Fritz Wunderlich


The aim of serenades is seduction, but it's not unusual that, in Art Song context, they are somehow sad. For example, in a well-known serenade, Schubert's Ständchen, the music of the third, last stanza makes us think (always depending on the interpreters) that there is more distance between him and her than he would wish. Another example of a sad serenade, maybe more obvious, is the one I'm proposing today, Des Abends kann ich nicht schlafen gehn by Johannes Brahms.

It's part of the 48 Volkslieder, WoO. 31, a collection of traditional songs that the composer published in 1894, although the arrangements had been made forty years earlier. As you can see, Brahms didn't catalogue the publication (WoO is the abbreviation of Werk ohne Opuszahl, work without opus number); this doesn't mean that he wasn't proud enough or considered the collection a minor work. On the contrary, he loved those songs very much, it's just that he didn't consider them his; they actually belonged to the people, and he was just the vehicle. The collection was published in seven issues, of which the first six are arrangements for voice and piano (we listened to the last song, the gorgeous In stiller Nacht) and the seventh, for voice, choir and piano.

Des Abends kann ich nicht schlafen gehn — At evening, I cannot sleep — is the no. 38. Both the song and the poem have four stanzas; the first two are musically identical, and so are the third and fourth. Both parts are very similar; the difference is appreciated on the piano, which is denser and gives a more dramatic character to a song that has a rather sad melody from the very beginning. The singer tells us the reason for this sadness in the last stanza: the lovers are far away from each other. Besides, the readers familiarized with Lied will recognize the second stanza, which is identical to the first stanza of a particularly sad song, Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, by Gustav Mahler, also of traditional origin.

The version we're listening has only three stanzas, the performers leave out the third one. I could have chosen a full performance, of course, but I chose the song especially because Fritz Wunderlich was the singer. More than fifty years have passed since his death (17 September marks the 55th anniversary) and unpublished recordings continue to be released. The German radio station SWR (Südwestrundfunk) has a large record collection, and it released in 2018 a new CD that includes five of Brahms's Volkslieder, recorded in studio on 30 November 1955. It's one of the first recitals of the tenor, who was just 25, and the oldest preserved by the radio station. The quality of the sound is not the best; as usually, the pianist (Josef Müller-Mayen in this case) is the one who loses out, but it's a joy to hear the luminous voice of Wunderlich, so young, singing such naturally those traditionally songs.

One more year, we dedicate a week to the great and dear Fritz Wunderlich, thanking him for the beauty of his music.


Des Abends kann ich nicht schlafen gehn

es Abends kann ich nicht schlafen gehn,
Zu meiner Herzliebsten muß ich gehn,
Zu meiner Herzliebsten muß ich gehn,
Und sollt' ich an der Tür bleiben stehn,
Ganz heimelig!

"Wer ist denn da? Wer klopfet an,
Der mich so leis aufwecken kann?"
Das ist der Herzallerliebste dein,
Steh auf, mein Schatz, und laß mich ein,
Ganz heimelig!

Ach, hätt' ich Federn wie ein Hahn
Und könnt' ich schwimmen wie ein Schwan,
So wollt' ich schwimmen wohl über den Rhein,
Hin zu der Herzallerliebsten mein,
Ganz heimelig!

At evening, I cannot sleep,
To my sweetheart must I go,
To my sweetheart I must go,
And I must stand at her door,
Quite secretly!

"Who's there, then? Who is knocking,
Who can awaken me so gently?"
It is your sweetheart,
Get up, my treasure, and let me in,
Quite secretly!

Ah, had I feathers like a rooster,
And could swim as does a swan,
Then I would swimm across the Rhine
To see my heart's beloved,
Quite secretly!

(translation by Emily Ezust)


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