Between innocence and maturity

Michael schonwandt


On 22 October 2022, in his first concert as associate conductor of the Belgian National Orchestra, Michaël Schønwandt will present an absolute first for the Brussels audience: twelve minutes of orchestral music once composed by Verdi on the occasion of the Brussels premiere of Nabucco but which has never been heard again since. He will also conduct Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony and Lieder aus Des Knaben Wunderhorn - with America's best-known baritone Thomas Hampson as soloist.

Michaël Schønwandt's relationship with the city of Brussels dates back to the 1980s, when he was first guest conductor of the Monnaie Theatre for several years. In 1990, he made his debut with the Belgian National Orchestra and he has been a regular, welcome guest ever since. Just last season, he conducted the Belgian premiere of Alfred Schnittke's modernist ballet Peer Gynt. Outside Belgium, Michaël Schønwandt is known as the man who was at the helm of the Danish Royal Orchestra (the orchestra of the Copenhagen Opera) for no less than 11 years. He also led the Berlin Sinfonie-Orchester, the Netherlands Radio Chamber Philharmonic, the Beethovenhalle Bonn and is currently also principal conductor at the Montpellier opera. His repertoire is exciting to say the least: he has conducted creations by Hans Werner Henze and György Kurtág, is an ardent advocate of the music of Carl Nielsen and recently caused a furore with the world premieres of Poul Ruders' operas The Handmaid's Tale and Dancer in the Dark.

In 1848, Verdi composed some ‘divertissements’ for the Brussels premiere of his early opera Nabucco. This ballet music disappeared off the radar after the first performance and was only recently recovered at Villa Verdi in Sant'Agata. You open the concert with this long-forgotten score.

MS: Yes, indeed. I have always had a very strong connection with Verdi's music. I also know Knud Arne Jürgensen very well: the Danish academic who devoted much of his life to Verdi's ballet music and managed to bring the score of the Divertissements to the surface. What a spectacular find, by the way: twelve minutes of undiscovered orchestral music by Verdi! The fact that the Divertissements were composed especially for Brussels makes it all the more special. The perfect work to open my term as associated conducter!

Nabucco is an early opera by Verdi that thematises the expulsion of the Jews from their homeland by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, with the most famous passage being the (Hebrew) slave chorus Va, pensiero. How does ballet music fit into this context?

MS: Verdi knew very well that if he wanted to be performed at the Paris Opera - or at the Brussels Monnaie Theatre which was very much influenced by Paris - that he had to translate his operas into French and add ballet music. That was the concept of the French 'Grand Opéra'. With Nabucco, he did that for the first time. Later, he also wrote ballets for the operas Otello, the French version of Don Carlos, Aida and Il Trovatore. Verdi was very practical in that respect.

In what way does ballet music differ from normal orchestral music?

MS: Ballet music is written according to certain rules: dancers expect an introduction, a solo, a pas de deux, an ensemble piece ... Within one and the same number, you usually find only one mood. That's how Verdi’s early ballet music functions. The Divertissements begin with a long passage for solo cello. This is unique. The way Verdi uses the orchestra after that leans heavily towards the orchestral music of Rossini and Donizetti. What I also find fascinating is the arc we draw at the 22 October concert: from yet-to-be-discovered ballet music by early Verdi to late music by Tchaikovsky - perhaps the greatest ballet composer of all time.

But first you will conduct the Lieder aus des Knaben Wunderhorn with Thomas Hampson as soloist, someone who collaborated on the critical editing of the piano version of these songs. Have you worked with him before?

MS: It's the first time I'll work with him - and meet him. I am a great admirer of Thomas Hampson: he is both a great artist and a first-rate academic. Indeed, in the latter capacity, he made a substantial contribution to the ‘kritische Gesamtausgabe’ of Mahler's Des Knaben Wunderhorn. Once, when we published the work of Danish composer Carl Nielsen, I was in the same position as Thomas Hampson: as a performer advising scholars. Interesting and much needed. As an artist, Thomas Hampson is someone who will never sing something the same way twice: he keeps evolving his interpretations. Like him, I myself have performed Des Knaben Wunderhorn many times. So I am extremely curious to discover a common path!

The collection of song texts Des Knaben Wunderhorn, edited and published in the early 19th century by two Romantic German poets, occupies a central place in Mahler's œuvre. What makes these texts so special?

MS: The thing that fascinated Mahler so much in Des Knaben Wunderhorn is the immense tension between innocence and maturity. Some texts are naive, unsuspecting, young in tone, others burdened with the sorrows of the world, mature. In his music, Mahler is always in search of lost innocence, and these texts help him do so. The Fourth Symphony, whose last movement also contains a text from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, is an extreme example. At the beginning of the first movement, you find yourself in the innocent world of an unconscious child. Towards the end, that innocence is completely lost. 

Lieder aus des Knaben Wunderhon was set up as a piano cycle: Mahler only later adapted the songs for orchestra. Is that noticeable in the score?

MS: Mahler always wrote his music with a full orchestra in mind, even his pieces for solo piano. It's banal to say, but Mahler is one of the best orchestrators ever. The way he can colour a vocal line with the orchestra, the way he can blend the human voice with orchestral sounds, the way he can make the orchestra itself sound human is unique. Furthermore, Mahler has an incredible sense of the value of every word, every syllable, every vowel. A hypersensibility.

The last work on the programme is Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. An autobiographical work that describes the composer's thoughts and emotions during the difficult time immediately after his divorce?

MS: Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony is a work that has accompanied me all my life and has surprised, intrigued and affected me again and again. As in many of his later compositions, in this work Tchaikovsky tried to capture with music what he could not tell with words: his forbidden sexuality, the beauty of his soul. The opening motif of the first movement is Beethoven 5, fate, the outside world threatening. As the movement progresses, it becomes increasingly introverted until finally only two notes remain. A kind of sigh motif that forms the nucleus of the symphony. This sigh motif is in all the main themes of the four movements. The Fourth Symphony tells the story of an individual in conflict with society. In that respect, it is very similar to the Sixth Symphony, although it has a different ending. Here there is still hope, in the Sixth Symphony everything is despair and Tchaikovsky's suicide announces itself as inevitable.

Being associate conductor of the Belgian National Orchestra, what does that entail for you?

MS: In recent years, I find long-term collaborations increasingly important. Being able to work with the same orchestra several times allows you to get to know the instrumentalists, achieve a specific way of playing and also develop a specific sound. If the orchestra and I manage to form a unity, we can offer the audience a much better quality. I myself also find it important not to just drop by and then leave: no, it is in my nature to seek a deeper connection with people.