In October 1975, legendary lieder singer, Elena Gerhardt, celebrated her 75th birthday. Gerhardt was the teacher of Felicity Lott‘s teacher at the Royal Academy of Music, Flora Nielsen. All three women in this lineage were greatly admired by twenty-five year-old pianist Graham Johnson, and to mark Gerhardt‘s birthday, Johnson presented a performance of Wolf‘s Italienisches Liederbuch at the Purcell Room at the Royal Festival Hall, London. Baritone, Richard Jackson, and soprano, Felicity Lott, performed the cycle with Johnson as accompanist. It was at this recital that the Songmakers' Almanac – namely a group of musicians who would revolutionise the approach to Art song repertoire – was born. The concert was not only an occasion that would change the face of recitals in London, not to mention further afield, but would also challenge audiences' preconceptions of what a recital could be.
Up to this time, audiences were accustomed to rather more outdated recital conventions. Invariably, the recital would begin with arie antiche, operatic or well-known songs and ending with some folk songs. For the most part, these recital programmes appeared to be artist-orientated rather than offering an exciting programme.
The traditional programme followed a predictable format, containing a disparate collection of music from the singer‘s repertoire with the pianist, often unnamed, considered a secondary performer. The printed programmes offered the audience little by way of information regarding the background to the repertoire. Arguably, the duo of tenor Peter Pears accompanied on piano by Benjamin Britten offered a glowing exception to this format. However, their fresh and imaginative recitals in the 1950s and 1960s were considered too modern for the time and literally, fell on deaf ears for the more traditional concert-goer. Audiences remained content to hear the blinkered selection of repertoire, despite their pioneering example.
Johnson had worked for Britten as a repetiteur on his last opera Death in Venice, and it is appropriate that this happened as Britten was 'almost the last composer to bequeath us a garland of his own song-cycles in the Lieder tradition', a tradition that Johnson has wholeheartedly championed throughout his career. The 1975 Italienisches Liederbuch concert almost seems like the passing of a torch as this new recital format was born in the year before Britten‘s death.
Johnson‘s new wave of recitals took many forms. There were recitals in celebration of specific composers (regular Schubertiads; a recital dedicated to the love triangle of Robert Schumann, Clara Schuman and Johannes Brahms in 1978; Duparc in 1981; Wolf in 1982), or poets or composer/poet collaborations (Goethe in 1982; a recital looking at the composer as a poet in 1982; music to Shakespeare‘s texts in 1983; Mörike in 1985), and concerts dedicated legendary performers and their repertories (Hughes Cuenod and Peter Pears in 1984).
Johnson has been known for championing unknown, overshadowed or forgotten composers (such women composers such as Clara Schumann, Alma Mahler and Pauline Viardot, for example) and for programming song settings of a similar nature. The most important point about Johnson's new format was that the focus was now on the text. Everything centred on the poetry, and entire recitals now leaned towards being constructed along poetic threads rather than, or as much as, musical ones. His approach was somewhat interdisciplinary in that it took inspiration from the worlds of Greek and Roman classical literature, visual art, literature and, of course, poetry.
One of the Songmakers' Alamanac's unique and innovative constructs is the 'Song Palindrome' recital, in which the programme mirrored itself: the second half contained the same texts (different settings) as the first half, but in reverse order. This not only looks very clever on the printed programme, but it smartly juxtaposes well-known settings of a song against a little known one, for example Schubert and Zelter's settings of Goethe's 'Rastlose Liebe' which came either side of the interval of a Wigmore Hall recital in 1977. Johnson presented three 'Song Palindrome' recitals: in 1977, 1979 and 1981. In these recitals, Johnson strives to make known what is overshadowed, give the song repertoire a relevance and currency in the modern day, and make the evening as entertaining and engaging for the audience as possible.
Johnson's ever inventive thematic recitals were yet another outlet for his wit and ability to entertain. His attention-catching titles have included 'The Ruling Passions', 'The Lure of the East', 'Fallen Women and Virtuous Wives', 'Love Songs Around the Clock', 'Ziegeunerlieder' and 'Ah, Moon of My Delight', to name just a few. Again the key links here are the texts, their themes and subtexts. Johnson also includes musical allusions for those astute enough to detect them; the inclusion of the opening motif of Schubert‘s 'Gretchen am Spinnrade' in the introduction to Noel Coward‘s 'Spinning Song' and the complete piano introduction of 'Nacht und Träume' at the start of Cole Porter‘s 'Night and Day'. This not only a nod to Schubert, who is ever-present in the work of the Songmakers' Almanac, but it also fuses old and new, giving artistic weight to newer compositions and providing a new, fresh look at older ones, and creating an overall homogeneity within the song repertoire.
BBC World Service producer Bernard Palmer puts it very succinctly in his introduction to Johnson‘s 1996 book about the Songmakers‘ Almanac:
What I think we must concede is that Johnson single-handedly broke the mould of song recital convention, opening it up to scholarship, intelligent comment, irony and wit and, in doing so, invited audiences to experience the solo song repertoire of Europe as an artistic entity entire of itself and one in tune with the times; one to which the past resonates with both the present and the future.
Johnson, Graham. The Songmakers’ Almanac: Twenty Years of Song Recitals in London. Reflections and Commentaries. (London: Thames Publishing, 1996).