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Music

Thorsten Schmidt: 'Heidelberg must become the world's center of art song'

There is a future for the classical art song, says the founder and director of the Lied Center in Heidelberg, Thorsten Schmidt. He told DW how the institution's goal is far more than preserving a historic music genre.

DW: In English, the word "lied" denotes "art song," but in German, it simply means "song." Song singing is everywhere nowadays: Thousands go to television castings in the hope of becoming a star, and the Eurovision Song Contest has a TV audience of 200 million. But your Lied Center, founded earlier this year, is about something else, correct?

Thorsten Schmidt: We won't be focusing on every kind of song. Our point of departure is the Classical and Romantic lied, the art song. Heidelberg is a historic center for the genre. The city's castle ruins, old town and surrounding natural settings have inspired many artists: the poets Goethe and Brentano and the composers Schumann and Brahms, to name just a few. Now Heidelberg has a Lied Center.

What goes into it, and what comes out?

The institution is just in its initial phases and is only virtual at this point. It will be a matter of finding innovative formats and forms of presentation for the lied. We also want to promote young talent and to find ways to make the genre more accessible to audiences. We already have the Lied Academy at the festival Heidelberg Spring.

In February 2017, Thomas Quasthoff's lied singing competition will move from Berlin to Heidelberg. And we're building a network of concert organizers, singers, cultural institutions and composers. The Lied Center is thoroughly international.

Jazzfest Bonn, Thomas Quasthoff, Copyright: Jazzfest Bonn

Former lied singer Thomas Quasthoff is now a professor and sings jazz - here in a recent performance at the Jazzfest Bonn

Thomas Quastoff has said that among music genres, the art song is an endangered species. Is it your goal simply to preserve it, or do you have greater objectives?

At first it will be a matter of drawing attention to the genre in today's concert life, because for young singers, it's not easy to find an audience for lieder recitals.

The lied has something of an old-fashioned image. Does the perception of the genre depend on what generation you are in?

Yes, partly. But works by artists like Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and other singer-songwriters can also be considered art songs. To think outside the box, we could organize evenings that mix different art forms. Here in Heidelberg for example, we've combined lied with dance.

Thomas Hampson and Thomas Quasthoff, who support the Lied Center, also have a wider vision in this regard. It's important, however, for an singer of art song to be able to perform other kinds of song as well. It's only embarrassing if a singer does something he shouldn't be doing.

So along these lines: after Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, Gershwin and The Beatles are the best lied composers?

Absolutely! Singers also have to ask themselves: What am I doing with this lied? In my view, the art song offers a third form - we start with text and music, and when the two are combined, the result is the lied. It's in a category of its own. That means there is a two-fold comprehension process. It can be very interesting, for instance, to use the text as a point of departure to come up with a different form of presentation.

Are lieder still being composed nowadays?

Very productively: There is a lied workshop in Bad Kissingen. Composers like Wilhelm Killmayer and Aribert Reimann have written many art songs. Wolfgang Rihm's lieder cycle is very interesting. And young composers are departing from the traditional form - art song accompanied by piano - by underlying the text with different instruments.

What's your next step?

We will set up an internet platform to be filled with content from our various partners. And if anybody has a question about the lied genre, he'll know where to look.

Are you expecting financial or structural support?

Baden-Württemberg is very interested in the project. This German state is culturally rich, and not just historically. There is the Literature Archive in Marbach, the Folk Song Archive in Freiburg and the Hugo Wolff Academy in Stuttgart.

We also want to make the federal government aware that the lied is one of Germany's important intangible cultural properties. Music lovers worldwide immediately associate the lied with Germany. But as getting government funding is always a slow process, I've started trying to raise funds from sponsors and patrons.

City view of Heidelberg. Copyright: picture alliance/Daniel Kalker

Heidelberg has inspired many notable artists

Do similar institutions already exist?

At the moment, there is nothing like it, except some specific events like the Festival "Der Zwerg" (The Dwarf) near Stuttgart or the Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg. They're doing amazing things, and we want to draw attention to them. But Heidelberg historically has such a strong connection to the lied, that if there is to be a Lied Center, it simply must be based here.

Famous singers and conductors keep telling me that their entire musicality is rooted in the fact that people sang a lot in their family or in the country they grew up in. Can folk song provide a point of access to the lied?

This is actually a central approach. You have to get people to sing again. In the Baltic States, it's completely natural. We should be pushing children to sing in kindergarten. The old folk songs can be an important first step to lied singing.

Thorsten Schmidt is the director of the music festival Heidelberg Spring, which was held for the 20th time last April. Among the successful features of the festival are lieder evenings and the Lied Academy, where renowned art song performers such as Brigitte Fassbaender, Thomas Hampson and Thomas Quasthoff work with talented young singers.

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