Remembering my teacher 1 – Lessons on Schubert’s Winterreise with Esther Salaman

My blog posts until now, have focussed on different aspects of voice technique. At the beginning of the national lockdown this year, before discovering the wonders of Zoom and Skype teaching, I realised, as I cancelled my lessons and began to sink into gloom, how teaching and working with the voice becomes a way of life. Because the voice is a ‘human’ instrument – constructed with muscle and tissue – it is constantly changing as we develop and grow as human beings. For the performer, it is very important to find a teacher who can not only help you develop the vocal skills you need to sustain a professional career but also to provide guidance and advice as you advance in your career.

I have been very lucky in life to meet and work with two teachers – one British, one Russian – whose pedagogical input has had a profound influence both on the way I use my voice, and the way I teach. At the beginning of my career, after some years of troubled early training, I met Esther Salaman who laid the foundations of the approach to voice I use and teach today. My Russian teacher, professor Yevegenia Sheveliova, I met when I was in my mid-forties and had been teaching and performing for some twenty years or so. With both teachers I worked on Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise a piece that has accompanied me for most of most of my adult singing life and which remains indispensable to me. 

My old Peters edition of Winterreise is tattered and falling apart now, and I have replaced it with the new scholarly Bärenreiter edition. My old score, however, contains markings, directions and notes made by both my teachers and revisiting the work during the lockdown, with plans to record and perform it next year, I thought about my lessons with my teachers and what I learned from them. This is the first of two posts about my teachers focussing on Esther and how, through my lessons with her on Winterreise, she taught me the importance of words for a performer and how we can connect emotionally to them. 

A cycle of 24 songs, Winterreise forms a dramatic narrative charting a winter journey undertaken by the poet-singer who, trapped within the pain of an unhappy love affair and a lover who has betrayed him, steps out into the night and sets off on a journey which takes him metaphorically through a frozen winter landscape, as well as on an inner journey into the  depths of his soul. Unrequited love in all its forms, along with a restless dissatisfaction with life, a sense of being outcast and alone and a stranger without a home, were all themes that predominated German literature and art at this time. The protagonist of Winterreise represents this restlessness and as he journeys through the winter landscape, his mind starts to unravel bringing him to the edge of madness. During the course of the journey, the elements of nature appear as symbols of his inner turmoil with nature acting as a mirror to what is going on inside him.

Winterreise was composed in 1827, one year before Schubert’s death at the age of 31. In 1822 Schubert contracted syphilis, an incurable disease at that time, and his health gradually deteriorated over the next six years resulting in his death in 1828. It was against this background of declining health as well as depression that Winterreise was written. In an interesting parallel to this, the author of the poems, Wilhelm Müller, died the year before Schubert at the equally early age of 32. The two men never met but the combination of Muller’s verses and Schubert’s music resulted in a work which formed a turning point in the development of song as an art form. 

Wilhelm Müller was perhaps not a poet in the league of Heine, Goethe or Schiller, but he was a recognised and respected literary figure and his work was popular. He also wrote with the idea that his poetry would be set to music. In 1815 he noted in his journal:

“I can neither play nor sing, yet when I write verses, I sing and play after all. If

I could produce the melodies, my songs would be more pleasing than they are now. But courage! perhaps there is a kindred spirit somewhere who will hear the tunes behind the words and give them back to me”  

Beneath the folksong-like simplicity of Müller’s writing, lay a depth of feeling and sensitivity which offered Schubert the possibility of taking the expression of human emotion to a depth not reached in a classical song before. With his settings of Müller’s poems, Schubert expanded the potential within a song for a much greater depth of expression as well as a dramatic narrative.

It takes just over one hour to perform the twenty-four songs that make up the cycle and for that time; you are completely alone on the stage with only your pianist for company. There are no props, no scenery no costumes. The drama has to be carried by your voice alone and the drama is of the deepest, most human kind. It is an existential journey that takes the singer and audience right to the heart of the psyche and is a piece that requires an intimate connection to the words and the emotions behind them as well as a considerable understanding of the workings of the human mind. 

I first heard Winterreise as a singing student at one of London’s music colleges. My early training was as a counter-tenor, and my repertoire at that time centred around the composers of the 17th and 18th centuries. I also played the harpsichord quite seriously and was taking this instrument as my second study. The sound world I was thus familiar with, whilst beautiful, striking and expressive in its own right, was quite different from what I was hearing in the German Song Class which all singing students were obliged to attend. 

Whilst some of the more well known Schubert songs were already familiar to me, I had not experienced the emotional intensity of the songs found in Winterreise.Nor had I experienced the way emotion was so directly and almost piercingly expressed through both the vocal writing and the piano accompaniment. The songs of Robert Schumann and Hugo Wolf brought further revelations but with Winterreise, I was also struck by the way the story unfolded dramatically through a sequence of songs the telling of which was undertaken by one singer and a pianist. Being a solitary person who enjoys working and doing things alone, I immediately wanted to find a pianist who might feel similarly about this work and learn and perform it myself. But this was to take some years.

I did not complete my training as a counter-tenor. I left college early and sang for a few years with some ensembles specialising in Baroque music and also gave piano lessons before deciding to retrain my voice as a bass-baritone. I had already begun experimenting with my natural voice and some of my counter-tenor repertoire – certain songs by Henry Purcell especially – worked quite well within the bass-baritone range I had so far developed, but I realised I needed the help of a teacher if I was going to take my bass-baritone voice further, and found my way to Esther Salaman in Highgate.

I had been reading books about singing and found Esther Salaman’s book, Unlocking your Voice – Freedom to Sing in Westminster’s Central Music Library. Esther’s bookoffered answers, it seemed, to some of the vocal difficulties I had been experiencing with my practice – accessing the upper part of the voice especially – and I arranged to have a lesson with her. She taught from a rather ramshackle studio at the end of her garden which with its pink walls and rush matting, books and music piled on almost every available surface, portraits and paintings, an old Blüthner grand piano and faded curtains at the windows, reminded me of interiors I had seen belonging to members of the Bloomsbury Group. Esther was encouraging about my voice, unstinting in her criticism of the way I was using it, but offered alternatives which made sense to me and agreed to take me as a pupil. An association thus began which was to last until her death some fifteen years later. I did not realise at the time of my first lesson that Esther was almost eighty years old.

A few weeks after I had begun my lessons, Esther mentioned a tenor she was teaching whom she felt had an important talent and who was beginning to make an impression on the professional musical scene. His name was Ian Bostridge and a year or two later, I went with Esther to hear him sing Winterreise at the Purcell Room on London’s South Bank. I had started working on Winterreise myself, by this time, and a question which frequently came up in my lessons, was that of expression and the emotional implications of the words. I remember, from that performance almost thirty years ago, the intensity of Ian Bostridge’s singing and a vivid physical and emotional connection to the words and text. Esther challenged me to move away from what she described as an instrumental approach to singing and we began to consider an approach that took a deeper involvement with words and text as its starting point.

This was indeed quite a challenge. The focus of classical singing training is traditionally placed on developing a beautiful sound and the term bel canto, which describes the style of singing developed in Italy during the 17th and 18th centuries – upon which most classical singing training is still based – literally translates as beautiful song. The voice teacher Cicely Berry, interestingly suggests in her book Voice and the Actor that for a singer, the meaning of a song is conveyed through the particular disciplines of sound – its energy being found in the resonance of the voice. For the actor, on the other hand, the energy lies in the word. Singing training must of course focus on developing a voice which is not only beautiful but which will also withstand the demands of a professional career. But it also important to build a voice that is fully responsive to the emotional and technical demands of the text as well as the performer’s imagination. Here, the singer faces a unique challenge because one has to effectively ‘build’ an instrument whilst at the same time learn to ‘play’ it. The human voice is produced by a coordination of breath and muscle and singers have to learn the fine coordination of the muscle movements involved in forming the voice. At the same time, one has to learn the skills needed to meet the demands of the music – skills such as range, agility, dynamic contrast and the articulation of the vowels and consonants of speech and language. Artistic expression and technical development, however, can go hand in hand. Esther believed that if a person possessed a true desire to communicate  the text or message of the song, as she called it, the voice would respond. Even at a formative stage of training, a balance of technical knowledge and skill and an emotional response to the words and music, could lead the singer to a point where the voice was able to respond truthfully and spontaneously to both music and text. 

Esther’s teaching was based on the bel canto approach -an approach she discovered late in her career. She was open about the vocal difficulties she had experienced as a professional singer and the fact that when she found an approach which worked for her, it was too late for her to really use it as a performer and so began what she described as a ‘continuous adventure in teaching’. Her teaching was very specific and she offered me a structured approach to practising which identified the basic vocal skills, and provided me with exercises which worked on each skill in isolation but lead to what she called a ‘totality’ – each and every skill triggering off the rest. I had already been singing professionally as a counter-tenor for a few years before I met Esther, but my training and practice until then had been rather disorganised and more metaphorical than anatomical and I was never quite sure of what was going to happen when I took the first breath at the beginning of a concert. Sometimes it worked beautifully, sometimes it didn’t. Esther taught me to know where the first note was going to come from and how it was going to come and I began to understand how knowing the muscular and physical process that took place when I spoke or sang, brought confidence and provided what I still think of as a ‘platform’ upon which to stand when speaking or singing in public.

Esther also taught me the importance of vowel sounds and how they carry the voice and form the emotional centre of a word and express its feeling (consonant sounds provide meaning). She offered me a set of exercises for vowel centring  which I still practice and teach thirty years after my first lessons with her. Centring, deepening or focusing the vowel, helps us to find an emotional connection to the sound and therefore the word. We can change the emotional implications of a word by the way we speak or sing the vowel sound. The word love, for example, can be spoken or sung with a feeling of love, hate, anger, fear or doubt (amongst other emotional states). Our emotional response to a word colours the vowel sound and gives it a particular emotional quality and deepening or centring the vowel, can awaken this emotional response.  

When I began my lessons with Esther, my approach to vocal music was indeed instrumental – coloured considerably by the fact that I had studied piano and harpsichord for a long time before beginning serious singing training and it was also influenced by the fact that most of the works I performed as a counter-tenor had been settings of religious texts which did not, perhaps, ask for an overly emotional approach. The German songs I now wanted to sing, however, demanded the deeper emotional connection and commitment to the words that Esther was talking about.

I am rather ashamed to admit that when I began singing in German, whilst I had a grasp of the overall mood and meaning of a song, I did not know the literal meaning of every single word and often couldn’t answer when Esther asked in my lessons what certain words meant – which was something she was wont to do. Language classes at college concentrated more on teaching the correct pronunciation rather than facilitating any degree of fluency. But as I began to build my repertoire of songs by German and Austrian composers, I also began to gain a grasp of the language and build up some vocabulary. And by the time I started to learn Winterreise, Ihad sung several whole recitals of German songs. 

A dramatic work such as Winterreise, however, requires the performer to become a singer-actor and I decided to approach the piece in the way an actor might approach a role such as Hamlet or Macbeth. An actor has to look at the world through another’s pair of eyes, slip their feet into another’s pair of shoes, make the characters thoughts their own and take ownership of the words. The first stage, of course, was to learn the words and there was the added job of translating them as I am not fluent in German. There is a wonderful book, however, called Lieder Line by Line by Lois Phillips who translated hundreds of German songs literally, as well as poetically, including the twenty four songs of Winterreise. Esther suggested writing out the German texts by hand in a little notebook with the English translation on the line above in a different coloured ink, and carrying the words around with me. Doing this enabled me to ‘live’ with the words, as she said, and to think about their meaning and underlying mood as I waited for a bus or sat on the tube. 

I spent a lot of time walking with the text around London parks and across Hampstead Heath in all weathers and at different times of day. Wind, rain, frost and snow appear throughout the journey and I wanted to experience these whilst I sang the songs in my head. I also thought about the time frame of the work as a whole – but as time in this piece is ambiguous and the journey a metaphorical one, it is very difficult to set a real time scale. Nevertheless I formed the idea of a night and a day spent walking, then a night resting in a coal burner’s hut before continuing on through the morning until mid-afternoon when the low-lying winter sun begins to set. It is at this point the poet/wanderer has the vision of three suns in the hazy, winter sky and meets an organ grinder standing barefoot on ice in ghostly twilight.  

Walking with the songs in this way also helped me identify the way each song contributed to the unfolding drama – the songs which, for example, carry the drama forward and  express what is happening in the present moment, and those in which the wanderer pauses to ruminate or reflect on his dilemma. I coined the terms ‘songs of movement’ and ‘songs of reflection’ and walking helped me find a tempo for each song which followed Schubert’s directions but which also took my own walking pace as a starting point. And the songs of reflection offered the opportunity to sit on a bench for a few moments or to stand and gaze across the view of the city from Parliament Hill.

I also started a collection of postcards depicting scenes suggestive of a winter journey. Caspar David Friedrich was a contemporary of Schubert and his Winter Landscape which hangs in London’s National Gallery, shows a haunting scene evocative of the desolation and isolation experienced by the Wanderer (he does not encounter another human being until the very last song of the cycle). Another powerful image – also by Friedrich – was that depicted in Wanderer Overlooking a Sea of Fog which can be found in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg. A man stands alone on a rocky precipice with his back to the viewer. Fog swirls in front him through which the shape of mountains and rocks can dimly be seen. 

It is not the snowscape one would expect to accompany Winterreise but it is one which  portrays all the Romantic ideas of solitude and man, who as hero or anti-hero, is pitched against the elements of nature, searching for a place where he might find respite from his restlessness, longing for past joy or love that has been lost. 

My last lesson with Esther followed my first public performance of Winterreise which took place in February 2004 in the music room of Burgh House, in Hampstead, North London with pianist Angus Cunningham. My final lesson with her was a few weeks after the performance. She was in the audience and we talked about understanding the text deeply and responding to it. What was missing, she felt, was what she called ‘the sparkle of the imagination’ and a ‘spontaneity of thought.’  ‘Let the audience see the formation of the thoughts behind your eyes’ she said, ‘make them long to hear the next thought. Write the song for yourself, it’s not only Schubert’s music but your poem as well. Hear the whisper of thoughts in your head, think the words through as you bring the song to life.’ 

Esther died the next year at the age of 91. We had spoken on the telephone a few months before and I had planned to go and sing to her so she could ‘hear where I was at’ as she said. The sudden death of my mother, however, a few weeks after our conversation, and the family responsibilities I had to attend to following that, meant I didn’t get to Highgate and Esther died shortly after my mother. 

From the work I did with Esther I learned that one has to earn the right to perform in front of an audience whether as a singer, instrumentalist or actor. There is a duty to the composer, the poet or writer, whose words or music you are bringing to life with your breath and the vibrations of your voice.  There is also a duty to one’s own integrity and talent as a performer. This right comes from work, done on one’s own privately, in solitude, investigating every layer of a song or text word-by-word and every note of a composition, finding somewhere inside yourself a response to the meaning of the words or the music. Then the expression of the text becomes organic and authentic.

Published by Fellner Voice

I am a voice teacher and classical singer based in South West London. I teach speech and singing and write about voice, music, books, people, places and other related subjects.

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