Burkhard Kehring has further developed his Divan of Song project for the 2017 Heidelberger Frühling festival. An exchange with the internationally renowned accompanist and professor for vocal interpretation (Hamburg) about going away, coming back, and song in general.
HDF: Professor Kehring, Divan of Song is a concept that you have realised in various forms since 2014. On 8 April a whole day of our festival will be devoted to it. Why is this project so important to you?
BK: West-eastern thinking has been with me since my childhood. But there were two things that triggered the Divan of Song project as such. One was that after 20 intensive years as a Lied accompanist, I felt that I needed fresh and revitalising perspectives for what I was doing. Initiatives like Neuland.Lied prove that I am not alone with these concerns. The other factor was purely personal, the devastating effect made on me by the death of my parents. The grief I felt prompted me to re-investigate the histories of headlong escape and migration in my family. My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents come from eastern Germany, India and Poland. None of them could stay in the country where they were born. I am the first one to have that privilege. That may explain my chronic yearnings for faraway places. Divan of Song is a way of coming to terms with that, the quest for a new home in some undiscovered country.
HDF: In artistic terms, what is the idea behind the Divan of Song?
BK: It is an attempt to investigate and carve out a global perspective for the artsong as we know it. To my mind, that means taking our leave of an exclusively Eurocentric view of things. Such a view will not get us any further, although of course we are very fortunate to have such a rich heritage behind us. But artsongs must also find some way of reflecting – and reflecting on – a world that is changing so radically. And I believe that as an art form the Lied has very great potential for playing an exciting and significant role in this connection.
HDF: What gives it this potential?
BK: There were two crucial epochs in the history of the Lied, the Vormärz [the period prior to the 1848 revolution in Germany] and the fin de siècle. In both cases colossal upheavals were imminent in the political and cultural systems of the time. For me, the parallels to today’s world are obvious. With its unlimited wealth of forms and expression, the Lied can overcome all national barriers. At the same time, it can function as a mouthpiece for every region and every individual. Its poetry is a perfect medium for things that are otherwise difficult to express in a conflict-ridden world.
HDF: Has the western artsong been an inspiration for the works by the composers from distant countries and cultures that we shall be hearing in Divan of Song?
BK: Of course. When you start looking down into yourself, it’s always the same. You repeatedly return to some central point and start out again from there. One of the song composers I have always taken my bearings from is Schubert. But these great western touchstones are now being reflected on by global parallel cultures and in certain cases they have been left behind. The literature of India is a good example, with its still vital ancient languages and a form of English that has emancipated itself from its colonial origins. The same thing has happened with the advent of the concert grand and western composition techniques. It will be fascinating to see how that idiom and those techniques have fared and whether and how the idiom returns, either changed or conserved. This is a genuine adventure for me, a real expedition.
HDF: Let us turn to the seven-part concert cycle Divan of Song. STAGES that you have devised for Heidelberg. What was the idea behind it, and how have you implemented that idea?
BK: The Heidelberg cycle is unique in itself. The basic idea was to use Divan of Song to design a day-long ritual along the lines of the prayer cycles in the religions of the world, but in a secular, poetic form. We proceed to a new “stage” every two hours, there are seven of them altogether. Between the stages, the members of the audience will have sufficient time to go about their daily business. I shall be very interested to see what happens to us when we submit ourselves to the influence of these songs for one whole day, from nine am to nine pm. The different stages have been called after places that have some kind of connection with the programme or the players, and we follow – more or less – the course of the sun from east to west. We have avoided capital cities so as not to fall foul of national clichés. The different voices involved in the different stages could also be interpreted as different embodiments of one and the same itinerant figure. The fact that most of them are sopranos with similar specialisations is designed to underline this possibility. But this figure encompasses all the gender roles and explores a broad range of stylistic and linguistic potentialities. And although they have very much the same kind of voice, all seven internationally renowned singers are distinctive, charismatic personalities – which makes me very happy.
HDF: One last question. You have devoted your professional life to the art oif the Lied. What made you do it?
BK: It just happened. Singers claimed me for themselves and freed me from my “isolated captivity” at the keyboard. Wonderful voices and texts have always been there. And they still inspire me to overcome the humiliating inadequacies of the apparatus we refer to as a “piano”.