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Lieder in Pembroke: Interview with Joseph Middleton (Part 1)

The Sir Arthur Bliss Song series is a series of performances of Lieder Music held in the Old Library.

image2This term we have so far heard stunning performances from Kathryn Rudge and Jennifer Johnston, and can look forward to the final concert of term from Ashley Riches.  All the artists are accompanied by College Musician and highly-acclaimed Lieder musician Joseph Middleton.  In this two-part blog, he talked to Kit Smart about Lieder and music in Pembroke.  You can read part 2 for more about the Bliss series, and the intense intellectual and musical work required to be a top-class Lieder musician.

You can buy tickets for the next recital here




I wondered if you could explains, for the uninitiated, what Lieder music is and why it works so well in the Old Library?

Lieder is just the German word for songs, and it was born in the late 18th century and had its hey-day in the 19th century with composers like Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and Strauss. It’s a very intimate thoughtful art form. It obviously involves voices, but unlike opera where you have a set and lighting and lots of other characters, with Lieder you tend to just have one voice, no set, nothing at all, just a voice trying to convey poetry set to music, in its most refined form I think. The voice is often accompanied by just the piano, and the piano part is of equal importance to the voice, often commenting on the subtext of the poem.

Lieder works brilliantly here because Pembroke has a stunning venue, the Old Library, which is the perfect size for this type of art form.  Most Lieder by composers such as Schubert and Schumann were written for the home, and would have been performed for perhaps 12 or so people, and for this reason it lends itself to quite small venues where singers don’t have to push their voices, they can sing comfortably and with their primary concern being for the clarity of text.  So it works brilliantly here because the Old Library is just the right size and it suits voices really well.  Voices can sing as softly as they like and the room helps it still to speak, and they can sing really full and it doesn’t get overblown. It’s a really good space and I find when I travel all over the world doing concerts, and particularly in the states where they love a large concert hall, for instance the Lincoln Centre, trying to play a song written for a group of 12 people to a two and a half thousand seater room, it takes on a completely different life.  It’s not necessarily better or worse but its certainly different. I suspect most singers who enjoy singing Lieder would prefer to sing in a room like the Old Library. It just feels closer to the composer’s intentions.

There’s a Pembroke Lieder scheme, what is that about?

So every year we audition singers and pianists who are perhaps looking to go to a music college for postgraduate study, and the Lieder scheme is meant to be something of a bridge. It introduces them to the type of work they might do if they end up doing a postgraduate degree at the Royal Academy of Music or the Guildhall.  So if they get onto the scheme they get coaching from me twice each term, and I also invite in highly respected singers to work with them, so it’s a great way for them to meet internationally acclaimed stars at the top of their game, and work with them in a small space where it feels very safe for them to explore different ways of singing, different interpretations.  As part of the scheme we also have a public masterclass in the spring term and a final concert as well.  It’s heartening because this is the third or the fourth year we’ve run the scheme, and every year all of the singers and pianists on the scheme who wanted to go to a music college got in and got full scholarships. It’s a great form of musical training and there’s nothing else like it in Cambridge.

Of course the University offers the highly successful instrumental awards scheme, and there’s also much provision for people who want to study organ and choral singing but there’s nothing like this, and I think it’s a really vital thing that we do here.

Yes, that was your original task I believe, to do the non-chapel music

Yes, and it’s been great. It’s something I love doing and I know from the feedback we’ve had that the students get a lot out of it as well.  Cambridge is such an amazing place for doing a lot of things, and occasionally it feels like people are spread too thinly.  The point of the Lieder scheme is that, rather than picking a lot of songs, they perhaps pick ten or so songs and we really work on them in depth over the course of an academic year. In an hour’s coaching we might do one page of one song and really talk about the text, where it was from, why it was written, why the composer was inspired to take this text down off his shelf and set it.  So it’s working a lot with imagination.

You’ve said before that if it’s in a different language you’ll ask the singer to read through in English so that they really engage with the text, and I think even to an untrained ear you can absolutely hear the difference that makes.

I think it’s really vital that singers and pianists know every single word of what they’re singing.  That sounds really obvious, but it’s surprising how many times – and I do this as well – you get an English text, and if you speak English as your first language, you get a general gist but don’t really dig deep into it and engage with what it’s really about.  We spend a lot of time on that, a lot of time translating the likes of Goethe and Verlaine.  I think our job as performers is to put across in the best possible light these scores, and as clearly as we can.

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