The German baritone Christian Gerhaher stands firm for the cause of lieder

While baritone Christian Gerhaher does perform in opera and other vocal productions, much of his international renown derives from his much-acclaimed interpretations of art song, particularly those in his native German known as lieder.

His favorite German-language song composers are Franz Schubert, generally considered the greatest ever in the form; Robert Schumann, his “over-all favorite as a composer,” and Gustav Mahler.

It is in songs by Mahler, specifically a group with orchestral accompaniment from his Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), that Gerhaher will be heard Oct. 12-15 when he returns to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor Jaap van Zweden. He worked with the Dutch maestro, who is in his final season as music director of the New York Philharmonic, just once before when he filled in for an ailing soloist at the last minute at the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Because of the rushed nature of that appearance, Gerhaher considers this set of concerts as his first real chance to collaborate with van Zweden.

Now 54, the baritone resides in Munich, where he teaches art-song interpretation at the University of Music and Performing Arts, and his career is largely centered in Europe. He comes to the United States sporadically. In 2023-24, that means just two visits, his CSO collaboration and his Metropolitan Opera debut in a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser that opens Nov. 30.

Gerhaher describes Mahler, who died in 1911, as a late-Romantic composer on the cusp of modernity. He believes that even though Mahler didn’t fully grasp all the new directions in music in the early 20th century, he nonetheless in his works presaged some of the impending changes. Meanwhile, Mahler insisted on the importance of being open to the music of Alban Berg and other experimental composers of the time.

“Lieder repertoire, not only the German-language-based, but especially the French mélodies, are not expressions of narration or even a short drama; they are an abstract art like the texts in poems are abstract.” — Christian Gerhaher  

Mahler’s later song creations like Das Lied von der Erde and Des Knaben Wunderhorn, settings of German folk poems published in 1805-08, show “utmost possibilities” of vocal music moving in a modern direction, Gerhaher believes. “That means they pretend to be narrative, but they aren’t,” he said. “They are showing a lot of different associations, sound associations, content associations and intermingled in big and sometimes very long-lasting [musical] painting, which seems to be narrative but isn’t.”

He points to Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (Where the Fair Trumpets Sound), a July 1898 song whose text combines two unrelated poems. A young woman is seemingly visited a soldier on the eve of battle. But is he already dead or this is a premonition of death? “It is this kind of illogical proceeding in Mahler songs, which is typical for the end of Romanticism,” he said. “It is no ballad, but it is understood by a lot of people as a ballad.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that fewer presenters, particularly in the United States, are offering art-song recitals, at least in part because these works can seem obscure and stilted to audiences unaccustomed to lieder. “I have some worries about if this genre can survive, and many presenters have these worries, and they complain about smaller audiences,” Gerhaher said.

But he has seen some positive signs at London’s Wigmore Hall and during recent recitals in Salzburg and Munich, where art-song audiences seem to have recovered from a pandemic-related drop in numbers. “They were very well-visited, and very well received but by a different audience,” he said. “The audience has to become younger, and there are some presenters who can count on younger and really growing audiences.”

Gerhaher suggests one reason for the seeming diminution in interest comes from the way art songs are sometimes presented. As he sees it, there is too much emphasis on trying to entertain audiences by bringing a storytelling approach to these intimate works and attempting to turn them into “mini-operas.”

“If I were young, I would think this is not what I want to listen to,” he said. “This is my total conviction that lieder repertoire, not only the German-language-based, but especially the French mélodies, they are not expressions of narration or even a short drama, but they are an abstract art like the texts in poems are abstract.”

To save this art form, he believes that performers have to be as abstract-minded in their approach as poetic texts are abstract. Composers like Schumann, he said, worked hard to respect the “artistic identity” of poems in their song settings. “They translate the idea of an abstract art, which is open-minded, which is not bringing together everything in the end like an opera or a tale or an oratorio, saying this is the essence of the story,” he said. “This is different in a poem. A poem says, ‘Look, I have a lot ideas, and I deliver some of them, and I may shortly talk of other ideas and allusions, but in the end, everything is open.’ And this is what a song normally in my mind is.”

Young people seem to be more open-minded to abstract art, and Gerhaher believes they can be attracted to art song if performance styles change. “For me, the only way for songs to survive, is to stay abstract and not to pretend there is a story, which doesn’t exist and is anyway odd.”