Robert Schumann was the first great song composer to look upon Goethe as a man from the past. In Mozart’s day, Goethe was a literary celebrity on the way up (the poet was actually seven years older than Mozart and remembered seeing him perform in Frankfurt as a child prodigy). For Beethoven, Goethe was a revered older contemporary, although this reverence scarcely survived an uncomfortably prickly personal meeting in Teplitz. For song composers of the Berlin school like Reichardt and Zelter he was an honoured friend, particularly in the case of Zelter who was closer to Goethe on a personal level than any other musician. For Franz Schubert, Goethe was a distant god whose work was at the very core of the composer’s creative soul. The poet ignored Schubert’s attempts to get in touch with him but he remained, in Schubert’s eyes, the grand old lion of Weimar, still surprising the world with the appearance of new work, and the touchstone of all that was best in literature. Felix Mendelssohn had a privileged relationship with Goethe (thanks to his teacher Zelter); when still a child he played the piano to the poet who doted on him with an old man’s fond affection. All these composers set Goethe’s poems as the work of someone still active, still very much a living genius.
When Schumann came to set the lyrics the poet had been dead eight years; he had already become the great classic, the writer and intellectual sans pareil in German culture that he has remained to this day. It is perhaps for this reason that Schumann, a composer much given to setting the poetry of his contemporaries and friends, first approached Goethe with some diffidence. He placed him on a pedestal which he accorded to no other writer. In later life he was careful, when setting Goethe, to place the music within a larger frame worthy of a national institution. Of course Schumann had known about the great poet since childhood – he came from a very literary household. He had already (in 1828) made one Goethe setting, Der Fischer, composed more or less alongside the first Kerner songs which are a better indication of the young composer’s burgeoning talents. In 1832 (the year of Goethe’s death) we find the words ‘Meine Ruh’ ist hin’ (‘My peace is gone’ – the beginning of Gretchen’s immortal poem at the spinning-wheel and the text of Schubert’s famous song) written over the middle section of the second of the Intermezzi, Op 4. This piece was composed in the year that Schumann contracted syphilis and it would not have been lost on him that Schubert had been similarly afflicted. (In a desperate letter to his friend Kupelwieser in 1824, Schubert had also quoted Gretchen’s words in reference to his plight.)
The first real Goethe songs are to be found in the cycle which was Schumann’s wedding present to Clara Wieck in 1840, Myrthen, Op 25. Here Goethe’s great collection of quasi-oriental poems, the Westöstlicher Divan, is mined to add an exotic touch to Schumann’s international love anthology, a humorous apology for his fondness of alcohol, as well as a note of philosophical wisdom. The love poetry in this eastern guise reflects the universality and timelessness of the devotion between man and woman. This is exemplified in the lyrics exchanged between Goethe (‘Hafiz’) and his beloved Marianne von Willemer (‘Suleika’). The Goethe settings in Myrthen are: Freisinn (No 2); Lieder aus dem Schenkenbuch im Divan I and II (Nos 5 and 6); Talismane (No 7); Lieder der Suleika (No 8). Another ‘Suleika’ song from the same collection, Liebeslied, was probably sketched in 1840, although not included in Myrthen. Its official, though contested, date of composition is 1850. There is a gap of almost a decade before Goethe appears again in the list of songs – this time a merry schoolmasterly ballad, Der wandelnde Glocke, as part of the set of children’s songs (Op 79). The only other poem taken from Goethe’s Gedichte (as opposed to poems from Faust, Wilhelm Meister or the Westöstlicher Divan) is the famous Wandrers Nachtlied which Schumann (probably out of deference to Schubert) entitled Nachtlied1* – a beautiful single-paged song of the greatest tranquillity.
This list of piano-accompanied songs, with its gap between 1840 and 1849, does not tell the full tale of Schumann’s relationship to Goethe. In 1844 he became interested in the second part of Faust, probably because the almost impenetrable mysteries of that great text had resisted musical treatment from anyone else. His preferred form for this large-scale work was voices with orchestra, somewhere between opera and oratorio. The approaching Goethe centenary (1849) encouraged him to work further on this project in 1847. By the celebratory year what is now known as Part III of these Szenen aus Goethes Faust was ready for simultaneous performance in Dresden, Leipzig, and Weimar (under Liszt’s direction). Schumann’s remark at the time was: “How I wish I could have had Faust’s mantle for that day in order to be everywhere and hear everything.” The stray Lied Lynceus des Thürmers (Op 79 No 28) was written at the same time and is the only piano-accompanied work which reflects Schumann’s enthusiasm for the second part of Faust. Alongside this vast undertaking, and as something of a prelude to it, Schumann had composed a carefully assembled work of poems taken from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister, incorporating the lyrics of Mignon and the Harper as well as one of the light-hearted actress, Philine. Here at last he finds the confidence to compose a relatively large work with a frame and scope worthy of the great poet – something to stand proudly next to his Heine, Eichendorff and Kerner songbooks. The shape of this cycle, Op 98a, is discussed in detail below. There was an important spin-off from this work where the Lied takes us to the threshold of oratorio: the Requiem für Mignon, Op 98b, for large orchestra, soloists and chorus describes the obsequies of the frail and mysterious young character who caught Schumann’s imagination as she had Schubert’s.
By the summer of 1849 Schumann’s reawakened Goethe enthusiasm was at its feverish height. He felt strong enough to add scenes from the first part of Faust and by now the Lied was definitely too small an expressive world to satisfy his needs. He made a ‘portrait’ of Gretchen in three scenes to match and complement his assembly of Mignon lyrics. Not surprisingly he avoided competition with Schubert and we find no Gretchen am Spinnrade among these sumptuously orchestrated scenes. (Those who heard it can never forget the revelatory conducting of this music by Benjamin Britten whose understanding of Schumann is accounted for, in part, by his mastery of Schumann’s Lieder style as an accompanist.) It is true that Schubert also composed a setting of Gretchen’s ‘Ach neige, Du Schmerzenreiche’ as well as a setting of Mephistopheles’ taunting of the hapless Gretchen in the cathedral, but the different resources used by both composers remove any sense of competition. (Both Gretchens Bitte and the Szene aus Faust are recorded on Volume 13 of the Hyperion Schubert Edition.) Further work on these scenes was undertaken in 1849/50 including the music for Ariel and Faust’s death which constitutes Part II of that work. Only in 1853 did the composer add the Overture, thus completing a masterpiece which defines his devotion to Goethe better than any other. In the meantime (1851) he had composed an overture to Hermann und Dorothea inspired by the long narrative poem of the same name. There is no doubt that in his own mind he saw his Lieder settings of Goethe (fewer than twenty in number) as something of a preparation for larger works worthy of Goethe’s world stature. It was left to Hugo Wolf some forty years later convincingly to reclaim Goethe for voice and piano, and to reaffirm Schubert’s conviction that the Lied was, after all, a suitably lofty means of reflecting the poet’s greatness and the depth and range of his thought.
The biographical details of Goethe’s long and busy life are almost too well-known to repeat here, but the interested reader will find an outline of the poet’s career in the booklet accompanying Volume 24 of the Hyperion Schubert Edition, A Goethe Schubertiad.
In Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre there are four poems associated with the tragic figure of the Harper. The second, third and fourth of these are what are usually known as the Gesänge des Harfners, and Schubert and Wolf composed undisputed masterpieces to these texts. As we shall hear, Schumann’s settings have a strange and compelling majesty all of their own. But the first of the Harper’s songs, which Schumann entitles Ballade des Harfners (and which Schubert and Wolf, taking their cue from Goethe, named Der Sänger), is problematic: unlike the other texts, this ballad of medieval minstrelsy has nothing to do with the character of the Harper as such, at least not as we have come to know him through his famously dark and pessimistic lyrics.
This enigmatic figure makes his first appearance in Book 2 Chapter 11 of Goethe’s novel. Wilhelm, the eponymous hero, and his acting troupe find themselves in an inn and not in the best of spirits. The host mentions that there is a harper in the house. This was an age of itinerant musicians and it was customary for those who wanted music to accompany their meals or merrymaking to pay for it. There is some opposition among the disgruntled actors to the prospect of inviting a musician into their company (it is thought to be a waste of money by some of their number) but the Harper soon makes his appearance. Goethe (translated by Thomas Carlyle) describes what Wilhelm and his friends saw:
The figure of this singular guest set the whole party in astonishment: he had found a chair before anyone took heart to ask him a question, or make any observation. His bald crown was encircled by a few grey hairs, and a pair of large blue eyes looked out softly from beneath his long white eyebrows. To a nose of beautiful proportions was subjoined a flowing, hoary beard which did not hide the fine shape and position of his lips; and a long dark-brown garment wrapped his thin body from the neck to the feet. He began to prelude on the harp, which he had placed before him.
The Harper now proceeds to play a number of songs. Goethe is not yet specific about the words intoned by the old man, but the spontaneity of the performance moves Wilhelm mightily. The Harper claims to be ‘rich in songs’, and continues to play and sing:
He described the loveliness of unity and courtesy, in soft soothing tones. Suddenly his music became cold, harsh and jarring, as he turned to deplore selfishness, short-sighted enmity, and baleful division; and every heart willingly threw off those galling fetters, while, borne on the wings of a piercing melody, he launched forth in praise of peacemakers, and sang the happiness of souls that, having parted, meet again in love.
These performances prompt an even more enthusiastic response from Wilhelm. In the wake of these admiring comments the Harper ‘threw his fingers softly across the strings, then struck more sharply and sang’. Here six strophes of poetry are inserted into the text without heading or title. When the poem reappears in collections of Goethe’s poetry it bears the inscription Der Sänger.
To accuse Goethe of inconsistency may seem cheeky, but the character of the Harper raises some pertinent questions. He is described as an old man with ‘aged limbs’ and white beard, yet we later discover that he is the father of the waif Mignon who is still very young (in her early teens) and was born as a result of an incestuous relationship with the Harper’s sister. Was the sister, obviously still of childbearing age, many years younger than the Harper? Or are we to take it that he is prematurely aged through grief? Here we have to give Goethe some leeway in terms of chronology, especially as it is implied later in the book that Mignon was born as a result of the stubbornness and indiscretion of youthful passion. We might be tempted to imagine that Goethe invented his story as he went along without first mapping out every detail about his characters. As great a poet as he was, he was not a novelist by temperament. Even more amazing is the kindly demeanour of the Harper at his first appearance – he seems gentle and wise and, above all, reasonable. This is hardly the bitterly obsessed figure we know from the later songs, the man who blames himself for his grave misdeed, and who is mentally unbalanced into the bargain (he turns out to be a pyromaniac).
Schubert’s 1815 setting of Der Sänger (in Volume 10 of the Schubert Edition) is possibly, in its direct simplicity, the greatest setting of the words and is, on any analysis, a fine achievement for an eighteen-year-old boy. At this point in his life, struggling to free himself from the duties of the schoolroom, the composer had every reason to take seriously the poem’s message about art being its own best reward – and he hoped his schoolmaster father would too. Wolf’s setting (1889) is a marvel in its way, but it is perhaps too complex: it somehow fails to hang together in the manner that we expect from the greatest of this composer’s works. As in his Kennst du das Land? Wolf chooses to transcend the context of the novel. We forget, alongside the composer, who Mignon and the Harper actually are as far as Goethe is concerned. In Wolf’s eyes, in these two songs at least, they are emblematic figures who stand for all displaced humanity (Kennst du das Land?) and all dedicated artists (Der Sänger).
Which brings us to Schumann’s setting, much criticized and rather seldom sung. First we note that instead of the impersonal title of Der Sänger the composer has chosen a title which links the song to its character in the novel. And it must be said that it is the only one of all the settings which makes this early appearance of the Harper chime in manner with the later lyrics. This is very much in line with the composer’s aim to make a unified Op 98a which interweaves the appearances of the three characters in Goethe’s novel in the following way:
Mignon, (Kennst du das Land?) Op 98a No 1 (G minor)
Ballade des Harfners, (Der Sänger) Op 98a No 2 (B flat major)
Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, Op 98a No 3 (G minor)
Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass, Op 98a No 4 (C minor)
Heiss' mich nicht reden, heiss' mich schweigen! Op 98a No 5 (C minor)
Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt, Op 98a No 6 (F minor/A flat major)
Singet nicht in Trauertönen, (Philine) Op 98a No 7 (E flat major)
An die Türen will ich schleichen, Op 98a No 8 (C minor)
So lasst mich scheinen, bis ich werde, Op 98a No 9 (G major)
Thus Mignon and her father (a relationship unknown to them both) alternate in their lyrics, not at all in the order in which they occur in the novel but in a new sequence designed to be musically effective. The following is the order of the songs as they occur scattered throughout the novel: i Der Sänger; ii Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass, closely followed by iii Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt; iv Kennst du das Land?; v Spottlied, a satirical poem about a baron which in Wilhelm Meister was handed round to be read rather than sung (set by Wolf alone among the great song composers); after a considerable gap vi Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt; vii Philine’s song Singet nicht in Trauertönen (set by Schumann and Wolf but ignored by Schubert); viii An die Türen; ix Heiss’ mich nicht reden; x So lasst mich scheinen. It can be seen that although the overall sequence of Op 98a strays from the book, each of the two main characters (Mignon and the Harper) perform their own songs in the order in which they appear in the novel. Excerpted performances of these songs thus make perfect Goethean sense. It is only when Schumann meshes one character with the other to imply reaction and colloquy that he creates a new running order which departs from Goethe. When two of the Harper’s songs seem in danger of coming together in the sequence, Schumann inserts a delightful setting from the flibbertigibbet actress Philine, a guest appearance from another character in the novel to add a moment of light relief. A truly effective concert performance of the cycle as a whole would require no fewer than three singers so that the soulful soprano of Mignon would not be required suddenly to sing the lines of Philine, a promiscuous soubrette. In this regard, as in many others, Schumann was somewhat impractical.
A glance at the progression of keys shows that the composer has taken considerable trouble with the enchainment of tonalities. Mignon begins the cycle in G minor as she recalls her abduction from Italy, and finishes in a transfigured G major as she contemplates her death at the end of the cycle. The Harper make his first appearance in B flat, the relative major of G minor, and his three lamenting songs are in C minor, F minor/A flat major and C minor – also an effective tonal scheme when these songs are sung on their own as a cycle within a cycle. Here was a real attempt to unite the Goethe songs in one volume, a long-time ambition of the composer. The Ballade was thus intended to be heard after Kennst du das Land? (Volume 1 contains this and all the other Op 98a songs) and Schumann obviously felt that this first appearance of the Harper had to continue the tension generated by the impassioned plaint of Mignon without sagging into an extended homily about art and poetry. There is a vehemence to this music which goes back to Goethe’s description of something ‘cold, harsh and jarring’. This is no radiant and philosophical soul but a person with a tortured inner agenda – perhaps the composer himself, for the song is about the joys, and difficulties, of composing. In short, in Schumann’s cycle we can accept that the same character will soon go on to sing the rest of his darker and more famous lyrics.
We return to the question (also addressed in Volume 1) of whether or not the confusion in the music was the result of Schumann’s deterioration as a composer, or represented a new stylistic departure. More and more scholars are inclined to the latter view, although Eric Sams’s devastating and detailed analyses of the weaknesses of many of the later Lieder have yet to be convincingly intellectually refuted. They have been disputed by singers and pianists fond of the music who understandably seek to defend it on emotional grounds. The wider public, on the whole, has remained indifferent. Perhaps we should cease to measure these songs by the composer’s earlier standards. Taken on their own terms, and sympathetically performed, they are capable of making their own impression. And an impaired Schumann writes more interestingly than many a mediocre composer at his very best.
Graham Johnson © 1998