The countertenor Andreas Scholl talks to Gramophone about his new disc, 'Songs of Myself'
Gramophone: The songs of Oswald von Wolkenstein will probably be new to most listeners.
Andreas Scholl: Certainly in the medieval music scene people have heard the name and there are a few recordings on smaller labels, but the wider audience – the more general early music audience – has not yet heard Oswald von Wolkenstein’s music.
G: How did this project come about?
AS: I worked with Crawford Young, a lute accompanist doing English Renaissance music mainly and I said “but you’re also head of a medieval music ensemble, what do you think about this Oswald von Wolkenstein project?” He and Marc Lewon, another ensemble member, knew of course much more about his compositions than I did. Marc Lewon did his own compositions from the facsimile, and that’s how the project started.
G: There’s a wonderful internationalism about Wolkenstein’s music, which reflects how much he travelled around.
AS: I felt it impossible to just present this music in concert by putting on a dark suit, walking out, taking a bow, singing the music, and then leaving again. The life story of this man is what makes the music so interesting. He travelled all over the world which was known at the time, from Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, Scotland, England, the whole Baltic states, then through Poland, Romania, Turkey, the Holy Land, even the North of Africa – and all that, in one lifetime, on horseback. Which is quite an adventure. In that sense he is, for his time, a very open-minded person, someone who has a much wider horizon than the people who lived in his valley in the north of Italy and never left the region. And the character speaks to us in a very personal way. If we look at his comments about his own life, his disappointments, the hopes he had, it’s very modern. It’s so long ago, but we can see a man in his late 20s, early 30s, saying that “maybe travelling is fun but I long to have a family and children”. Then when he has the family, he said “why did I wish for them, how nice were the adventures!” It’s the conflict of the travelling musician. He talks about it very openly. He does not try to do “biography cosmetics” as you could call it. He’s very open and honest about all the mistakes he made. He’s totally open about his life.
G: And he preserved all of his work, with the intention of it being kept.
AS: Until Oswald, the only composer we know of who consciously collected all his music and was concerned about leaving it for future generations was Guillaume de Machaut. Oswald writes, also in a poem, that he wants to live on through his composition. So twice in his life he commissioned manuscripts written by monks. The first is more a collection of individual handwritings, the second is the most beautiful codex written by a very skilled writer with beautiful illustrations, and we know the equivalent value at the time was about three to four hundred pounds for these books. Oswald was notoriously constantly out of money – he always thought about money because he had none. He was second in line of inheritance, his brother got the castle – Oswald was allowed to call himself a knight, but he was a nobleman without big resources. And yet still he invested that much money into these manuscripts because they were really important to him.
G: You obviously sing (mainly) in countertenor here – how did you chose which songs worked well in your voice?
AS: My singing teacher Richard Levitt was there during the recording, giving advice mainly about my voice and how I should use it, because it’s a complete different way of singing. Between singing a Handel aria and then a John Dowland song, for example, I have to take away operatic elements to be convincing with the Dowland song. And I think that from Dowland to Wolkenstein it’s again the same procedure, the whole idea of dramatic singing in that sense just does not exist. The whole big change that came in music history in the late Renaissance, early Baroque period, didn’t exist at the time. So the voice needs to be used in a very light way. Then Richard Levitt said of the two songs that are sung in baritone, “this is Sprechgesang”. The rhythm of the words indicate that it is not meant to be sung in a traditional way, but it is meant to be half-spoken, half sung, it’s very free. And of course it’s much easier to achieve for a baritone, because the speaking voice sits much closer to the singing voice, and for a countertenor it would sound ridiculous – it’s not possible. So my teacher said “try it as a baritone”. That was a big challenge. In the recording, I thought singing these songs was not so great for the voice. But we did many concerts with the programme, and through this experience of singing these songs I learnt to use my baritone much better, so I can easily sing these songs now at the middle of the concert, whereas before I would have shifted them towards the end in case it wears out the head voice!