The Heldentenor

Last week I was listening one of this summer’s Promenade concerts on the radio. The one in question featured the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a group of young Arab and Israeli players conducted by Daniel Barenboim. Before the music actually started there was a lengthy discussion by the radio pundits and members of the orchestra about the decision to include in their programme a piece by Richard Wagner, the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. The orchestra had actually done this as an encore piece previously, but had never had in on their published programme. The problem was that Wagner was a notorious anti-semitic bastard and his music is considered by many to be emblematic of German Nazism. Many members of the orchestra – not only those who happened to be Jewish, in fact – did not feel at all comfortable playing music that carried such distressing overtones. After much discussion, however, they had decided to reclaim Wagner’s music from its awful past and treat it as their own. The performance they produced last week was really excellent, I should add.

For reasons which should become obvious fairly soon, this spurred me on to put something up here by the great Danish singer  Lauritz Melchior. Born in Copenhagen in 1890, Melchior was probably the greatest of all the Heldentenors. If you don’t know what a Heldentenor is, it’s a term used to describe the heroic lead in most of Wagner’s operas. In the words of Anna Russell, he

… is very big, very strong, very brave, very stupid. He carries a spear and wears a helmet. He talks to birds, laughs at dragons, and travels by swan.

Melchior had an immensely powerful voice, which is obligatory if you have to cut through a huge Wagnerian orchestra, but, unlike many other singers who can sing very loud, he was also extremely accurate and his voice had a very rich texture. Other dramatic tenors of his day had purer voices – but if Richard Tauber‘s was polished silver, Melchior’s was more like wrought iron. It’s a matter of taste of course, but I haven’t heard any modern singers anywhere near as good as him in Wagnerian roles. For me, Melchior is the Heldentenor.

The other thing I should mention about Melchior was that he was Jewish (NOTE: This appears to be incorrect – see comments). Although he performed frequently in German opera houses – including  Bayreuth – during the 1920s, he stopped doing so in 1931 when Hitler and his cronies started systematically persecuting Jewish musicians. He spent much of the rest of his life as a star performer at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and eventually took up American citizenship. Despite his ancestry and his hatred for the Nazis, however, he never stopped performing Wagner’s music.

When he  died in 1973,  Melchior’s body was transported back to his native Denmark and he was buried in the famous Assistens Cemetery in his home town of Copenhagen. His grave, in fact, is not far from that of the jazz musician Ben Webster.

I don’t know the date of this particular clip, but it was made for American television, I guess sometime during the 1950s. Melchior was already an old man by then, but I love the way he sets himself for this performance and you don’t have to make any allowance for his years. His diction is superb, there’s a wonderful timbre to his voice and when he unleashes the fortissimo his power is almost shocking. This is the narration In Fernem Land, from Wagner’s Lohengrin that also provides the theme for the exquisite instrumental Prelude to Act I of the opera, which also provided Anna Russell with her reference to travelling by swan..

21 Responses to “The Heldentenor”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Glad to see Daniel Barenboim working for reconciliation through his own field, ie music.

    Wagner’s anti-semitism was not the only unpleasant facet of his personality by any means, but he wrote before the Nazis and cannot be held responsible for them. If there is argument among Jews about whether to play his music, I think it is only good manners to keep out of it.

    Wagner was, however, an utter genius. There are moments in his music that make me dissolve, and In Fernem Land is one of them.

  2. telescoper Says:

    It’s one of the uncomfortable things that human beings can produce things of great beauty and great ugliness at the same time. I know one should try to separate what people create from what people are, but I still find Wagner a problem knowing what a shit he was. When it comes to his music even I’m not really a devout Wagnerian, in that there is a lot I don’t like, but I hold to the principle that you should judge artists by their best work and not their worst. I’ve never actually seen Lohengrin in performance, but I agree that In Fernam Land is as inspirational a piece as you can hope to hear. Forget the longueurs in the other operas, but judged by this, much of Tristan and the last act of Gotterdammerung, Wagner was undoubtedly a genius. But why did he have to be such a bastard?

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    I can’t answer that question Peter; let’s just listen to the music! I agree too that Wagner “goes on a bit” and sometimes I wish there were more humour in his operas, just as I’d be glad of a bit less in Mozart’s. To your list of his highlights I’d add the supreme moment close to the end of the Flying Dutchman overture. And if you listen to the overture from Rienzi you realise that he was a genius from the start.

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    Götterdämerung is by far my favourite Wagnerian opera, but I’ve often wondered whether the reason might be psychological. Do I like it because of the knowledge that so many strange, unpleasant, over-the-top, unsympathetic characters get the end they deserve? Do I regard the final catastrophe of flame and flood as a cleansing process?

    That must be the reason.

    • telescoper Says:

      The cleansing is all very well, but the problem is that after it is over you start right back at the beginning where you were 15 hours ago…

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    I wanted to do some comparisons and think on it for a while, and I now agree – Melchior is absolutely outstanding.

    • Some people find his voice a bit heavy for Lohengrin – a role traditionally associated with a lighter tenor voice than, say, Siegfried – but I think his voice has real star quality.

  6. Melchiorfan Says:

    Melchior wasn´t jewish.

    • telescoper Says:

      Some articles I’ve read say he was, some say he wasn’t. I’d be happy to make a correction if someone can give conclusive evidence.

      • G. Teckelmann Says:

        He wasn’t, on May 16th 1890 he was baptized, his Godfather was Lauritz Lebrecht Hommel, he also was confirmed at the Lutheranian Frue Kirke at Copenhagen in October 1904! And he was married to Inger Thora Holst-Rasmussen at Slotskirken Copenhagen on November 2nd 1914 and – after the divorcement – he married Maria Hacker “Kleinchen” in May 1925!

  7. About whether Melchior was Jewish:

    The issue of Time magazine for June 27, 1938 features an article about the Nazi Music Index of Jewish Composers and Performers, 3rd edition, that had just reached U.S. shores. Melchior was listed there as Jewish. The Time magazine reporter writes: “Fumed tenor Melchior when informed of his nomination: ‘I am a Dane, without a drop of Jewish blood in me, and I am determined to seek redress.'”

    The determination to “seek redress” at having been named a Jew is hardly a feather in the cap of Melchior (or was he wearing a Tarnhelm?), but it does seem to prove his non-Jewishness, no?

    On the other hand, in his son Ib Melchior’s “The Golden Years of Bayreuth” there’s a touching story on page 143 about Lauritz Melchior’s sudden discovery, while visiting the widow of an old huntsman friend from his youth, that she and her husband harbored serious anti-semitic sentiments and acted upon them in the 1930’s, though she claimed that she and her husband “had to obey” when ordered to hire two Jewish girls as “scullery maids,” but that “we treated them just like people.” Ib Melchior writes that when Lauritz heard that, “My father said nothing. What was there to say? But soon thereafter he took his leave.”

    There are many Jewish families named Melchior in Denmark, some tracing their roots back 300 years. But Lauritz’s family seems not to have been one of them.

    An intriguing final anecdote: The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. (a Jewish-founded University where I taught for 40 years) once sported a bronze plaque to the side of its entry-door that read “In Memory of the great tenor Lauritz Melchoir” [sic!]. It was removed many years after I had pointed out the perhaps too-expensive-to-correct typo in bronze. I suspect that the donor of that plaque might have assumed, too, that Melchior was Jewish, but the Time magazine article’s quotation from Melchior certainly seems to dispute that (perhaps too forcefully).

    Alan Levitan
    Cambridge, Massachusetts

    • telescoper Says:

      Very interesting. I had assumed for many years that Melchior was indeed Jewish (partly because I’d read it here and there, and partly because of the name). I stand corrected, although of course he may have had some Jewish ancestor he wasn’t aware of…

    • Dear Alan;
      Thanks for posting on about whether Lauritz Melchior was Jewish.
      I never gave it any thought, but I have learned that Lauritz Melchior was a cousin of my mother’s father.
      Fro reasons I never understood, I don’t recall the subject came up when I was a child in Denmark.
      I was reminded of it by a cousin of mine, but the information I was able to locate is sparse, so any additional facts you might have would be much appreciated.
      Regards, Palle

  8. For what it’s worth, here’s what appears to be the last word on the matter. It’s from Shirlee Emmons’s “authorized biography” of Melchior, titled “Tristanissimo,” Schirmer Books, 1990, p. 2:

    “As the meticulously kept Stambog (family history book) reveals, the Melchiors had been Lutheran ministers, doctors, and teachers since the seventeenth century.”

    Alan Levitan

  9. Dear Alan;
    not sure what conclusion to draw, but I might be able to dig deeper.
    In the mean time, will you know how to locate this book?
    I drew a blank at Amazon:
    Tristanissimo,” Schirmer Books” did not match any products.

  10. […] I was unable to locate one of the graves I wanted to find, that of the great Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior. I was surprised to find his name was absent from the main index. I know he was […]

  11. Col William (ret) Says:

    First off, “Tristanissimo” is not a good biography and is not recommended. It’s too thin and hardly objective. Second, I think the rumor that Melchior was Jewish stems that one of his predecessors was a “cantor” causing the jump. We have cantors at our Roman Catholic masses as do Lutherans (which Melchior was).

  12. Impressive voice, but it seems way to heavy for a Lohengrin of my tastes.

  13. Lauritz Melchior was not Jewish. While his family shared the name with another Danish Jewish family, they were not Jews, but came from a line of non Jewish priests.

  14. […] the day) but on that occasion I didn’t find the memorial I was looking for, that of the great Heldentenor Lauritz […]

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