Carl Loewe

1796 1869

Carl Loewe

Composer

Biography

Carl Loewe was an early 19th-century composer and singer from Germany. His success as a composer centered on his 400+ ballades which were so popular during his lifetime that he was dubbed the “Schubert of North Germany”. His tremendous baritone voice was also greatly appreciated throughout Europe by royalty and the general public alike.

Carl Loewe, born Johann Carl Gottfried Löwe, was born in the winter of 1796 in Löbejün, Germany as the twelfth and final child to Adam Loewe, a Kantor and schoolmaster. Carl received his earliest musical training from his father before joining the choir in the Cöthen court chapel in 1807. In 1809, Loewe went to study with Türk at the Franke Institute in Halle. Impressed by Loewe’s stunning vocal abilities, Madame de Stal brought the boy to the attention of the king of Westphalia, Jérôme Bonaparte, who in turn awarded him the money to continue his musical studies.

In 1812, Loewe’s education was disrupted first by the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars, followed by the death of his beloved teacher in 1813. As the king was forced to flee Germany, Loewe no longer received funding for his studies and instead sought employment, which he found in 1814 as a church organist. Later, in 1817, he furthered his knowledge by enrolling at the University of Halle to study theology and philology. Despite his new studies, Loewe remained very devoted to music and joined the Halle Singakademie, which was founded by Türk’s successor Naue. This period in Halle was important for Loewe, as it was then that he wrote his first significant works in addition to meeting his first wife, Julie von Jacob. The two met through the Singakademie and were married in 1821, though their marriage was tragically short-lived due to Julie’s premature death in 1823.

Loewe moved to Stettin in 1820, where he had been appointed organist of the Jakobikirche and music director of the Gymnasium, before being appointed musical director of the city in 1821, a position he held until 1866. Around this time, Loewe also travelled to various cities including Dresden, Weimar and Jena, eventually meeting Weber, Goethe and Hummel. He composed a fascinating setting of Goethe’sErlkönig (1824), which some claim is on-par, if not better, than Schubert’s version while others claim that Loewe’s version is too conservative and fragmented. In any case, it is a worthy composition despite its relative obscurity today compared with Schubert’s setting. He also set the poems of Friedrich Rückert, Schiller, Herder and Chamisso in addition to the translations of William Shakespeare and Lord Byron.

As a singer, Loewe travelled extensively performing his own works, and occasionally works from others, throughout Germany. He was an appreciated guest at the Prussian court, where his performances were admired by both Friedrich Wilhem III and Friedrich Wilhem IV. In 1837, Loewe also performed at the festivals in Düsseldorf and Mainz in addition to performances in Hamburg, Lübeck and Bremen. In the mid-1840’s to 1850’s, Loewe gave international performances in Vienna (1844), London (1847), Sweden (1851), Norway (1851) and France (1857).

Of Loewe’s songs and ballades, there is a distinct difference between his early works (before 1817) and his later works (after 1817). His earliest works, which include theAcht Jugendlieder and the three Anakreontische Lieder, are much more typical of the late 18th-century traditions which feature simple piano accompaniment, strophic forms and a single melodic line. Zumsteeg’s influence on Loewe becomes very apparent from 1817 on, at which point Loewe began to focus primarily on the ballade form. His first collection of Balladen was published in 1824 and contains three of his earlier rhapsodic works:Edward, Der Wirthin Töchterlein and Erlkönig. Later works include Odins Meeresritt (1851) andDie Schwanenjungfrau (1857).

Loewe was a man of contradictions; on the one hand, he was very conservative and composed ballades that clearly consist of multiple sections, while on the other hand, he composed bold, challenging and imaginative piano accompaniments such as in his setting of Alexis’Walpurgisnacht. He also explored the potential tonal effects of the piano inDie Begegnung am Meeresstrande and Die schwarzen Augen.

Not only did Loewe’s compositional approach shift throughout the years, his poetic interests did as well. In his earliest works, Loewe was fascinated by the supernatural and set many texts which had already been set by others. Along with his new interest in ballades, the topics of folklore became more important for Loewe, especially the Norse and Scottish myths. He was also influenced slightly by the emerging Romantic movement, leading him to compose settings of French, Italian and Spanish translations in addition to texts by Stieglitz.

In addition to his many successful songs and ballades, Loewe also composed six operas, 14-17 oratorios, two symphonies and an assortment of cantatas, piano sonata and other chamber music. It was especially early in Loewe’s career that he strived to become a well-known opera composer, though he was never successful. Of his six operas, only one was staged. His opera based on Kotzebue’sDie Alpenhütte survives only in fragments and was never performed. His next opera,Rudolf der deutsche Herr, was only ever performed privately in a concert performance while his comic operaDie drei Wünsche (1843) was staged at the Berlin Schauspielhaus. The audience was quite receptive to the opera, but the critics were more hesitant especially one particular critic, of the Allgemeine musicalische Zeitung, who wrote that “Dr Loewe would be even more suited to serious, heroic or tragic opera than to comic Singspiel”. This was not too traumatic for the composer though as he had discovered his talent for oratorios just two years earlier. His oratorios are very dramatic and operatic in nature while focusing largely on biblical themes.

Further, Loewe composed some sacred vocal works, though nothing especially impressive has survived and a number of solo keyboard works which show the influence of Hummel, Ries and Weber. His chamber music includes three string quartets, a pianoforte trio and a piece for clarinet and piano. These works pale in comparison to extraordinary collection of ballades.

Though Loewe was incredibly popular during his lifetime, his music was considered outdated by the time of his death in 1869. He had little influence on future composers due to his conservative style, though his ballades deserve to be, without question, a more substantial part of the modern vocal repertoire.

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