The title of this piece is the 2nd act aria from Das Wunder Der Heliane by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1887-1957). The opera was completed before the composer reached his 30th birthday. His most popular opera, Die Tote Stadt, was written when he was only 23.
Born in Moravia, but raised in Vienna, Krongold was the son of the leading Viennese music critic of the time, Julius Korngold. Eric was a child prodigy who absorbed the operas of Richard Strauss, and Giacomo Puccini such that they became ingrained in his musical subconscious. His compositional style appears to all who hear his works as a combination of these two last operatic giants.
Unfortunately, Korngold reached maturity as the lush post romantic expressionism of Strauss and lyrical/dramatic eclecticism of Puccini were becoming passé. Also, his combination of Strauss and Puccini was less than the sum of its parts. His florid and harmonically intricate orchestral writing lacked the polyphonic richness and complexity of Strauss’ great scores. This polyphony subconsciously adds an additional element to the writing of Strauss and Wagner, that for all his brilliance Korngold lacks. While he could come up with brilliant melodies, like the subject of this article, he did not have the melodic fecundity of Puccini who could make even the most mundane declaration sound beautiful. This is not to take away a lot from Korngold, almost no one had the melodic genius of Puccini. Still Korngold’s operas are miles ahead of anything being written today.
So what do you get when you have a composer who can orchestrate like Apollo and write lush melodies which are homophonically expressed? You get the perfect composer for movies. Writing film scores made Korngold rich and it is for these that he is best remembered. He wrote 16 scores for Hollywood, two won Academy Awards, all are worth careful listening. He was so good at writing for the movies that he raised the genre to an art form. But his operas, written before Hollywood and his orchestral works mostly written after he stopped writing for the movies, the last 10 years of his life, also deserve attention.
Back to my subject. Das Wunder Der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane) is set to a weird and somewhat self conscious libretto. Only one character has a name, Heliane, the rest are known by descriptors like The Ruler or The Stranger. The former is Heliane’s husband. She won’t sleep with him and not surprisingly he is unhappy with his domestic situation. The later is a messianic figure who appears in the first act and is promptly jailed. Heliane has a discussion with him in his cell while naked which does nothing to improve The Ruler’s disposition. You need this information to follow the aria ‘Ich ging zu ihn’; the words with an English translation are below. The Stranger kills himself in the 2nd act, returns to life in the 3rd, and resurrects Heliane who has been put to death earlier in the 3rd act. The two of them ascend to heaven in an extravagant operatic apotheosis.
The trouble with an apotheosis is that it demands heavenly music. Korngold’s finale is OK, but it doesn’t meet the musical demands of an apotheosis. If a great operatic apotheosis is what you’re after, you’ll have to go to Rossini. Try the end of Moses or William Tell.
This aria is the emotional highlight of the entire opera. It starts softly and by its last third reaches an intense emotional crisis. When well sung it has a stirring impact.
I’ll start with Renée Fleming’s commercial recording of the aria. She fully realizes the piece’s sublime content. If there’s any criticism it’s that she she’s a lyric soprano. Ideally, the aria could benefit from a little more vocal heft. Nevertheless her reading is the class of the field. Ich ging zu ihn Fleming.
Lotte Lehmann, of course, was the leading lyric German soprano of the second quarter of the 20th century. She was especially fond of both Korngold’s opera and of its soprano aria. She sings the aria with the sensitive fragility for which she was noted. The limited tonal range of the electrical recording process limits the impact of the performance. Ich ging zu ihn Lehmann.
The Bulgarian soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow recorded this aria as part of a complete recording of the opera made in 1992. Nicolai Gedda sings the small part of the Blind Chief Justice. When he makes his appearance in the middle of the 2nd act his voice is instantly recognizable. He’s clearly the best singer in the performance. Too bad he didn’t take the part of The Stranger. The entire opera with a synopsis and cast can be had here. John Mauceri conducts a dynamic reading of the score. Ich ging zu ihn Anna Tomowa-Sintow.
The Viennese soprano Ilona Steingruber had the bad luck to make her operatic debut in the middle of World War II (1942). She had a modest career; this recording is one of the few she made. It’s quite good and suggests had she come along at a different time that she might have made more of an impact on her profession. Ich ging zu ihn Ilona Steingruber.
Dagmar Schellenberger is a German soprano with a wide repertoire. She is still active and is best known for her portrayal of Blanche in the La Scala production of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. She give a very passionate performance of the aria – excellent. Dagmar Schellenberger Ich ging zu ihm.
Finally, here is Annemarie Kremer’s account of the aria. She is a Dutch artist currently in mid-career. Annemarie Kremer Ich ging zu ihn.
As a bonus here is a suite from Korngold’s great music for The Seahawk which starred Errol Flynn. Notice how at about the 8 minute mark the music sounds just like score of one of his operas.
Ich ging zu ihm, der morgen sterben sollt.
Der Abend neigte sich–da ging ich hin.
Er bat mich um mein Haar, ich gab es ihm.
Er bat um meine Füsse. Aus den Schuh’n
Trat ich und gab ihm die entblössten Füsse.
Er warf sich hin, erflehend meinen Leib,
Da löst ich das Gewand von mir und stand,
Wie mich mein Gott erschaffen, vor ihm: nackt.
Ich war sein in Gedanken…ja, ich war’s!
Auf meinen Knien bat ich zu Gott, dass er
Die Kraft mir schenke, dies zu vollenden.
Nicht hab ich ihn geliebt. Nicht ist mein Leib in Lust entbrannt.
Doch schön war der Knabe
Schön wie ein Stern im Vergehen. Und neigt ich mich,
So tat ich’s, damit sein armes Aug
Noch Liebe könne sehen, ehe dass es bräche.
Und also schwör ich, Gott nehme mich hinauf in den Himmel,
So war ich nun schwöre:
Nicht hat mich Lust meines Blutes zu jenem Knaben getrieben,
Doch sein Leid [hab’ ich]
Mit ihm getragen, und bin in Schmerzen
Sein geworden. Und nun tötet mich.
I went to him, who was supposed to die the next day.
Evening was falling as I went to him.
He asked for my hair, I gave it to him.
He asked for my feet. Out of my shoes
I stepped and gave him my bare feet.
He threw himself down, begging my body,
I loosened my garment and stood,
before him as God made me: naked.
I was his in thought…yes, I was!
On my knees I begged God to
Give me strength to accomplish this.
I did not love him. My body did not burn with pleasure.
But handsome was the boy,
Fair as a star. And if I humbled myself,
I did it so that his poor eyes
Might yet see love, before they closed.
And this I swear—may God take me up to heaven,
I now truly swear:
Pleasure of my blood did not drive me to that boy,
But his grief I bore
With him, and in pain
I became his. And now kill me.