A Rhine Journey in the Company of Rhine Maidens

CD Review of Rheinmädchen (Raphaël Pichon, Ensemble Pygmalion)

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Raphaël Pichon. Rheinmädchen. Recorded with the Ensemble Pygmalion, July 2015. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902239, 2016. CD.

This excellent new CD, performed by Raphaël Pichon and the Ensemble Pygmalion, takes us on a journey along the Rhine by exploring depictions of Rhine Maidens in the works of Wagner, Brahms, Schumann, and Schubert. In doing so, Pichon shows that Wagner’s portrayal of the Rhine Maidens was part of a longer tradition that Wagner shared in common with other German Romantic composers.

The Rhine is the second-largest river in Central and Western Europe, and begins in the Swiss Alps and flows for about 865 miles (1,390 km) before entering the North Sea. Throughout its history, the Rhine has served as a means of commercial transportation, a source of electricity, a political and cultural boundary, and a site for tourism. During the nineteenth century, in response to the threat of French invasion, the Rhine acted as a powerful symbol of cultural and political identity for early German nationalists, most famously in Max Schneckenburger’s 1840 poem “Die Wacht am Rhein” (The Watch on the Rhine). Around the same time, the figure of the Rhine Maiden became increasingly popular in German Romantic literature and music. According to the Rhine Maiden legend, a young fisherman’s daughter, betrayed by her lover, was transformed into a mermaid who sits on the banks of the Rhine and sings to the passing sailors, luring them to their death. As the musicologist Annegret Fauser explains, the Rhine Maiden was interpreted as an embodiment of the Rhine Valley and the German landscape in general, protecting the Rhine from foreign invasion (Fauser 2006).

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The Rhine. View of the Loreley Rock and the Upper Middle Rhine Valley.

I had not heard of Raphaël Pichon and the Ensemble Pygmalion before listening to this recording. Born and trained in France, the 32-year-old Pichon began his career as a countertenor, singing with such greats as Jordi Savall, Gustav Leonhardt, and Ton Koopman. Simultaneously a conductor, Pichon founded the chamber choir OTrente and a period-instrument orchestra. In 2005, he founded the Ensemble Pygmalion, a choir and orchestra of young musicians specializing in repertoire for period instruments. Since that time, he and his ensemble have performed around the globe and produced award-winning recordings of Bach and Rameau. The current album (Rheinmädchen) is the first part of a trilogy exploring the role of canon in 19th- and 20th-century German music. (A canon is a strict type of counterpoint in which a melody in one voice is imitated note for note in another voice.) The works featured on this album are canons for female voices, at times also accompanied by harp and natural horn. In contrast to the modern-day valve horn, the natural horn has a softer and warmer sound. (Listen to this clip of Anneke Scott playing Siegfried’s horn call on a natural horn.)

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“The Rhine’s fair children, / Bewailing their lost gold, weep.” Illustration of the Rhine Maidens by Arthur Rackham (1910)

What I find most exciting about this album is the imaginative programming. Each work presents the figure of the Rhine Maiden in a slightly different way. Pichon divides the CD into six parts: Morpheus’ Daughters, Mermaids, Serenade, Mourning Women, Love’s Grief, and Rhine Maidens. The CD liner notes quote the famous passage from Wagner’s My Life describing how Rheingold’s prelude came to him in a dream of sinking in water. In other words, the Rhine Maidens are the “daughters” of his dream, and the rest of the works included in this section are about sleeping and dreaming – for example, Schumann’s “Wiegenlied” (Lullaby), op. 78/4. The second section (“Mermaids”) begins with Schumann’s setting of a text by Eichendorff about a mermaid whose singing causes sailors to capsize their boats and drown. This depiction of the mermaid as enchantress is then juxtaposed with the Christian imagery of death and salvation in Schubert’s setting of Psalm 23 (“The Lord Is My Shephard”). The final section combines the Rhine Maidens’ song from Götterdämmerung (“Frau Sonne sendet lichte Strahlen”) with Brahms’s Four Songs, op. 17. Not only does Brahms use a similar scoring – female voices, harp, and horn – his songs recapitulate many of the same themes found in Wagner: lamentation, longing for the past, and hope for salvation.

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My favorite work on this CD is the Prelude to Rheingold, here arranged for twenty-four female voices, harp, four horns, and two contrabasses. The form of the Prelude is theme and variations, the theme being a canon in eight parts (0:35, see above). From this theme are derived a number of ostinatos (repeating melodic and rhythmic figures), each longer than the previous. With each successive variation, Wagner adds additional layers of ostinatos, superimposing them on each other (see Warren Darcy’s outstanding 1989 article on the Rheingold Prelude.) The rippling string lines of the original are performed here by the harp, an instrument commonly associated with the Rhine Maiden. The woodwind and upper brass parts are sung by a female chorus, suggesting that the Rhine Maidens embody the river itself. That is, the landscape and the Rhine Maidens are one and the same. As the dynamics get louder and the texture becomes increasingly dense, the listener experiences a strong feeling of disorientation and intoxication (3:43), akin to the effect of Rhine Maidens on a sailor.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this imaginative concept album. Like the sailors described in the Rhine Maiden legend, I was completely enchanted by this magical music. I am very much looking forward to the future parts of this trilogy.

Further Reading:

Darcy, Warren. “Creatio ex nihilo: The Genesis, Structure, and Meaning of the Rheingold Prelude.” 19th-Century Music 13, no. 2 (1989): 79-100. [Link to article]

Fauser, Annegret. “Rheinsirenen: Loreley and Other Rhine Maidens.” In Music of the Sirens, edited by Linda Phyllis Austern and Inna Naroditskaya, 250-272. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006. [Link to chapter]

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