Singing in the Age of Anxiety

In early 1920, Danish tenor Mischa Léon announced that his next recital in London would include a group of lieder. This would hardly be thought cause for comment today, but there was outrage in the press. The German language had not been heard in an English concert-room since the start of the war in 1914, according to music critic Ernest Newman. When Léon eventually appeared at the Aeolian Hall there were protests from a “small but noisy section of patriots”. The singer prevailed, and gradually others were emboldened to reintroduce lieder to their programmes. Once visa restrictions were lifted, native German speakers began to reappear in London and debates over singing in translation were quashed by a preference for hearing lieder in the original language.

The interwar period is most often discussed in relation to its new musical idioms: modernism, jazz, popular song and film soundtracks. Yet stories like the above illustrate the ways that performances of a seemingly canonical and modest musical genre such as lieder can reflect complex political, social and aesthetic issues. The songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf and Strauss were sung throughout the 1920s and 30s in traditional settings: in the home, in the classroom, and on concert platforms. They were also disseminated via mass media: gramophone recordings, radio broadcasts and cinema. Singing in the Age of Anxiety uses lieder performance as a way to reassess not only the performance culture around German art-song, but also historical narratives that privilege new practices over the old. In so doing it becomes apparent that many of today’s habits derive not from the nineteenth century but from, for example, listening and marketing strategies that developed around the gramophone – from performing complete song cycles to preferring more regular tempi.

The four chapters of the book trace, first, the relationship between Europe and America after the First World War, by looking at the transatlantic careers of musicians such as German-American contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Irish tenor John McCormack, the African American tenor Roland Hayes, and composer Richard Strauss. Second, the use of translations in concert, on recordings and radio, and in film (particularly the ‘Multi-language versions’ of the late 1920s), traces attitudes towards live and recorded performances and examines repertoire choices. Third, the many clubs at which lieder were sung on both sides of the Atlantic are explored, revealing the tensions between ‘old society’ and new media. Fourth, the politics of the 1930s form a backdrop to considering the politics of reception, using as case studies lieder singers including Elisabeth Schumann, who fled Nazi Germany to London and then New York, African American Marian Anderson – who famously defied Jim Crow laws to stage a broadcast concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial – and Norwegian Kirsten Flagstad, who was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer.

Historian Richard Overy has observed that interwar “networks of anxiety” were reflected in a preoccupation with the potential destruction of what was called civilization. Productive international relations, an appreciation of the arts, and the responsible use of media technologies, were already perceived to be under threat in the 1920s. During the 1930s, economic depression and aggressive nationalist agendas heightened concerns. On the outbreak of the Second World War, however, a very different approach to German music and musicians was taken in London and New York than had been the case in 1914. The influx of émigrés from Europe encouraged – for the most part – a rhetoric of inclusion and celebration of a shared cultural heritage at risk of being tarnished by its association with Nazism. Pianist Myra Hess ran a series of daily concerts at the National Gallery throughout the war, featuring established German singers such as Elena Gerhardt as well as young British artists, including Kathleen Ferrier and Peter Pears. Hess explained: “I realise that music is of the utmost importance. All normal life has suddenly ceased, and every element of spiritual influence will be needed to sustain our courage, and our sanity”. Lieder performances were thus inherently political acts, advocating for a civilization that sometimes still feels at risk today.

Laura Tunbridge’s Singing in the Age of Anxiety: Lieder Performances in New York and London between the World Wars will be published by the University of Chicago Press in July 2018.