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Work of the Week – Richard Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder

Although known predominantly for his operas, Richard Wagner’s oeuvre includes many orchestral and chamber works. Among these is Wesendonck-Lieder for voice and piano, which will be performed this week in the version orchestrated by Felix Mottl in Luxembourg and in the arrangement for ensemble by Hans Werner Henze in the UK, Switzerland and Germany.
While in exile in Zurich, Wagner met the silk merchant Otto Wesendonck, who quickly became his friend and sponsor. Between 1857 and 1858 Wagner became infatuated with Otto’s wife, Mathilde, as is documented in copious correspondence between the two. The affair inspired Wagner to write a piano sonata and the Wesendonck-Lieder, a setting of five of Mathilde’s poems. The relationship only ended when a letter was intercepted by Wagner’s then wife, Minna.

Richard Wagner and Mathilde Wesendonck: ‘Our songs’

This song cycle gives an insight into Wagner’s tormented mental state at the time, alternating between exuberant euphoria and delusional distress. Mathilde also inspired a soft lyricism that is not widely observed in his operatic works. Wagner revisited some of the material from the Wesendonck-Lieder in his opera Tristan and Isolde which he was concurrently writing: the third and fifth songs in the cycle are subtitled “Studie zu Tristan und Isolde”.
There have been many versions of the song cycle, with Felix Mottl’s orchestration for large orchestra being the most popular. Hans Werner Henze didn’t consider his 1976 version for alto and chamber ensemble an arrangement, as it allows for a larger range of creativity in the voice part and introduces modern harmonic structures to the accompaniment.

I have not written anything better than these songs and very few of my works will be remembered besides them. – Wagner in a letter to Mathilde

Henze’s version of the Wesendonck-Lieder can be heard on 20 November in Stadthalle Braunschweig with soprano Jelena Kordiæ, on 21 November in Geneva with alto Sara Mingardo and on 25 November in Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh with mezzosoprano Cheryl Forbes. The Felix Mottl version for large orchestra will be performed by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe with Bernard Haitink and soprano Eva Maria Westbroek on 21 November at the Philharmonie in Luxemburg.