Tenor / Conductor  Peter  Schreier

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



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Born: July 29, 1935 - Meissen, Germany

schreierThe highly esteemed German tenor and conductor, Peter (Max) Schreier, was a son of a Church Kantor, who gave him his first musical training. At the age of eight Peter was entered in the preparatory class of the Dresdner Kreuzchor, to which he belonged for many years. He made his first operatic appearance as one of the Three Boys in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte in 1944, which led him to consider a musical career. At the age of ten he started as a soprano but they discovered rapidly that he was an alto. Soon he rose to the position of first alto soloist within the choir. Even as a boy chorister, Schreier was entrusted with many solo parts. As such he sang on some of the first German LP’s ever released of Bach cantatas. He traveled to France, Scandinavia, and Luxembourg, among other destinations, on tour with the Dresdner Kreuzchor.

He remained with the choir as a tenor after his voice changed. In 1954, he began taking private voice lessons with the well-known Leipzig concert singer and singing pedagogue Fritz Polster (1954-1956), while working as a member of the Leipzig Radio Chorus. In 1956, he entered the Dresden Musikhochschule (Carl Maria von Weber College Music), where his teacher was Winkler. Schreier studied both singing and conducting. He also studied at the Dresden State Opera's training school. In 1957, where he appeared in the opera studio's production of Il matrimonio segreto as Paolino. He graduated from the Musikhochschule in 1959, passing the State Exam.

Schreier joined the Dresden State Opera's company as a lyric tenor, making his official operatic debut there as the First Prisoner in Fidelio in 1959. He became a regular member of the company in 1961. During those years he made a concert tour to India and the African nation of Mali. He sang a guest appearance at the Berlin State Opera and in 1963 gained a contract with that company as its leading lyric tenor. He made numerous guest appearances in the Soviet Union and other countries of what was then known as the Eastern Bloc, and appeared fairly often in the West. He made his bow in Vienna in 1966 and at the Salzburg Festival one year later, singing Tamino each time. He appeared for the first time in London in 1966 (debut as Ferrando with the visiting Hamburg State Opera), and at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1967 (debut as Tamino). There followed his first appearances at the Bayreuth Festival, the Vienna State Opera (1967), La Scala in Milan (1968) and the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires (1969).

Schreier quickly won acclaim in particular for his portrayals of Mozart's main tenor roles, and as a recitalist. He was also highly praised for roles as diverse as Alfred in Die Fledermaus and Loge in Das Rheingold, and appeared in the premiere of Paul Dessau's Einstein as the Physicist. He also sang the role of Almaviva in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, Fenton in Verdi's Falstaff, and Lensky in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.

His keen interest in the oratorio has earned him an international reputation as a concert singer. Schreier has set standards in the interpretation of Bach’s Oratorios, Passions and Cantatas, notably the parts of the Evangelists. He has also won acclaim as a performer of the Lied. His Schubert was especially regarded for its highly expressive projection and shaping of the words.

Over the years he has made many recordings as singer and conductor (and sometimes both together), often singing a role more than once on different labels.

In 1970, he took up the other side of his career, conducting for the first time at a concert with the Dresden Staatskapelle. Since then he has emerged as a leading Bach and Mozart conductor.

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Peter Schreier finished his singing career in December 2005, combining the roles of Evangelist and conductor in a performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio (BWV 248) in Prague. He continues his work as a conductor.

Peter Schreier received numerous honours, including the National Prize (First Class) of the German Democratic Republic, the Salzburg Mozarteum's Silver Mozart Medal, and the title of Kammersänger (1964). In 1986 he was appointed an honorary member of the Vienna Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, the Anderson-Nexö Prize of the City of Dresden, and the Ernst von Siemens Foundation Prize. He published the book Aus meiner Sicht: Gedanken und Erinnerungen (edited by M. Meier, Vienna, 1983). In 2005 appeared In Rückspiegel (Vienna, also edited by M. Meier).

--  Text (only) edited and corrected from a bio on the Bach Cantatas website.  Photos from other sources.  



Peter Schreier is known throughout the world for his lovely voice and knowledge and sensitivity of musical performance.  His appearances with the Chicago Symphony we eagerly anticipated, and we were fortunate to have him as both singer and conductor for the St. Matthew Passion in 1997, the Christmas Oratorio two years later, the St. John Passion two years after that, and finally Messiah in 2004.

I had enjoyed his recordings for many years, and when he came to Chicago in 1997, he graciously agreed to meet me for an interview.  He was elegantly dressed
quite dapper, in factand though at times a bit whimsical, he always gave serious thought to his responses.

My thanks to Mark Daniel Schmidt for translating for us during our meeting.

Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . . . . . .


schreierBruce Duffie:    You are a performer of Lieder, oratorio, and opera, and now you also conduct.  How do you arrange your schedule to accommodate all of this?

Peter Schreier:    The singer becomes increasingly older, and at a certain age there are difficulties.  Because I consider myself not just to be a singer but also a musician, early on I took up conducting and focused on that aspect.  During my studies at the conservatory in Dresden I took many conducting classes.  Being over sixty now, I cannot portray certain characters any more — Tamino, Ottavio, Belmonte, for instance — so that is why I am now focusing more on conducting.

BD:    While you were (just) singing, were you watching the conductors and learning from each of them?

PS:    Certainly.  I learned both how to do it and how not to do it! 

BD:    Is it more important to learn what not to do?

PS:    [Laughs]  Perhaps.

BD:    Was it ever a problem for the other conductors when you were singing and they knew you were also a working conductor?

PS:    No, not at all... quite the contrary.  Having worked with singers, they knew me and respected me, and would accept my input.  As a singer, I knew that I would not give them any leeway because I have been in that position.  I particularly scrutinize things and am particularly precise in my work.  I know the possibilities and deficiencies of singers, having had those experiences myself.  So in that respect, I'm very exact and very strict.

BD:    Do you conduct operas and concerts where you have not sung a part?

PS:    I have conducted Figaro and Don Giovanni of Mozart, Giulio Cesare and Alcina of Handel, Capriccio of Strauss, all of which I have sung, but now I am doing more symphonic concerts with voices and orchestra. 

BD:    If they asked you for a Beethoven symphony, would you accept?

PS:    No, no. 

BD:    Why not?

PS:    It's too big.  [Both laugh] 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We'll come back to the conducting later, but I want to focus on your singing.  You were asked for many roles.  How did you decide yes or no?

PS:    Being in a so-called fach, I really didn't have to decide.  When you are a Mozart singer, it is pretty clear which roles you will sing and which you will not.  The only parts that moved away from this fach were Loge in Rheingold and David in Meistersinger...

schreierBD:    Palestrina [in the opera by Pfitzner]?

PS:   
[Surprised]  Yes!  It's wonderful music!  But in general, I never had a problem deciding which roles to do.  At the beginning of my career I also sang very small parts... a prisoner and later Jacquino in Fidelio...

BD:    Did you ever do Florestan?

PS:    Only in a concert with Nikolaus Harnoncourt. 

BD:    These parts were imposed on you because of your voice.  Did you like those characters?

PS:    That depends on the director, and in what way he intends to interpret the character.  One has to bring along a certain kind of artistic confidence in order to focus in on what the director wants to do.  You need to understand it and accept what he wants. 

BD:    How much is the composer, how much is the librettist, how much is the director, and how much is Peter Schreier?

PS:    The composer, OK.  The director is problematic, but the singer is just a wheel in the machinery.  But I can justify myself and play an important part within this large picture. 

BD:    Was there any part you played which was, perhaps, too close to the real Peter Schreier?

PS:    Palestrina!  I identified myself with that part.  One of my favorite parts was Ferrando in Così because he is so multi-faceted.  Tamino is not so interesting.  He's rather black-and-white. 

BD:    He's noble, though, isn't he?

PS:    Yes, he's noble, but very straight-forward.  Ferrando has comic elements and dramatic elements.

BD:    Who should he wind up with at the end?

schreierPS:    That's a very good question!  Mozart says he goes back to his intended lady, and the music is composed in that way.  You cannot change the music.  I did it at La Scala in the Pizzi production, and he wanted us to stay with the new women and not go back.  But the music doesn't allow that, really. 

BD:    Should they all wind up together like Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice?

PS:    I cannot imagine that.  Mozart would have had to have written a different kind of music.  In a postlude, it could be that they were all friends, but not new pairs. 

BD:    You keep saying that this is the way Mozart wrote it.  Does Mozart, from 200 years ago, speak to us today?

PS:    I think so, yes.  The theme of love speaks to us as it did then; the same for jealousy, war, etc.  These are all human traits that will remain no matter the progress of time.  It is possible to place the action into the present day.

BD:    So it can be done right and it can be done wrong?

PS:    I saw the Peter Sellars production in New York, and I do not agree with that interpretation because I don't think you can equalize Mozart with everyday vulgar attitudes.  There's a difference if you place something in today's time.  The other question is what language to use.  The interpretation of Sellars is so private, so personal, that there is no reason Mozart would compose music to such a play. 

BD:    So Sellars has ignored Mozart and just done Da Ponte?

PS:    He has ignored both!  It's a very touchy subject, these modern interpretations.  One can transport the action into our present time, but it's the vulgar language used in the translation which was the problem.  I also do not agree with the interpretation of Mozart by Miloš Forman in the film Amadeus because it's too vulgar.  The picture he presents of Mozart is distorted. 

BD:    Is there any chance we revere Mozart too much?

PS:    We cannot revere him enough. 

BD:    Is it the ultimate tribute that Mozart survives Peter Sellars and Miloš Forman?

PS:    Yes.  As Europeans, we have a different perception of the composers that come from Europe than do Americans.  We adore them much more.  We live in the tradition of being raised with the music of Schütz, Bach, and Mozart, and when we see such an interpretation it hurts us.  We revolt against such an interpretation because we have not been raised to hear him fart and use all these vulgar words.  To see this, every Tom, Dick, or Harry on the street thinks of him as just a drunkard and a pig.  We don't need to use the media or vulgarities and exaggerations to make Mozart popular.  People who get to know Mozart via Amadeus will not really understand what he's all about.  They will not understand his Requiem or Don Giovanni, or his symphonies. 

BD:    So there are not two sides to Mozart?

PS:    Yes, there are two sides, but not in the sense that we have to portray Mozart as a human being of today. 

BD:    He was not human???

PS:    He was human, but he was not a normal human being.  He was a genius, and the way he was depicted seems to make him an everyday person like anyone else.

BD:    Was he a normal genius, or was he perfect?

PS:    Certainly he was not perfect, but like most geniuses the craziness was close by. 

BD:    So there is a difference between crazy and vulgar?

PS:    Yes.  He was not crazy in the sense of mental delusion.  He was over sensitive. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You're very particular about the staging.  Why did you become a conductor rather than a stage-director?

PS:    I don't need a production.  I live for the music.  The eye is not as important for me as is the ear.

BD:    Would you ever do any stage direction?

PS:    I'm not the type who has an organizational talent. 

BD:    Isn't music organizational???

PS:    I make music out of the moment, and then put down the rules.  The way I organize my voice is to place emphasis on the different parts.  This comes from my own experience as a singer.  I'm not a conductor who takes a score and writes into it exactly what happens.  While we rehearse, while we prepare the work, things might happen at that very moment which will be decided then.  With new works, it is often the case that things are changed in rehearsal, but with established pieces such as the Bach Passions, there is a certain tradition and everything is pre-determined. 

BD:    Does this make the Bach Passions somewhat ideal in that you don't have to worry about the staging or the props?

PS:    Maybe so.  I feel that the St. Matthew Passion and the St. John Passion are Bach's operas.  Bach was employed at a church so he didn't have the opportunity to write dramatic music.  I believe that this was his way of writing operas. 


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BD:    If he had been employed by a theater, would he have written differently?

PS:    I don't believe so.  We know his style.  In his secular cantatas, he used a lot of secular ideas and proved to everyone that he was comfortable writing them.  You can't forget that he never really left his tight circle in Germany where he lived.  On the other hand, Handel was in Italy and England, so he had a totally different perspective and totally different approach to opera.  Bach was a very strict protestant, and was raised and grew up in this environment.  He was a very devout human being.

BD:    He was the right person in the right place at the right time?

PS:    Exactly.  We can understand this especially in the St. Matthew Passion, in the passage of recitative where he dies and the chorale that follows.  Two weeks ago I sang this in Philharmonie with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Claudio Abbado, and he couldn't contain himself.  He literally cried when they sang this chorale.  [See my Interview with Claudio Abbado.]

BD:    Is there a secret to singing Bach?

PS:    He is very hard to sing.

BD:    But not impossible...

schreierPS:    No, not at all.  It is the substance of voice.  One has to have a good voice.  One has to know and understand the instrumental style of Bach in particular and the entire period of the Baroque.  Bach treats the voice like an orchestral instrument.

BD:    Not like an organ?

PS:    No, not really.  Instrumental singing means using the voice with a little bit of vibrato, like an oboe or a flute.  Along with that comes discipline.  You cannot hold a note too long.  He's very precise in how to phrase and articulate the parts. 

BD:    So he understood the voice?

PS:    Yes!  Consciously we don't know if he was aware, but we know that he worked with boys.  He performed the St. Matthew Passion with seventeen boys.

BD:    But that is what he had!

PS:    Yes.  It's good that you say that.  I go crazy when the so-called
historians say we have to perform Bach today with a very small orchestra of original instruments and very few singers.  I ask, Why?  Just because Bach only had seventeen singers?  He complained to the city-chief that his instrumentalists were so bad; the bassoon players were so bad he didn't use them!  These are conditions that Bach didn't want, so why are we imitating what Bach had but didn't want? 

BD:    Then how much help can we give Bach, and how much is too much help?

PS:    We can give him justice by articulating it well, but since we've passed through the Romantic period we have lost that.  We have not sustained the tradition of articulating Bach the right way.  There is an example in the opening chorus of the St. Matthew Passion.  Listen to recordings led by Furtwangler or Mengelberg or Klemperer.  [Sings example of the vocal line in a heavy, romantic, connected style.]  If one does it like this [sings same example much lighter, quicker, and more articulated] then the listener will hear it totally differently.  The heavier type of singing (as in the first example) will put people to sleep in ten minutes!  And the articulation in the orchestra is equally important.  This is what was the most work here
— the articulation of the orchestra.  I owe a lot to Nikolaus Harnoncourt for understanding this articulation. 

BD:    So he re-discovered the style?

PS:    Harnoncourt re-discovered and emphasized that we need to articulate Bach.  The old instruments don't interest me.  The (outward) curved bow of the violin is important because you can get articulation you can't get with the straight (inward curved) bow. 

BD:    So it's the resulting music, not the tools?

PS:    Yes, the playing you get out of the instrument.  These old instruments have a certain momentary fascination, but after ten minutes I cannot hear anything special.  Do you want to hear Schubert on a hammerklavier or on a Steinway?

BD:    I'm greedy
— I would like a recording of each!  [Laughter all around]

PS:    I have done recordings of Winterreise and Schöne Müllerin and Schwanegesang with a hammerklavier, but to do it with Andras Schiff playing a grand piano, the kind of sonorities he can produce with the left hand and the right hand I would never change.  In a small room, one could listen to a performance on the hammerklavier for an hour and a half, but not in a large space.  I have sung Schöne Müllerin in four different versions!  I did it with guitar
many of Schubert's songs were first performed that way before being written for piano.  I also did it with hammerklavier, with a modern piano, and a version that Vogl did where he embellished the melodies. 


A bit about Vogl from two different sources...


Johann Michael Vogl (August 10, 1768 – November 19, 1840), was an Austrian baritone singer and composer. Though famous in his day, he is remembered mainly for his close professional relationship and friendship with composer Franz Schubert.

voglVogl was born in Steyr. As a young man he enrolled at the Gymnasium at Kremsmünster, where he studied languages, philosophy, and sang in several musical productions by his friend Franz Süßmayr (the same man who completed Mozart's Requiem). In 1786 Vogl went to Vienna to study, and later to practice law. In 1795 he debuted at the Vienna Hofoper, and quickly attracted a following for both his acting capability and the beauty of his voice.

In 1813, Franz Schubert attended a performance of Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride in which Vogl sang the role of Orestes. Schubert never forgot the experience and determined to write for Vogl. The following year, when Vogl sang the role of Pizarro at the premiere of the final version of Beethoven's Fidelio, it is said that the 17-year-old Schubert actually sold his schoolbooks in order to afford a ticket.

When composer and singer finally met, in 1817, Vogl was as impressed with the quality of Schubert's music as Schubert was with Vogl's singing. Schubert wrote many of his subsequent songs with Vogl in mind. One of their early successes was an 1821 performance of Der Erlkönig, prior to its publication and to significant popular acclaim.

Vogl continued to sing Schubert's music after the death of his friend in 1828, famously singing a complete performance of Winterreise accompanied by the pianist Emanuel Mikschik shortly before his own death on the twelfth anniversary of the death of his friend. He died in Vienna.

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One might imagine that a copy of the sheet music to Die schöne Müllerin would be a simple enough matter. A detail-oriented person would make a beeline for the Urtext edition, but it turns out that this search is not quite so simple. The autograph manuscript is lost, except for Eifersucht und Stolz, so there is no way to know for certain what Schubert's final intentions were with every last word and note in the score.

Schubert was out of town and unable to return to Vienna to do proofreading when Sauer & Leidesdorf prepared the first printed edition in 1824. As a result, a number of typographical errors and mistakes slipped through in this first edition. A second edition was published in 1830 by Anton Diabelli in Vienna. This edition came out two years after Schubert's death, and the composer almost certainly had no input into this set. Moreover, the Diabelli edition has a number of significant changes from the Sauer & Leidesdorf edition, probably a result of the intervention of Schubert's singing partner, baritone Johann Michael Vogl. Some songs are transposed down and some of the trickier lines are smoothed out, perhaps to better suit Vogl's aging voice. Some of the changes, including the wholesale addition of measures in Eifersucht und Stolz and unusual ornamentations probably reflect Vogl's personal tastes.



BD:    But if someone did this kind of thing today, he'd be laughed off the stage.

PS:    Not necessarily.  One has to announce it and prepare the audience for it.  I remember a critic in the Financial Times didn't read the notice, and criticized me for having the audacity to change Schubert's melodies!  [Again, laughter all around]  A friend of mine in England wrote to the critic and explained what it was, and the critic apologized!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask a big question.  In music, where is the balance between art and entertainment?

PS:    We would have to first discuss what is art.  It's very difficult to define.  I consider music on the one had as entertainment and at other times as a piece of art, an experience of art.  It depends on what the musical work is.  Of course, the St. Matthew Passion will never be entertainment for me, but La Bohème certainly can be.  When I walk around in the hotel, Vivaldi's Four Seasons is always on and it becomes very superficial. 

BD:    Is that the wrong use of music?

PS:    No...  It is not my role to make such a decision.  I personally wouldn't need it. 

BD:    For Peter Schreier, what is music?

PS:    Very large, profound human expression. 

BD:    From the composer to the audience?

PS:    Yes.  From the composer through the artist to the audience.

BD:    Are you a relay, or are you a filter?

PS:    I feel the singer can produce music in the most influential way because he does not use an intermediary tool to produce it.  It comes right out from his ego, and he can send it out to the audience right away, while the instrumentalist has to use the outside instrument to do so.

BD:    So the vocalist is the purist conduit?


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PS:    I rank the vocalist as the highest musician.  After a concert in Salzburg with Yehudi Menuhin, he told me that he realized once again how the voice can convey things to the audience much more directly than he ever can.  He was not necessarily raving about the singing, but he was saying what the voice can do versus what the violin can do.  He said, "I would like to play like you sing.  I would like to have at the same time diction and sound and volume and timbre and expression the way a singer can."  [See my Interview with Yehudi Menuhin.]

BD:    [Quietly]  Does that make you, as a singer, feel special?

PS:    [With a gentle nudge]  Maybe I should get paid better!  [More laughter]  [Becoming serious once again]  I'm a musician.  I hate when singers just belch out their voices.  For me it is of vital importance that a singer be a musician and consider all the aspects that go along with the music, not just sing their vocal lines. 

BD:    Sometimes in America I hear people say that there are singers and there are musicians.

PS:    [Roars with laughter]  Yes!  This happens even more in Europe.  It is my opinion that the education of musicians is much higher here in America than it is in Europe.  They are musically more well-rounded.

BD:    Hooray for us!  Are the Europeans relying too much on tradition?

PS:    Not in singing, but certainly in instrumental education.  The voice is very important, but the way I sing counts.  When I think of my colleagues at the conservatory, they all tried to skip piano lessons.  They didn't want to go through all the scales, and learn harmony and all the other things which are important to the singer.  So then when there were the exams, the teacher would say, "At least he's got a voice.  Who cares that he can't sight-read or play the piano..."  When I entered the conservatory in Dresden, I played the piano so well I could have earned a degree or diploma in that as well.  Amazingly, I got the most un-demanding teacher, who didn't care if you practiced or even skipped lessons.  So all my friends came to me and asked if we could trade teachers! 

BD:    But for you, being more of a complete musician, this might have been the right approach!  Those who would not practice needed to be beaten over the head!

PS:    Perhaps...  Being in the boys choir, I had already learned those subjects
— harmony, counterpoint, different styles — so when I entered the conservatory I was prepared like a completed musician.  So in that sense, I think that singers are not being educated enough today. 

BD:    Usually I ask if singing is fun.  To you I ask, "Is being a musician is fun?"

PS:    Tremendously.  Still!  As I get older, increasingly I only do what I like to do.  I'm not at an opera house where the Intendant will say, "This is what you will do and this is what you will do."  Today I pick what I want to do. 

BD:    So each one is special?

PS:    Yes. 

BD:    Thank you for coming to Chicago and sharing your artistry with us.

PS:    Thank you.



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© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on March 10, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 2000, and on WNUR in 2004.  This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time. 

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.