Winterreise and the Journey of Wintertime German Lieder at Dumbarton Oaks
James N. Carder (February 2014)
Winter, with its cold weather, brings people indoors to socialize, and at Dumbarton Oaks the Blisses were no exception. Beatrix Farrand, the Blisses’ landscape architect, noted this when, in late October 1936, she wrote her aunt, Edith Wharton: “Mildred has apparently already started on a winter campaign of entertaining, concerts, queens and, best of all, the Kenneth Clarks who are, I believe, for the moment at Dumbarton Oaks.” In addition to entertaining Sir Kenneth Clark, who in 1933 had become director of the National Gallery in London, the Blisses that winter also entertained several musicians, who presumably performed in the Dumbarton Oaks Music Room. These included the American pianist Beveridge Webster, the Spanish soprano Lucrezia Bori, and the Polish-born, American bass Doda Conrad.
After the Blisses’ 1940 gift of Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard University and the establishment of the research institute, Mildred Bliss returned to the idea of wintertime music. In 1941, the institute began planning to host “recitals” in the Music Room, an undertaking that would develop in 1946–47 into the Friends of Music concert series, which was to be based on the same-named series given at the Library of Congress in the Coolidge Auditorium. At the time, Mildred Bliss was particularly concerned that there was little programming of the classical song repertoire in Washington. She remembered her friend Doda Conrad and his famed interpretations of Franz Schubert’s two great song cycles, the 1828 Winterreise (Winter’s Journey) and the 1823 Die schöne Müllerin (The Lovely Mill Maiden). In September of 1941, she wrote Dumbarton Oaks’ director, John Thacher:
There is one program which I particularly recommend to Dumbarton Oaks: two concerts by Conrad and [Mieczysław] Horszowski, one giving the Winterreise and the other the Schöne Müllerin. The ensemble of these two is of a very exceptional quality and I should like to have Washington become a center for lieder singing as it has already become for instrumental chamber music. If Dumbarton Oaks could have these two cycles it might lead to the Musical Division of the Library of Congress including lieder in their winter plans. It is one of the most beautiful forms and is eminently suited to a small hall, and the two artists would be far less expensive than a small orchestra and would complete the musical background Mrs. Coolidge and Mrs. Whittall and the Friends of Music are trying to give to the people of the D.C. [Dumbarton Oaks Archives, Administration files.]
Doda Conrad did perform Winterreise (with Erich Itor Kahn at the piano) in February 1948 for the Friends of Music of Dumbarton Oaks concert series. He would record the cycle with pianist Lili Kraus in 1950 (a copy of this recording is retained in the Dumbarton Oaks Archives). Mildred Bliss would also get her wish that lieder be performed fairly regularly at Dumbarton Oaks. Among those who sang German lieder in the first decades of the Friends of Music of Dumbarton Oaks are Peter Pears (1949), Doda Conrad (1948 and 1950), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1955), Gérard Souzay (1950, 1952, and 1956), Leontyne Price (1961), Maureen Forrester (1961), Ernst Haefliger (1965), and Montserrat Caballé (1966).