Es treibt mich hin [1'13]
Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden [3'44]
Mit Myrthen und Rosen [4'01]
Gerald Finley and Julius Drake return to Schumann, following a magisterially intense Dichterliebe which won them a third Gramophone award. Here they focus on the two contrasting Liederkreis (‘song-circle’) cycles using texts by Heine and Eichendorff. Heine is the poet of Dichterliebe, and Op 24 contains extremes of elation and despair that call all Finley’s considerable dramatic powers into play. Eichendorff’s seductive, crepuscular ‘night-songs’ of Op 39 require the velvety tone for which this singer is equally revered. Separating these two great works are the Sechs Gedichte aus dem Liederbuch eines Malers, Op 36, which find Schumann in more homespun, folksong-influenced vein.
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All my life I have regarded vocal music as inferior to instrumental music, and have never considered it great art (Schumann, June 1839)
Oh Clara, what bliss it is to write songs. I can’t tell you how easy it has become for me … it is music of an entirely different kind which doesn’t have to pass through the fingers—far more melodious and direct (Schumann, February 1840)
Consistency is the last thing we should expect from the volatile, impulsive Robert Schumann. His sudden conversion to song-writing in the year of his marriage may seem like a Pauline epiphany. Yet he had already composed a dozen Lieder while still a student in the late 1820s, several inspired by his unrequited love for Agnes Carus, a doctor’s wife and gifted amateur singer who, crucially, shared his passion for Schubert’s songs. We know that Schumann was left dissatisfied by Agnes’s singing of his early Lieder, and indeed with singers in general—perhaps a prime reason why he abandoned song composition for over a decade, during which he drew rich and fanciful new sounds from his own instrument, the piano. As the poet Franz Grillparzer wrote of Papillons: ‘He has created a new and ideal world for himself, in which he revels almost recklessly and sometimes with quite original eccentricity.’ The originality, and eccentricity, would grow through the 1830s, culminating in works like the C major Fantasie, Op 17, and Kreisleriana, which veers between febrile restlessness and dreamy or morbid introspection—extreme manifestations of ‘Florestan’ and ‘Eusebius’, the twin fictional personas that Schumann devised for himself, in emulation of the contrasting twins in Jean Paul’s novel Flegeljahre (roughly, ‘Years of Wild Oats’).
Like the novels of his literary idol, Schumann’s music is saturated with ciphers, allusions and self-quotations. From the mid-1830s onwards the ‘messages’ woven into his piano works were addressed to Clara, daughter of his former piano teacher Friedrich Wieck: a secret language the lovers could share in times of enforced separation. Robert and Clara became engaged, in defiance of her father, on her eighteenth birthday, 13 September 1837. Three years later, after protracted legal battles (Wieck accused Schumann of, inter alia, being hopelessly irresponsible, childish, a pauper, a libertine and a drunk), they finally married, one day before her twenty-first birthday, in the village church in Schönfeld, near Leipzig.
During the previous six months of mingled uncertainty and rapture, Schumann had composed over 100 songs, in a characteristic surge of feverish creativity. One reason for this artistic volte-face was his growing frustration with the piano’s limitations. Another was the example of his friend Felix Mendelssohn, then at work on settings of poems by Goethe and Heine. But the chief catalyst for this great outpouring of song in 1840 was Clara. On a practical level, as a husband-to-be Schumann was only too aware that he needed more reliable sources of income. Songs were readily saleable in the flourishing, and lucrative, amateur domestic market—far more so than his piano works, which, unsurprisingly, had acquired a reputation for strangeness and technical difficulty. (Even Clara had reproached him for writing too obscurely.) After selling his first batch of songs to a publisher in May 1840 Schumann informed his fiancée that he had been ‘earning money nicely, too, which makes me very happy’. Beyond this, in his Lieder this most confiding and confessional of composers could express overtly what was implicit in his piano music: his passion and longing for Clara, his pain and frustration at their not being together, his vision of sexual and spiritual fulfilment, and his recurrent fear of losing her.
The poet to whom Schumann turned most often in 1840 was Heinrich Heine (1797–1856). With their extremes of elation and despair and their mingled sentimentality, self-pity and ironic self-mockery, the poems of Heine’s Buch der Lieder struck an instinctive response from the highly strung Schumann. He drew on the Buch der Lieder for two song-cycles: the Liederkreis, Op 24, composed during February, and Dichterliebe, Op 48. Setting poems from the section Heine entitled ‘Junge Leiden’ (‘Youthful sorrows’), the nine songs of the Liederkreis (literally ‘song circle’) tell of frustrated or lost love, sometimes tender, sometimes anguished. The various love affairs that inspired Heine’s poems were blighted. Schumann, even in this time of uncertainty, had good reason to expect that he and Clara would thwart her father’s opposition. And his music often has a gentler, more affectionate cast than you would suspect from a reading of the poem. The implicit unity of the poems is strengthened by Schumann’s fondness for thematic cross-references: melodic patterns in the first song, for instance, are subtly echoed in No 2 (‘Es treibt mich hin’), No 3 (‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen’) and No 6 (‘Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann’), and recalled more distinctly in the final song.
In ‘Morgens steh’ ich auf und frage’ Heine frets while Schumann dreams wistfully—and sleepwalks on tiptoe. Reverie gives way to feverish expectancy in ‘Es treibt mich hin’, where the mounting impatience of the singer’s final phrase (an echo, perhaps, of ‘Der Jäger’ from Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin) continues through the syncopated postlude. Introspection returns in ‘Ich wandelte unter den Bäumen’, where the birds’ reply to the poet’s melancholy questioning is signalled by a dip to a remote and unreal-sounding new key. In ‘Lieb Liebchen, leg’s Händchen’ the lover grimly equates his heartbeat—depicted in the piano’s offbeat chords—with the hammering of his coffin-maker. The mention of the carpenter provokes an ominous modulation, while the voice hesitates an instant before pronouncing the dread word ‘Totensarg’—coffin—a tiny but devastating dramatic stroke.
The next two songs form the cycle’s anguished central climax. Heine’s ‘Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden’, with its cradle/ grave antithesis, is an ironic, embittered farewell to Hamburg, the city of the poet’s doomed affair with his cousin Amalia. The image of the cradle is a cue for a ravishing, rocking lovesong—one of the great Schumann tunes. As elsewhere in the Liederkreis, the composer initially softens and sweetens the poet’s bitterness; but at the song’s centre the distorted harmonies and dislocated rhythms suggest a mind tottering on the edge of madness. ‘Warte, warte, wilder Schiffmann’, with its pounding keyboard octaves, astringent harmonies and frenetic vocal line, is perhaps Schumann’s most violent song, matching Heine’s hysterical vehemence and, for once, his taunting self-mockery. Relief comes with the smiling, sunlit barcarolle, ‘Berg’ und Burgen schaun herunter’, though by retaining the same undulating melody for the final verse Schumann here glosses over the deceit and treachery evoked in the poem. While Heine suffers, Schumann again seems to be dreaming of his beloved Clara. The weary, stoical ‘Anfangs wollt’ ich fast verzagen’, based on a Lutheran chorale that Bach used in several cantatas, is in effect an introduction to the final ‘Mit Myrthen und Rosen’. Here Schumann’s surprisingly optimistic response to Heine’s desolate lines is soon shadowed by chromatic harmonies; then, at the vision of the future, the music quickens and quivers with expectancy before dissolving into nostalgic reverie. A happy ending or a sad delusion? Schumann’s palpitating, elusive music keeps us guessing, as it did in the cycle’s very first song.
In early May 1840—the ‘wunderschöne Monat’ that also saw the creation of Dichterliebe—Schumann turned to the quintessential poet of German Romanticism, Joseph, Freiherr von Eichendorff (1788–1857), for another ‘song circle’. In a letter to Clara he called the twelve songs that make up the Liederkreis, Op 39 ‘my most romantic music ever, with much of you in it, dearest Clara’. Drawing variously on poems from Eichendorff’s stories Viel Lärmen um nichts (‘Much ado about nothing’) and Ahnung und Gegenwart (‘Present and Presentiment’), and his novel Dichter und ihre Gesellen (‘Poets and their companions’), these twelve vignettes are linked by recurrent, typically Eichendorffian themes—loss and loneliness, nocturnal mystery and menace, memory and antiquity, wistful reverie and rapturous soaring—and by thematic cross-references, usually veiled, occasionally explicit, as with the use of the same motif at the start of No 7 (‘Auf einer Burg’) and No 8 (‘In der Fremde’). With the Eichendorff Liederkreis Schumann virtually invented a new type of song: the romantic night-piece, serene, ecstatic or ominous.
The opening ‘In der Fremde’ is typical in its expression of estrangement and nostalgia amid a dark, woodland landscape. Schumann’s tune has a haunting pathos, discreetly heightened by its gently rippling arpeggio accompaniment. The German forest is at its most sinister in ‘Waldesgespräch’ (No 3), a variation on the Lorelei myth, with its dramatically timed moment of recognition and ironically echoing hunting-horns (dying away eerily in the piano postlude), and again in ‘Zwielicht’ (No 10). Here the keyboard part coils around the voice like a tortuous Bach three-part invention, with an oppressive chromaticism that threatens to dissolve familiar tonal outlines. ‘Auf einer Burg’ evokes a mysterious antiquity with its gloomy, incantatory vocal line, modal harmonies and solemn touches of canonic imitation. In the penultimate song, ‘Im Walde’, the wedding and the hunt, evoked as if through a gauze in Schumann’s music, suddenly fade, leaving only the sighing forest and the poet’s nameless fears amid the darkening inner and outer landscapes.
At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Intermezzo’ (No 2) is an increasingly impassioned avowal of love to Clara, growing from a falling five-note figure Schumann often associated with her. ‘Die Stille’ is a more secretive—and feminine—confession (the German title means both ‘stillness’ and ‘the silent girl’), with a sudden soaring at ‘Ich wünscht’, ich wär’ ein Vöglein’. ‘Schöne Fremde’ (No 6) and ‘Frühlingsnacht’(No 12), with its evanescent wisps of countermelody and triumphant final ‘sie ist Dein!’, are shimmering visions of physical and spiritual elation, while ‘Mondnacht’ (No 5) is perhaps the world’s loveliest vocal nocturne. Here Schumann magically delays the resolution on to the tonic chord until ‘Die Erde’ in bar ten, the moment of mystical-erotic union between sky and earth, Robert and Clara.
For all his famed literary discrimination, Schumann was happy enough to set poetry by minor versifiers if it chimed with his mood. In July 1840, with his planned marriage now virtually assured, he embarked on the collection Sechs Gedichte aus dem Liederbuch eines Malers, Op 36 (‘Six poems from a painter’s song-book’) to verses by Robert Reinick, a fine draughtsman but a barely competent littérateur. Although the music transcends the poems, with their Biedermeier mix of sentimentality, piety and patriotism, the songs tap into Schumann’s most homely vein. The opening ‘Sonntags am Rhein’ suggests a cross between an ambling folksong and a hymn. ‘Ständchen’ is a shy, secretive invitation to nocturnal elopement (Schumann had himself once contemplated eloping with Clara), while the agreeably tripping ‘Nichts Schöneres’ is another of his overt paeans to his fiancée.
Marked to be sung ‘in the folk style’, the sturdy marching tune of ‘An den Sonnenschein’ quickly made it a popular favourite. Except for a hint of reflectiveness towards the end, Schumann’s optimistic, alfresco music seems heedless of the poet’s melancholy isolation. ‘Dichters Genesung’ is another take on the favourite Lorelei myth. Unlike in ‘Waldesgespräch’, though, there is a happy ending as the poet comes to his senses in a businesslike little march, accompanied by a shift from minor-keyed mystery to the uncomplicated brightness of the major. Finally in this Reinick group, the fervent ‘Liebesbotschaft’ is, as Schumann himself revealed, a love letter to Clara. At the opening he underlines its personal significance by quoting a phrase from Clara’s own song ‘Liebeszauber’ (‘Love’s magic’).
Richard Wigmore © 2012