Elly Ameling in her own words
Elly Ameling is a cultivated, gentle lady. Born on 8 February 1933, she was propelled to national stardom after winning the International Vocal Competition’s-Hertogenbosch in 1956. She sang under the young Bernard Haitink in 1958 and that same year won the prestigious Concours de Genève, opening doors to an international career. When I visited her at her home in the south of the Netherlands, in July 2022, she was already looking forward to her 90th birthday in 2023. In conversation she recounted her memories of growing up with Bach’s music in the Netherlands in the 1950s and then of performing and recording his music well into the 1980s.
It was during the summer of 1964 when I drove in my little Volkswagen, accompanied by my two dear whippets in the back seat to Ludwigsburg, near Stuttgart. The dogs and I took a room in a simple hotel near the castle Schloß Ludwigsburg, in the chapel of which the recordings of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion for Decca were going to take place. That day we were going to record those passages for the Evangelist in which other singers interject with small phrases during his lines, those for the soprano being a few measures of Die Magd and Pilati Weib. Before the sessions commenced, I met my colleagues, the other soloists. So I made acquaintance with the pinnacle of vocal artistry, the tenor Peter Pears. I was the youngest of all of us and I vividly remember how troubled I was to have to say to this great man: ‘How are you?’.
Germany, France and Spain had and still have that very important difference between ‘du’ and ‘Sie’, ‘tu’ and ‘vous’, ‘tu’ and ‘Usted’. And in those good old days, the Netherlands too still knew the difference between ‘je’ and ‘U’. But in the English language that difference does not exist, as ‘thou’ has definitely disappeared! Merely saying ‘you’ to this great man made me feel ashamed! I did say it, but I will never forget how awkward it felt.
Why do I mention this? Because it has to do with the awareness of the importance of language as such in vocal music and also in the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach. I consider it important to bring the right weight not only to the lines of the music, but also to the words under those lines: in arias and certainly in recitatives. We know that Bach often re-used the same melody for a totally different text. True. Nevertheless, in the context of a complete work it is our duty to make clear what the story is about and, even more so, to express the emotions of the personages. That cannot be achieved without word value. Nowadays, singers at times seem to sing more as if joining the orchestra as one of the instruments. Texts seem to have lost importance. Is this only my view in my 90th year?
I observe another difference in the practice of baroque music nowadays compared to half a century ago: the tempi seem to become faster and faster. Is this the nervousness of our time? Faster tempi were introduced soon after the 1960s, originating in a return to old Italian dance rhythms, the base Bach often used himself. Important conductors like Nikolaus Harnoncourt brought this new style to us and so I prepared my first St. John Passion with him and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam by training to sing the arias in three different tempi: my own taste, one slower and one faster version. To my happy surprise he conducted in my preferred tempo! Well, throughout time musical performance has always evolved and as we know it will continue to evolve. Personal taste will decide what you and I like or dislike and there is no disputing taste. It is my privilege that I still enjoy this eternal process.
Decca invited me to participate in the recordings of more of these great sacred works of J.S. Bach and so I kept driving up and down to Schloß Ludwigsburg in Stuttgart. The acoustics in the chapel were excellent and I remember that the soprano-echo in the aria ‘Flößt mein Heiland’ (Christmas Oratorio) worked as if it were by the walls themselves!
The B minor Mass was recorded in Vienna in the Sofiensaal which also had excellent acoustics. Tragically that hall, where for Decca I also sang the arias of the angel Gabriel in The Creation by Haydn, again under Karl Münchinger, but this time with the Vienna Philharmonic, burnt down and was never rebuilt. Münchinger was as sensitive in his music making as he was strict in his conducting. He and I never had any discussion about our stylistic ideas. I felt absolutely at ease under his baton. My colleagues in these recordings were, without exception, inspiring by their musicality and their subtle vocal production.
All this is true for Stuttgart as much as for Munich, where I took part in the 1973 recordings of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, this time with Eugen Jochum and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. It may be interesting to compare the 1966 recording of the aforementioned aria ‘Flößt mein Heiland’ to the recording of 1973: different orchestras, different conductors, same singer.
With Helmut Winschermann, the conductor who used to call me ‘Mein Ellychen’ and the Deutsche Bach Solisten I recorded solo cantatas from 1969 to 1970. In the Cantata BWV 51 ‘Jauchzet Gott in allen landen’ Maurice André played the trumpet solos. Winschermann, himself an oboist, more or less continued the style of Münchinger, while leaving plenty of space for us soloists’ ideas, with respect to tempo and phrasing.
In 1980 I had the pleasure to record more solo cantatas for Philips, this time with Raymond Leppard conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. Different times again and with an orchestra with musicians of different nationalities. Were we dancing to a new way of music making?
I have been grateful that invitations for Bach performances and recordings of his music came my way. Who would not want to sing this divine music to all those biblical texts and to some humorous worldly ones on ever-new melodies, harmonies and rhythms, expressing joy, sadness and drama! For instance, the aria with the text ‘Falsche Welt, dir trau ich nicht’ BWV 52 is certainly relevant to our time.
In my home country, the Netherlands, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is being performed scores of times every year, for the audience is extremely partial to this work. But how often do they listen to Bach’s other works? We see this remarkable behaviour of the audience towards Schubert’s Winterreise whilst Schubert wrote almost a thousand compositions.
But these are all irrelevant questions. The fact is that the giant Johann Sebastian Bach is a musical miracle – take it or leave it. His work surpasses all comprehension and remains monumental in any and every style. I was blessed that I had enough musicality and voice to serve the Genius.
As I mentioned, styles differ in various periods. The singer has to come to terms with the wishes of the conductor who oversees the composition in its totality. Of course, I heard Mengelberg’s St. Matthew Passion – on records that is! But my very first Bach concerts were with the legendary Dr. Anthon van der Horst in the late 1950s, who had an enormous emotional influence on the choir of the Dutch Bach Society. It was a joy to follow his ideas which inspired all of us soloists as well. For many years I continued working with him and this excellent choir, unforgettably so during the Holy Week.
It is the unfathomable lucidity of Bach himself that keeps attracting people to collecting the older and oldest records of this great music. Thanks to Eloquence we can keep collecting!
28 July 2022