A Close Look At ‘O! Du, Mein Holder Abendstern’

Understandably, when we consider the role of Wolfram, the enchanting melody of the evening star aria is the first thing we recall. Nevertheless, this aria presents a very misleading impression of the vocal demands of the role. Before deciding whether Wolfram is appropriate for his voice, the singer should examine, for instance, “Als du in kühnen Sange” (act one, scene four) for an idea of this role’s often unrelievedly high tessitura. Wolfram is neither a bass-baritone nor a helden-baritone, but a genuine (unmodified!) baritone role.

The recitative of “O! du mein holder Abendstern” bristles with myriad juxtapositions of the consonants t and d (“deckt die,” “scheinest du”). The singer should beware of mushing the sounds together, as in vernacular English (for example, “hot dog”). What if the rhythm doesn’t allow time to sound both consonants? Make time! The time needed will not be enough to affect the accompaniment. Likewise, there may seem to be little time to breathe between “grüsse sie” and “wenn sie vorbei dir zieht”, but breathing anywhere else mangles the syntax. Here, however, a breath may require a delay in the accompaniment. (Even those who can take the phrase in one breath should consider making a caesura at this point—a tiny break without inhalation.) Wagner cared about the intelligibility of his words—he even wanted his operas to be given in translation.

In much music of the Romantic period, the lower note of turns is a half-step, even when the scale tone would otherwise be a whole step. Some singers, therefore, unconsciously assume that the turn on the word “Engel” (three bars before “un poco ritard”) should be C, B, A-sharp, B. Examining other turns in Tannhäuser, however, it becomes apparent that when Wagner, in accord with good notational practice, explicitly indicates the half-step when he wants it. (For instance, in the contest-of-song scene, see Wolfram’s line four bars before Tannhäuser’s defiant reprise of his hymn to Venus.) In the “Abendstern” aria, A-natural is almost certainly correct.

In several editions (including the Hal Leonard aria book), the notation of the accompaniment beneath the final “wenn sie entschwebt” looks peculiar indeed. If the chord does not change, why is the tremolo not indicated simply by half-note noteheads? The answer is, predictably, that the reduction is in error—the chord does change: five eighth-notes of C major are followed by a single eighth-note of A minor (in the inner voice, G changes to A).

The same chromaticism that gives the aria its special charm also presents dangers to the singer. Remember that in any chromatic descent, one is much more likely to make half-steps too big than too small. Also, the piece is rich in non-chord tones—notes that go against the harmony and then resolve to a note within the harmony. It may be useful for the singer to consciously identify which notes are chord tones, which are non-chord tones, and which begin as chord tones and become non-chord tones due to a change of harmony. (No special knowledge of theory is required—the notes that make a dissonance with the harmony are non-chord tones.) If the singer is responsive to the greater musical tension in the non-chord tones, it will be easier for the audience to interpret the meaning of these pitches, which otherwise may sound arbitrary to them.

With an intimate piece like this aria, the singer will be faced with conflicting opinions as to the appropriate degree of softness. He may wonder: what is the dynamic level at which I can be certain of escaping criticism—at which no one will accuse me either of over-singing the piece, or of crooning it? There is no such magic level! The singer should rely on his instinct, modified by the advice of those few whom he knows and trusts, and accept the fact that, however he sings it, some people will disagree. (Don Giovanni’s serenade, by the way, presents the identical problem.) The singer may take comfort in the fact that the most renowned and successful artists face the same conflicting opinions from the press.

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith is a highly respected New York coach, particularly known for helping singers with difficult and unfamiliar scores.