EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with Steven Blier of NYFOS on “Art Song on the Couch: Lieder in Freud’s Vienna”… the Song Recital

By Louise Burton on Oct 26, 2014 06:19 PM EDT

Fans of art song recitals know that the lieder landscape is littered with emotional wrecks, with tortured night journeys and the occasional bout of suicidal despair. And what of the composers of these beautiful songs? Many of them were struggling with their own psychological issues, as well.

New York Festival of Song will explore these psychological issues during "Art Song on the Couch: Lieder in Freud's Vienna," a program of songs by composers who were Sigmund Freud's contemporaries: Mahler, Wolf, Schoenberg, Richard Strauss and Alexander von Zemlinsky. This song recital will present the psychological and musical complexity of fin de siècle art song, in the context of the novel ideas about the human psyche that were circulating in Vienna at that time.

Soprano Janai Brugger and baritone John Brancy will interpret these complex, opulent songs, along with Steven Blier and Michael Barrett on piano, at the Kaufman Music Center in New York on November 11. A special preview performance will be held in Boston at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on November 9.

I recently spoke with Steven Blier, artistic director of NYFOS, about his inspiration for this program.

Classicalite: Presenting German art song in the context of Freud's ideas about the human psyche seems like such a natural thing to do, yet I don't recall ever hearing of a song recital on this theme. Was this why you decided to put German art song on the couch?

Steven Blier: Well, I did feel it was time to do a German program. And then I was thinking about Strauss' Ophelia-Lieder. And I've always said that they are very 'psychiatric' readings of Ophelia. Because you can hear manic, you can hear obsessive-compulsive, you can hear repression, ... It's all in the music. It really felt like a mental ward. It's the most obviously psychiatric, to me, of anything on the program.

But then I started thinking about Vienna and that era, and where the song was going.... Did these composers know about psychoanalysis? Maybe, in a cursory sort of way.

Classicalite: Didn't Mahler know about psychoanalysis?

Blier: Mahler had that one session with Freud. I think [Mahler wanted to talk] about his marriage... and we really don't know exactly what happened. I think Freud saw Oedipal issues with Mahler.

[Mahler's] song "Erinnerung" is so poignant, and it's again to me very Freudian, in that if you look at the poem, it seems to be saying something joyous, and then you listen to the music and you hear nothing but pain. And that's all I'm trying to get at in this program, is that the countercurrents against the poem, or the sense that you're hearing the conscious thought and also the unconscious thought (or the hidden thought,) so much more than you do in other art songs.

Are the songs themselves psychoanalytical? No. But they are from the same era. They were swimming in the same water... I just want people to listen with the idea of what was in the air in Vienna at that time. And just to pull certain basic Freudian ideas together.

I'm not an expert on Freud. But this concert [came together]... based on my intuitions and my feelings.

Classicalite: Goodness knows, that's something that Freud would be interested in.

Blier: (laughing) Yes, more so than the music. But what also fascinated me was that the poems are not, mainly, from the Freudian era. These poems are sometimes from the 1840s. Some are comparatively old... And yet in the readings you get from the composers: you feel like, wow, that's very 'on the couch.' (laughs). You know, [Wolf's] "Erstes Liebeslied eines Mädchens" is about a girl, she's been fishing, and she says, "What's in my net? Is it a lovely eel, or is it a snake? It's a snake, and oh no, he's entered my body, and he's eating his way into my heart, and I don't know if I like it or not."

Classicalite: Whoa.

Blier: Exactly! ...But the poem is not from the Freudian era; it's early... mid-19th century.

Classicalite: Well, when you think about it, Grimm's Fairy Tales had much in there that Freud would have been interested in and had a lot to say about.

Blier: Oh yes, of course. And the point, really, is that these ideas had been circulating, [including] the idea of the unconscious mind...

So, that is how the program came together. The main thing I don't want to do is force anything. I want things to kind of emerge for an audience member.

Classicalite: Kind of like repressed thoughts from the unconscious?

Blier: (laughs.) "...You know... it is a funny concert, because the light touch, the humor, is actually supplied by Arnold Schoenberg, of all people. He wrote these cabaret songs, and were' doing two of them. One is "Der genügsamer Liebhaber," The Contented Lover, and it's such a dirty little poem. It's about "My girlfriend, who is a busty woman who likes to sit around...and she has a black cat, and she likes to sit on her divan and play with her black cat. And I have a shiny bald head, and when I go visit my girlfriend, she likes it when I take her black cat, and put it on top of my bald head, and she lies back and laughs."

And I thought, "OK, we're doing that song."

Classicalite: (Laughing) It's such an astonishing image. Who knew Schoenberg had it in him?

Blier: Yes, exactly.

More information about this program is available at

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Q&A, Steven Blier, NYFOS, New York Festival of Song, Art Song on the Couch, Lieder in Freud's Vienna, Janai Brugger, John Brancy, Michael Barrett, Sigmund Freud

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