The dark night has vanished: songs by Josephine Lang taste for more

Already at the age of 16, the German composer Josephine Lang (1815-1880) published two collections of songs; eventually she would write over 300. Although she was very successful in her own time, rivalling such established song composers as Schubert and Schumann, today her work is rarely heard. The Scottish-German mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison and the Scottish pianist Malcolm Martineau put her centre stage on their CD The dark night has vanished.

As the daughter of a violinist and an opera singer, Josephine Lang was brought up on music and revealed a considerable talent for composing when she was only five. Thanks to her grandfather, she got to know composers such as Felix Mendelssohn and Ferdinand Hiller, who trained her in music theory.

Salient detail: while Felix obstructed his sister Fanny‘s ambition to publish her music, he did his best to help Lang put her work in print. – It makes one wonder: was he simply jealous of Fanny’s talent?

Josephine Lang published over forty opus numbers during her lifetime; in 1838 Robert Schumann included one of her songs in his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. She married a poetic lawyer, whose poetry she set to music, and with whom she had five children. When her husband died in 1856, she supported her family by composing and teaching piano.

Morison and Martineau chose six songs from different opus numbers, including one by her husband Christian Reinhold Köstlin, ‘Ob ich manchmal Dein gedenke?’ (Do I ever think of you?). It is a passionate declaration of love, with the closing line ‘Dich zu lieben ist mein Sinn’ (To love you is my aim).

Josephine Lang was highly successful in her lifetime, publishing over 40 opus numbers. Robert Schumann included one of her songs in his Neue Zeitschrift für Musik.

The song opens rather more melancholic and reflective than fiery, but seething emotions rage beneath the recited text. Lang gives a masterly account of love that sizzles under the skin and at times breaks loose in graceful, heavenly outbursts of the soloist. Her vocal lines are followed like a shadow by the piano, which closes the song on the keynote as serenely as it began.

Mignon Challenges her fate

Lang’s setting of ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt’ after Goethe’s poem – better known as Mignons Klage – is more exciting than many other versions by the ‘greats’. Against the sadness of Schubert, the passivity of Schumann and the restrained despair of Wolf, Lang places fierce, short exclamations of the mezzo-soprano. She fires her words at us like gunshots, in dynamics that abruptly veer between piano and fortissimo.

Now here’s a woman who for once does not go down in misery but stubbornly resists her fate. Her ever-larger intervals cross all registers, supported by a furiously pounding piano. About halfway through, singer and pianist suddenly fall silent, only to pick up speed again with the forte exclamation ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt/Weiss was ich leide!’, repeated three times.  

The other songs are no less brilliant. The subdued ‘Scheideblick’ expresses the pain of parting with such poignant harmonies that the poet Nikolaus Lenau burst into tears during a performance. In ‘Die Schwalben’, jumpy piano melodies evoke frolicking swallows; ‘Gestern und heute’ is permeated with melancholy for lost happiness.


The opening line of this previously unpublished song is also the namesake of the CD ‘Die dunkle Nacht ist nun entschwunden’. In the closing ‘Abschied’, the piano supports the singer’s yearning vocal lines with flowing sixteenths, which give the song speed and urgency.

With her warm, sonorous voice and excellent diction, Catriona Morison perfectly expresses the virtuoso vocal lines and underlying emotions. Malcolm Martineau confirms his reputation as the ideal accompanist: he subtly follows Morison in imitations and variations of her melodic line, but confidently takes the lead in purely instrumental parts.

The songs by Grieg, Brahms and Schumann are also performed flawlessly. Still, it is a pity that Morison and Martineau did not devote their entire album to Josephine Lang. Her music is appealing and original and would have deserved a full portrait CD!

Independent music journalism is under pressure. Any donation, however small, is welcome through PayPal (friends option), or by direct transfer to my bank account: T. Derks, Amsterdam, NL82 INGB 0004 2616 94. Many thanks!


About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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