Me and Rosemary Russell backstage at my professional debut singing Iopas in Berlioz'  Les Troyens  with the Chicago Symphony in 2002.

Me and Rosemary Russell backstage at my professional debut singing Iopas in Berlioz' Les Troyens with the Chicago Symphony in 2002.

I often tell people that the only real reason I sing is because it is that was the only way I could make a living as a professional musician. My initial dream was to be a member of the Chicago Symphony's second violin section (I loved playing inner voices), but when I began exploring singing after having been bit by the drama bug as a high schooler, it became clear that this was my calling.  When I began to study singing seriously as a 15 year old, I had already been studying the violin for 11 years. As a result, I had a good ear and was able to learn music quickly if I could hear it enough times before a lesson with the woman who would be my primary voice teacher from my final years in high school through the end of my undergraduate studies: Rosemary Russell.

Rosemary was aware of my musical training as a string player, and quickly seized upon my voracious appetite for music by assigning me a variety of art songs. Since I had studied French, most of my assignments were either English songs (because it's my native languange) or French mélodies by composers like Fauré and Chausson. The other music I was devouring as a violinist in youth orchestra were things like Tchaikovsky's 6th symphony, Elgar's Enigma Variations, Brahms' symphonies, and Mahler's 5th symphony. The very first German art song Rosemary assigned me was Schubert's An die Musik.

After the angsty complexity of the German, British and Russian romantics that I had been passionately sawing away at in youth orchestra, the simplicity of Schubert's two verses in D major was lost on me. On top of having never studied German, I also was still approaching songs from a purely musical perspective. I was less concerned about what they meant, and just reveling in their musical beauty. As a result, I thought the song was simplistic and boring...and therefore arrived at my next lesson not really know it at all.

After warming up a bit, Rosemary wanted us to look at the Schubert, and it became very evident very quickly that I did not know the song. After a minute, she closed the lid to the keyboard, and she turned to me and said: "You know, next year you will be a freshman in my voice studio here at UM. You have to know that if you show up this ill-prepared at any point next year, I will excuse you from the lesson and ask you to come back the following week when you have learned your music."  Completely terrified that had committed an unforgivable sin, I apologized and blurted out that part of the reason I didn't learn the song well was that I simply wasn't sure that I liked it and couldn't find any recordings of the song that I really wanted to listen to. Rosemary looked at me when I said that I wasn't sure I liked the song, inhaled to say something, and then decided against it. Instead, she said, "You shouldn't be learning music from recordings. And while I know you know how to learn music as a violinist, you need to know how to learn music as a singer, which is a very different process."  She then proceeded to spend the rest of the hour using Schubert's ode to the power of music as a means to show me how to teach music to myself. It was the most valuable voice lesson I have ever had in my nearly 25 years of study since then: The principles I learned that afternoon in her studio are the bedrock of quite literally anything and everything I do musically.

Every time I am asked to sing this song in performance, my mind always drifts back to this little vignette from my adolescence, and the great gift that this particular song (of all songs!), turned out to be. Rosemary passed away in 2005, and I miss her terribly. I was so fortunate to have spent those formative years with her. This song is one of a couple that always make me think of her and the many gifts she gave me that have served me so well over the years, unlocking music's power.

I recently performed the song with Eric Zivian playing a 19th century fortepiano on a concert at the Berkeley Festival and Exposition with musicians from the Valley of the Moon Music Festival, which is why it's been on my mind lately.  A translation of the text and a video of the performance is below:

You, noble Art, in how many grey hours,
When life's mad tumult wraps around me,

Have you kindled my heart to warm love,
Have you transported me into a better world,
Transported into a better world!

Often has a sigh flowing out from your harp,
A sweet, divine harmony from you

Unlocked to me the heaven of better times,
You, noble Art, I thank you for it,
You, noble Art, I thank you!

Du holde Kunst, in wieviel grauen Stunden,
Wo mich des Lebens wilder Kreis umstrickt,

Hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb' entzunden,
Hast mich in eine beßre Welt entrückt,
In eine beßre Welt entrückt!

Oft hat ein Seufzer, deiner Harf' entfloßen,
Ein süßer, heiliger Akkord von dir,

Den Himmel beßrer Zeiten mir erschloßen,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir dafür,
Du holde Kunst, ich danke dir!

-  Franz von Schober

 

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