When the microphone enhances the intimacy of a German Lied

Per Dahl

University of Stavanger, Norway


My paper is based on my participation in a program at the University of Stavanger where we focus on skills in literacy related performances. I have taken recordings of a Grieg song as my topic. When Edvard Grieg wrote the song "Jeg elsker Dig!/Ich liebe dich" in 1864, his notation was based on a performance practice where the concert hall was the constituting arena for musical expressions. It became the third song in his opus 5 Melodies of the Heart, text by the Danish poet H. C. Andersen. It became very popular and printed both by Wilhelm Hansen for Scandinavia and F. C. Peters for the rest of the world. (Peters alone sold more than 60.000 copies of this song as sheet music in 1883-1906). The song is in line with the German Lied tradition where intimacy, intensity and afterthought are important characteristics. Of these three, only intensity is indicated in the notation, while intimacy and afterthought has to be created by the performer. In this study I will not make any comment on the afterthought dimension, but concentrate on intimacy versus intensity.

Listening to 210 recordings of Grieg's opus 5 no. 3 "Jeg elsker Dig!" from 1899-2005 made me conscious, the impact of the microphone and other recording technologies in the interpretation of this song. The first thing I noticed was that there were big individual differences of tempo in performing the song, but no change of the arithmetic mean tempo over the 100 years. I then divided the song in several sections and calculated the relative tempo for each section in a performance defining the first text line as the tempo of the interpretation. Comparing the relative tempo deviations assembled in four periods of recording technology demonstrated a rather stable profile in the interpretations, with a small accelerando in the 4. and 5. text line and a rather extended performance of the top note in the last text line.

I also got the impression that the traditional concert singer's attitude towards exploiting the recording technology seemed to be different from those singers where the use of microphone was essential to their career as singers. Further, it might have been a change in the expression of intimacy in the performance of this song on records. And I suspected the introduction of the microphone have had impact on the performing practice. As a musicologist in classical music I will point to three aspects in using the microphone:
1. The microphone made it possible to design an artificial balance and thereby making way for the crooner, the amplified singer in balance with any orchestra.
2. The microphone could catch close-up sounds from the performer/instrument and thereby develop new expressive sounds in all music genres that were recorded.
3. The microphone (with PA) made performances possible at any venue, and thereby classical music could be disseminated to av wider audience.
The result was a growing public that became attached to music and acquainted to different music genres through the record and not by being present at live music venues/performances. Today this development has gone so far that even the concert hall audience uses their CD-recordings as their basis of assessment1 [1] on a concert performance.

In my case study I split the overall listening impression in two categories of soundscape; the concert hall sound and the studio sound. In addition I decide if the sound elements are unified (singer and accompaniment in one room/the same acoustics) or divided (the acoustics of the singer's voice seems to be different from that of the accompaniment). While recordings with concert hall sound might be either unified or divided, the typical studio sound is always divided.

My choice opens up for a categorisation of singers in the classical concert hall tradition to produce recordings where the sound elements are unified or divided, and that makes it possible to register when these kinds of singers started using the opportunities in the recording studio. The optimal recording with a unified concert hall sound is described by Walter Legge: "I want to make records which will sound in the public's home exactly like they would hear in the best seat in an acoustically perfect hall."2 [2]

From the song I have chosen the 4. and 5. text line where the text is repeated three times with the same rhythmical punctuation, and the score indicate both accelerando and crescendo. In making the comparison intimacy versus intensity I have classified and made operational some expression elements in this way:

Table 1

Grieg's manuscript indicates the need for both intensity and intimacy in this song. Both his extension of Andersen's text, adding "Jeg elsker Dig!" several times in the section I chose, and some peculiarities in the manuscript points towards a strong need for underlining both dimensions in this piece. All the intensity expressions can be identified in the score (for sound and soundscape; the genre and date of composition will do the work). Some of the intimacy-expressions are only identified in the performance. Of those I have focused on Rhythm; accelerando versus parlando. I define accelerando and parlando in this way: Accelerando: Repeating the text with equal rhythmical meta-structures, and Parlando: Performing regular text rhythms in an irregular way. The next thing was to combine these definitions with the concepts of intensity and intimacy by defining them like this: Intensity is a quality where the potentiality of the expression is linked with general, congenercic elements in music (signs, symbols, gestures) often indicated in the score. Intimacy is a quality where the actuality of the expression is linked to the performer and the moment of performance. Having defined and operationalised these concepts I could do my registration and pick up some results.

The results show that the classical concert hall singer did not change his/her way of singing from the acoustical to the electrical era of recording technology. I had three singers making recordings of Ich liebe dich in both acoustical and electrical era; Emmy Bettedorf, Karin Branzell and Richard Tauber. Listening to their recordings they seem to ignore the difference between the acoustical horn and the electrical microphone and perform as if they were in a concert hall.

However with the microphone a new kind of singer emerged: the gramophone artist with a beautiful voice in the studio, but with no strength or radiance of the voice in a concert hall. One characteristic for these singers were the use of microphone as their main expression tool resulting in intimacy, mostly by the use of parlando (performing regular text rhythms in irregular way). A typical example is the recording with the Swedish baritone Sven d'Ailly, recorded in September 1930 accompanied by Georg Enders Salon-orchestra. Instead of making the crescendo written in Grieg's manuscript in the bars 10-16, he uses the microphone to enhance the intimacy of his singing without raising his voice. (Sound example 1)

In my sample 41 recordings were classified as having the studio sound with divided sound elements as their aim of the soundscape. These recordings appear from the beginning of the electrical era (i.e.1926-). The most characteristic element in these performances is the use of parlando in my chosen part of this song. The microphone's possibilities to catch expressive qualities in a voice that uses very little energy, demands another singing technique than the classical concert singer's. Most of the 41 recordings are with singers known in musicals and entertainment, like Helena Bliss, Nelson Eddy (Song of Norway) and Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. They often used other arrangement for orchestra than Max Bruch's. Even the text is sometimes changed to a more body-related language of intimacy (like in Song of Norway-recordings).

Most recordings in my sample (169 of 210) had the concert hall sound as their soundscape, and 132 of them had also a unified sound of singer and accompaniment in accordance with Legge's ideal.

A main prospect of this study was to explore if classical concert singers have been influenced by the expressive elements in studio productions. One indicator would be to find these kinds of singers, keeping their concert hall soundscape but allowing the use of divided sound. In 37 recordings I could find this combination, the first one being Hans Hotter's recording 6.September 1950. This indicates a delay of 20-25 years compared to the optimal use of the microphone. (Ex 2 divided sound between singer and piano)

Most classical singers using standard editions for song and piano kept close to the literacy of this song. That means that they took care of most of the intensity-dimensions. There is however one big exception: in rhythm there has been a very interesting development during the century. In the acoustical era the use of parlando was dominant in the performing of this song. This performing practice was in accordance with Grieg, at least with Nina, if we believe Herman Klein in his reviews of other singer's recordings comparing them with Nina's practice.3 [3]

Robert Philip4 [4] points out that there has been a tidying up of performances during the century; ensemble became more tightly disciplined; pianists played chords more strictly together, and abandoned the old practice of dislocating melody from accompaniment; (and for my study the next two points were most interesting) the interpretation of note-values became more literal, and the nature of rubato changed, becoming more regular and even. Based on my definition of intensity and intimacy a more literate interpretation (that is performing with an accelerando) will be an enhancement of the intensity of the performance. If the interpret split up the rhythmical phrases by stressing and stretching single words (or phonemes) the result will be a parlando that supports the intimacy dimension.

The results of my classification listening to the recordings of singers having the concert hall as their ideal soundscape started as expected: The relative amount of recordings using parlando was very high in the acoustical era, and then began a decline as the more literate accelerando took over the market.5 [5] This is in accordance with Philips allegation.

However, in the three last decades, from 1976, the parlando suddenly reappears as a very characteristic expression in recording this song. I know that my selection of recordings is a small one compared to all lied-recitals recorded after 1950, but on the other hand, it seems very strange if such a dramatic turn should be restricted to the interpretation of Jeg elsker Dig alone.

Figure 1

Today I will just play and comment some recordings addressing the new situation.

Ex. 3    Barbara Hendricks         (parlando "jeg" intimacy)
Ex. 4    Kari Løvaas            (dynamic panning; close up to long distance)
Ex. 5    Karl-Magnus Fredriksson     (parlando, whispering, divided sound)

This practice is not going back to the performance practice of the acoustical era, but a consequence of the use of microphone, adding new expressive elements to the interpretation of this song, like enhancing the intimacy.

In an article in Studia Musicologica Norvegica6 [6] I have listed 4 moments of explanation to the results of this survey, and the change at the end of the 1970s. I will here refer some of it.
The institutionalising of the arts in the Romantic era operationalised the art objects into an intersubjective context of meaning and made the art appreciation a ritual. The Modernism challenged these constitutional and identificational functions in the work of art. The profane and secular dimensions of modernism left people with a loss of some basic values like the need for an intimate dialogue. The parlando in the acoustical era and in all recordings with a studio sound as ideal soundscape can be looked upon as a musical practice accommodating such needs. When the parlando reappears among the concert hall singers in the late 1970s, it coincides with a development in recording technology where the sound on the end product began to be as good as in the concert hall, and that they managed to integrate the use of close up microphone and separate reverberation facilities within the concert hall idiom.

In another perspective we can focus the singers and what kind of tutoring they have had.  Singers entering the recording studios in the late 1970s have listened to more music and sound through loudspeakers than to concerts. They have been exposed to a much wider repertoire of musical genres than any other generation. Even when they studied at the Music Conservatories these institutions used gramophone records as part of their dissemination of music history and styles. The singers in the digital era came to the studios with a frame of reference that included both their experiences in the concert hall and as record listeners.

The third aspect of development is the new focus of performance practice, authenticity and especially for the lied, a focus of the original text. A the same time (1980s) the commercial market preferred an individualisation of the interpretation directly attached to the performer, often by using the singer's portrait on the sleeve/booklet. The listeners have to develop diversified listening attitudes as music and sounds from loudspeakers can pop up everywhere, not restricted to the venues normally affiliated with a musical genre. The access of many historical recordings enhances the need for individualisation of the interpretation, and as the melody is the only stable element through all recordings named Jeg elsker Dig by Grieg, the singer's text pronunciation will be the most important factor in this individualisation.

The last point is the development of a new identity of a musical work in a multi medial society. A work of classical music is affiliated to its literacy and some institutionalised performance venues, which in turn has established some social conventions for this genre. In the new multi medial society that expanded in the 1950s and 60s, the use of recorded music became important in a lot of different communication channels. In such a world the classical music lost some of its identity. At the same time, with the effective dissemination of records, new types of listeners to classical music came into existence. These listeners had other bases for their assessment of the record, and were not biased by the values of the classical tradition in addressing which expressions to be considered as the norm. Such a development focuses on the moment and will contribute to the dematerialisation of the idea of the work of music as an art object. The pronunciation of the text will then become the most important hallmark of expressivity. This tendency might be characterised as typical post-modern interest as the aesthetic experience will be in focus at the expense of the aesthetic object.

So I hope that this research project can contribute to the understanding of how some of the musical skills have developed in the last century influenced by the development in the recording technology and especially how the microphone have enhanced the intimacy of a German Lied.


1 Sven d'Ailly and Georg Enders Salon Orchestra
Ultraphone A 45 101             rec. 01.09.1930

2 Hans Hotter and Michael Raucheisen piano
Columbia (D) LW 45 (LV 135)     rec. 06.09.1950

3 Barbara Hendricks and Roland Pöntinen piano
EMI Classics 7243 5568842        rec.12.01.2002

4 Kari Løvaas and Justus Frantz piano
Eurodisc 200 606-250            rec.01.01.1979

5 Karl-Martin Fredriksson and Stefan Nymark piano
Vanguard Classics 99132        rec. 04.05.1995


1 T. Day (2000): A Centudy of Recorded Music pp.156-159
2 Quoted in M. Chanan (1995): Repeated takes.  p.133-34
3 W.R. Moran (1990): Herman Klein and the Gramophone p.472
4 R. Philip (2004): Performing Music in the Age of Recording p.232
5 There is a small deviation from this development for the period around 2.World War, maybe the need for (operational) intimacy was more urgent.
6 Studia Musicologica Norvegica Vol. 35 p.156-176 (in Norwegian)