Tenor / Conductor Peter Schreier
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Born: July 29, 1935 - Meissen, Germany
The 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
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
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.
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
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 fact — and
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 . . . . . . . . .
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?
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
I learned both how to do it and how not to do it!
BD: Is it more
important to learn what not to do?
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.
* * *
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...
BD: Palestrina [in the opera by Pfitzner]?
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
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?
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
BD: Who should
he wind up with at the end?
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
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
BD: Is it the ultimate
tribute that Mozart survives Peter Sellars and Miloš Forman?
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
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?
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
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
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?
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.]
Is there a secret to singing Bach?
PS: He is very
hard to sing.
BD: But not impossible...
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
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
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!
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
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.
Vogl 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
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.
== == == ==
== == == == == == ==
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
* * *
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
BD: Is that the
wrong use of music?
It is not my role to make such a decision. I personally wouldn't need
BD: For Peter Schreier,
what is music?
PS: Very large,
profound human expression.
BD: From the composer
to the audience?
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 purest conduit?
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
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!
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?"
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
BD: Thank you for
coming to Chicago and sharing your artistry with us.
PS: Thank you.
© 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
on this website, click here. To
read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well
as a few other interesting observations, click here.
* * * *
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
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