24 Jul 2006


Refreshingly modern and familiar at the same time, the Lieder of Willy Burkhard (1900-55) are better known in his native Switzerland than anywhere else.

The Lieder collected on this recording span his career and include Sieben Lieder, op. 4 (1922-24); Sechs Lieder, op. 5 (1923-25); Vier Lieder, op. 6 (1924-26); Zehn Lieder, op. 25 (1930); and Neun Lieder nach Gedichten von Christian Morgenstern, op. 70 (1943-44). Except for two cycles of Rilke settings for voice and orchestra, these are essentially the entirety of Burkhard’s Lieder.

In pursuing his own voice as a composer, Burkhard used of dissonant sonorities and complex rhythms within his essentially tonal; likewise, he allowed the form of his texts to inform his musical structures. Yet within these songs, Burkhard indulged in some interludes that point to a conception of some Lieder beyond merely using music to set his texts. The first song, “Ein fröhlichs Ostlieder,” op. 4, no. 1, is an good example of his approach, which places the energetic rhythms that reflect the exuberant feast of Easter. In other places, the traditional-sounding melodic line becomes the point of departure for a more complex song. This occurs in “Der Gärtner” (op. 5, no. 3), a setting of a text by Eduard Mörike (1804-75). In that song, the folklike line at the opening is punctuated by an increasingly dissonant accompaniment, while the vocal line eventually moves into a freer harmonic idiom that sounds like some of the soaring melodies associated with the songs of Richard Strauss. Not a copy of Strauss – or anyone else, for that matter – Burkhard reflects an individual approach to modernism at a time when various styles coexisted.

In "Verborgenheit” op. 5, no. 6 (with a text by Mörike), Burkhard establishes the character of the song with an energetic accompaniment that becomes, in turn, the framework for the vocal line. The use of modality contributes to the meaning of the piece, which begins “Lass, o Welt, o lass mich sein! (“O world, let me be”) – a plea for isolation from all the things that can become painful in life, as does Burkhard’s inflection of the text in the melody itself.

Likewise, the relentless figuration of “Der Postillon” op. 6 no. 3, is reminiscent of the accompaniment Schubert used for “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” and the other motifs in Burkhard’s setting contribute to this effective setting of Lenau’s text. At the same time, the accompaniment should not be construed as an imitation of the earlier composer, since it its juxtaposition with a slower harmonic rhythm creates a different kind of effect. The last song in that set is “Nacht,” which makes use of a poem by Walt Whitman in German translation, and in it Burkhard’s setting includes the use of planing with parallel sonorities that contribute a stark, solemn character to the song.

With the Zehn Lieder, op. 25, six of the settings are to texts by Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914), whose shorter, more pointed verse were met by Burkhard with some equally focused music. The lyricism in even these relatively short songs has a counterpart in some of the Lieder of Strauss. In such a song as “Schwalben” op. 25, no. 4, the melismatic phrases for the voice convey the text well, with flourishes that composer’s enthusiasm for the poetry. Yet in a more syllabic setting, like “Was Liebe ist - ?” (op. 25, no. 6), Burkhard achieves a kind of poignancy about the mysterious nature of love that even the Romantics could not express. This setting of Knud Hamsun’s poem is pursues love without the cliché trappings and is hardly the overly evocative piece that some could create. It is modern in the understatement that helps to create the meaning, an element that may be found in both the text and its music.

The later songs in the opus 70 collection are equally strong and benefit, perhaps, from the focus exclusively on the poetry of Christian Morgenstern, whose evocative lyrics evidently affected Burkhard. The first of the songs in the later set, “Präludium,” contains some imagery that would inspire any composer, and Burkhard not only captures that in the melodic line, but also underscores it in the accompaniment. This song, for example, conveys an exuberance associated with Strauss – this song evokes Die Liebe der Danae, albeit on a small scale which is nonetheless not an easy feat.

Without commenting on each of the songs in this recording, it is difficult not to find something to recommend in each of them. The songs are the work of a solid composer who contributed some fine pieces to the genre. The modernism that Burkhard used does not reflect a bygone trend that might have been part of the isms that were part of twentieth-century culture. Rather, the pieces have a timeless quality, another aspect of their attraction.

As to his poets, the use of texts by Mörike, Lenau, Gotfried Keller, and other Romantic authors shows Burkhard’s connection to the mainstream of Lied composition. Yet it is interesting to find among his songs settings of non-traditional authors, like Whitman, and contemporary figures, such as Richard Dehmel (1863-1920). Like generations of composers before him, Burkhard respected the tradition in which he was working and, at the same time, took inspiration from the poets whose work was being published and circulated in his day.

All of these songs are performed by Annemarie Burkhard, who brings a clear, elegant soprano tone to the music. Simon Burkhard accompanies his wife, and his facile and expressive style serves his father’s music very well. They are fine interpreters of music that clearly deserves a wider audience. Like some of the other Swiss composers of the twentieth century, like Frank Martin, Burkhard is an engaging composer. Like Martin Burkhard’s ability to integrate elements from various styles goes beyond mere eclecticism to arrive at a personal style.

It is a pleasure to encounter this kind of music in a recording, so that it is possible to know that these works exist. At the same time, it would be a delight to hear these songs included on recital programs and performed by various singers, who could bring them to audiences from time to time. While Burkhard may never displace the hegemony of the German Romantics, his Lieder exist in their tradition and demonstrate a vital outgrowth of their presence in the repertoire the composer knew. Would that more performers could take Burkhard’s music forward and, perhaps, inspire yet another generation of composers to take the artsong further in the twenty-first century.

James L. Zychowicz
Madison, Wisconsin