dem Schnee die Blüten küßt,
Daß zu nie geahnter Wonne
Sie der neue Tag begrüßt,

Daß sie wachsen, daß sie blühen,
Träumend spenden ihren Duft,
Sanft an deiner Brust verglühen,
Und dann sinken in die Gruft.

Dreams

Say, which marvelous dreams
leave all my senses surrounded,
That they have don’t like empty froth
Vanish to an empty wasteland?

Dreams, that each hour
Bloom more beautifully every day,
And with their heavenly tidings
FLoat blessedly through my soul!

Dreams, that with sublime rays
Sink into the soul,
There to depict an eternal image:
All forgetting, one remembering!

Dreams, as when the Spring sun
Kisses blossoms from the snow,
So the unanticipated joys
of the new day greets them,

So that they grow and bloom,
Dreamingly bestow their scent,
Softly fade on your breast,
And sink into their grave.

Wagner and the Wesendonck Lieder
Richard Wagner: May 22, 1813 – February 13, 1883

The late 1840s saw revolutionary uprisings across Europe. In early May 1849, a popular uprising broke out in Dresden, capital of the Kingdom of Saxony, when King Frederick Augustus II refused to accept the Frankfurt Constitution and called Prussian troops to support his rule. The king and his government were soon forced to flee to the fortress of Königstein, leaving the capital in the hands of revolutionaries. However, the rebel victory (this sounds like Star Wars, doesn’t it?). was short-lived, and within a week, the Saxon army, supported by Prussian troops, retook Dresden and restored the king’s rule in Saxony.

After the performances of his operas Rienzi and The Flying Dutchman in Dresden, Wagner was appointed the Royal Saxon music director of the court orchestra for life in 1843. After the completion of Lohengrin in May 1848, Wagner passionately engaged himself in the revolution. Under the influence of his friend August Röckel, who introduced him to utopian-socialist ideas, he supported the democratic/republican movement. He thought that the revolution would bring a thorough democratization and a renewal of society, a unified nation-state, and basic reforms in the sphere of culture and the arts that should put in practice his theoretical ideas on art, especially his conception of the complete work of art. His “Proposal for the Organization of a German National Theater for the Kingdom of Saxony” remained, however, unnoticed. At a meeting of the Dresden fatherland union on June 14, he lectured on the subject “What about the character of the republican efforts vis-à-vis the kingdom?” in which he appealed to the Saxon king to renounce the throne and to place himself at the head of the Free State of Saxony as a president. After this incident Wagner was defamed and snubbed in the court circles and by noble society in Dresden.

Wagner was actively engaged in the Dresden uprising from May 3-9, 1849. He supported the provisional government, took part in the information service of the insurgents, and called upon the Saxon military to fraternize with the insurgents. Together with the leaders of the uprising, he left Dresden on May 9 for Chemnitz, from which the music director avoided the warrant for his arrest by flight, first to Weimar, then, with the help of Liszt, to Zurich, Switzerland, where he sought the support of friends.

While in exile in Zurich Wagner continued to work on his theoretical works and the opera Das Rheingold; he also participated in local musical life. One thing that did not change for him during his exile was the precariousness of his pecuniary position. That is to say that, as usual, he was broke.

Otto Wesendonck, a wealthy silk merchant made a generous loan to Wagner in 1852. More important to this Spiel is that Wagner, through Wesendonck, met Mrs. Wesendonck, the young, pretty, and artistic wife of the merchant. She quickly fell under Wagner’s spell. Wagner, however, had equally succumbed to Mathilde’s charms, resulting in her becoming both his lover and muse.

There were two chief inspirations that occurred simultaneously in 1854 that gave birth to the idea for his opera Tristan und Isolde: his reading of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and his ongoing love for Mathilde. In August of 1857 he set aside work on the opera Siegfried to begin work on the poem for Tristan und Isolde. While all of this was happening, Otto Wesendonck, who had bought an estate outside of Zurich, allowed Wagner and his wife to move into a cottage on the grounds for a nominal fee. This took place in late April of 1857. As he worked at the poem of Tristan beginning in August, the close proximity to Mathilde induced him to read to her each evening his work in progress. (It was during this time that Wagner made the acquaintance of his future wife Cosima, just then a newlywed to his friend, the conductor Hans von Bülow; Wagner’s life was nothing if not messy.)

This intense interaction with the poet/composer inspired Mathilde to compose five passionate poems of her own, which Wagner set for voice and piano, during the winter of 1857 as he worked on the first act of Tristan. Mathilde later wrote in her memoirs that he took each of her poems upon their completion and gave to them a “supreme transfiguration and consecration” with his music.

I just have to say, and this is of course my opinion, that the poetry in German is really bad.

Birgit Nilsson
May 17, 1918 – December 25, 2005

Nilsson, born 100 years ago on May 17, 1918, was the reigning dramatic soprano of her generation and possessed one of the most thrilling voices of the 20th century. Her stock and trade was the punishing, psychologically complex roles in operas by Wagner and Richard Strauss. With reserves of power and stamina, her voice of gleaming steel soared effortlessly above 100-piece orchestras, high notes pinging like supercharged bells. Combined with her keen acting skills, Nilsson was a complete dramatic package, in worldwide demand for over 30 years, singing opera’s most taxing soprano roles: Brünnhilde, Isolde, Elektra, Salome and Turandot.

“You have to have a certain stamina for Wagner, but I think I was born with that,” Nilsson said in a BBC documentary. “I felt very strong when I was singing. And when I started to take lessons, I felt really like some sort of a boxer or wrestler. It must have been in my nature.”

Nilsson, who grew up on a farm in southern Sweden, was a late bloomer, making her operatic debut in 1946 at the Royal Opera in Stockholm while in her late 20s. A few years later, her international career took flight and she began singing at the world’s top opera houses, including London’s Covent Garden, where one staffer told Gramophone magazine he was surprised to see the back wall still intact after a Nilsson performance. At the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where Nilsson appeared 223 times, her 1959 debut in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde was a front page headline. A New York Times critic wrote, “Isolde’s fury and Isolde’s passion were as consuming as cataclysms of Nature.” The audience roared, giving her a 15-minute standing ovation.

The outsized personalities Nilsson portrayed on stage found parallels in her off-stage life. Serving largely as her own manager, she was unafraid to stand up to demanding conductors and impresarios, often with humor. Much to the dismay of conductor Herbert von Karajan, Nilsson once showed up to a rehearsal wearing a miner’s helmet, a comment on the production’s dim lighting.

At another, after her pearl necklace broke, Karajan helped Nilsson pick up the pieces, asking if they were genuine pearls, purchased with the exorbitant fees she demanded of the Met Opera. She quickly replied that they were indeed fake, bought with the pittance he paid her in Vienna. She also maintained that the secret to success singing Wagner’s four-hour-long Tristan und Isolde was “comfortable shoes.” And as a joke, she once left a “do not disturb” sign under her breastplate during a production of Wagner’s Siegfried just to get a reaction from the tenor when he removed her sleeping character’s armor.

Nilsson was funny, but she took her music seriously. “An artist who cannot forget himself in the moment when he is creating art, is no artist,” she claimed. Near the end of her career, Nilsson established a foundation that includes the Birgit Nilsson Prize. The award, handed out approximately every three years to a currently active opera singer or opera institution, carries with it a $1 million prize.