Graham Johnson’s Schumann songs series for Hyperion has reached its penultimate volume. In this series, the most exciting young artists—as well as the most experienced Schumann performers—have produced masterful yet intimately communicative performances of varied programmes of these wonderful works. Kate Royal is the soprano of the moment, at the start of her career yet an acknowledged great artist, and her performance here of the Eichendorff Liederkreis Op 39 is one where ‘imagination, intellect and vocal technique are inextricably fused in the single moment of a song’, as The Times wrote of her Wigmore Hall recital in January this year.
The disc also features enchanting vocal chamber pieces and less well-known songs such as the Drei Gedichte nach Emanuel Geibel. As ever, the disc includes comprehensive and fascinating notes supplied by Graham Johnson that fill out every detail of the genesis, context and publication of these masterpieces.
The two more popular cycles named above (the first almost always sung by male voice, the second—if we discount Matthias Goerne’s recent experiments with Frauenliebe und -leben—always by female, at least in modern times) are in a sense much more straightforward. These works receive countless performances at all levels of achievement, both amateur and professional, and it is rare that they are entirely ineffective. There is an impetus to this music—aided by a strong thread of narrative in Chamisso’s Frauenliebe—that carries the audience along—a satisfying feeling on both sides of the footlights. Schumann had to work quite hard in assembling the Heine cycle, Dichterliebe, in its final form (the work was written in 1840, but only published in 1844), but thanks to some judicious cutting of the original conception, as well as its alluring weave of musical cross-references, it comes across as an inevitable whole. In the Chamisso cycle on the other hand (like the Heine Liederkreis, Op 24), the composer is content to follow the poet’s narrative sequence of verses; with the recapitulation of the first song in the work’s eloquent and moving piano postlude, Schumann achieves one of the most satisfying moments in song literature—this despite the rather wearying and ill-informed scorn still felt for the work in certain citadels of the politically correct.
No one has ever scorned the Eichendorff Liederkreis. In the years immediately following its publication it was no doubt gently undervalued, but this was true of most of Schumann’s Lieder. The very fact that Schumann decided to bring out a second, altered edition of the work in 1850, eight years after its first appearance, indicates that it had not been an unmitigated success with the public. Even Clara Schumann, and her close friend Brahms, did not see fit to lavish a great deal of time and energy on the editing of the Lieder series of the Schumann Gesamtausgabe. As a composer Clara seldom attempted to imitate her husband’s style, being much more drawn to Mendelssohn’s example. The critics largely accepted the Schumann songs to be the music of a great (if rather avant-garde) composer, and he was accorded respect, and even deference; but it is clear that these settings seemed too hard, too intellectual, too far removed from the public taste. The Liederkreis was cherry-picked by singers, and it was not unusual to see the more celebrated songs like Mondnacht and Schöne Fremde appear on recital programmes in solitary splendour.
Nobody, certainly not Clara Schumann who accompanied the soprano-composer Liza Lehmann in excerpts from Op 39 in St James Hall in 1888, seems to have minded that the cycle as a whole was disregarded in this kind of programming. One must remind oneself that this was a period when even Dichterliebe was divided into its two constituent parts (as published, admittedly) with Brahms playing solo piano pieces from Schumann’s Kreisleriana in between. Even the most enthusiastic of the contemporary Lieder singers, Julius Stockhausen, took some time to perform Liederkreis in its entirety. He first performed the cycle in Hamburg in 1863 (twenty-one years after the work’s publication in 1842); Mondnacht and Frühlingsnacht had entered his repertoire in 1854 in Vienna, Waldesgespräch in 1859 (Dresden), and In der Fremde in 1862 (Cologne). It is interesting that Stockhausen had chosen to perform both Dichterliebe (Hamburg, 1861) and even Frauenliebe und -leben (Cologne, 1862) before this elusive Liederkreis.
A few years after this performance of the cycle as a whole, there appeared the first dictionary definition of Liederkreis, in Arrey von Dommer’s version of Koch’s Musikalisches Lexicon published in Heidelberg in 1865. Here the term is interchangeable with Liedercyclus: ‘each song stands in a relationship with its fellows’. The same may be said of Winterreise of course, but it is not this kind of cycle that prompted the musicologists to search for a new definition. In Schubert’s great work there is a tonal relationship of sorts between the songs, but it is not nearly as defined as in some of Schumann’s work; in Winterreise it is the narrative character, his ineluctable progress into ever darker regions of the soul, the details of his journey, that give the greatest impression of unity. In Liederkreis on the other hand there is no story, no linking narrative thread; instead we have a series of kaleidoscopic images of nature, an anthology devoted to the German landscape with an emphasis on the secret life of the forest. The binding thread, the work’s reputation as a cycle rather than simply a set of songs, depends on its much discussed musical relationships, although the fact that the texts are the work of a single poet produces an urgent cogency of its own.
The progress from autograph to final publication was not all plain sailing for Schumann, even though the actual composition of the songs was completed in an amazingly short amount of time—between 9 and 22 May 1840. It is not easy, either, for us to unravel a number of the issues surrounding a work that engenders controversies. The first of these concerns the texts and how Schumann went about choosing them. It was his lifelong habit to avoid setting poetry from the books of Gedichte themselves, lying opened on his desk, but rather from copies. In the absence of a photocopier, the preparation of these was a task he undertook himself, but sometimes it was done for him by Clara in a handwritten book of copies—an Abschriftbuch—particularly after the pair were married. The logic of this seems entirely practical: in an age of ink-wells and dripping pens such a working practice spared precious books from the risk of being irrevocably blotted during composition. It also deepened one’s knowledge of a poem to write it out.
In the case of the Eichendorff poems for the Liederkreis, Clara prepared the Abschriftbuch although she was not yet part of Schumann’s household and this was done at a distance and by correspondence. She must have had to hand a copy of the Gedichte 1837 (the first edition of the collected poems) because the thirteen poems she writes out are presented in exactly the order that they appear in that collection (and not at all in the order that Schumann composed them, or finally placed them in his cycle). It must have been wonderful for Schumann to set to music these wonderful words in the handwriting of his beloved, and he thanked her profusely afterwards for the fact that there was so much of her in these settings. By this he no doubt meant that many of the love songs were written with her in mind, and perhaps he also wished to salute her loving role in copying out the words to help him in his task.
An American musicologist has come up fairly recently with the idea that it was Clara herself who selected Eichendorff’s words and sent them on to her fiancé, as a fait accompli, to compose. Great musician though she was, there is nothing in the selection of poems for her own compositions, nor in her own literary education and reading, that indicates that she was equipped for such a formidable task. Selection of a composer’s own texts lies at the very heart of his creative magna carta; Schumann would have renounced his rights very unwillingly, even for a minor poet, let alone a giant like Eichendorff whose latest publication would have been required reading in 1837. Schumann had no doubt been following the career of this poet since his teens, and it shows in the selection of these texts. No fewer than half of them (Nos 1, 2, 3, 6, 7 and 10) are taken from Eichendorff’s prose works published years earlier. It seems clear that the composer welcomed these lyrics like old friends when he found that they had reappeared in the copious volume of the Gedichte with its 483 pages. It is no insult to Clara to point out that Robert, son of a publisher and bookseller, was closer to literature, and was a better judge of it, than she was ever to be. It seems clear that Schumann sent her a marked-up copy of the Gedichte with his selections, and that she lovingly prepared a book of working copies for him, while getting to know the poems better in the process.
When Schumann received this Abschriftbuch he darted around in it, choosing whichever poem he felt like setting. He began with the last, Waldesgespräch, and went from there to In der Fremde and from there to Die Stille. The songs were composed in E major, F sharp minor and G major respectively. This does not sound to me like someone who had, as yet, a devilishly clever tonal scheme in mind, much less someone who envisaged a united work of art. (He had, after all, composed a set of songs like Myrten that was not a song cycle as such, and that was united by an anthologist’s concept rather than a musician’s formula.) Many scholars, including Schenkerians, have looked at the Liederkreis and seen a remarkable logic behind the organization of the twelve songs and their relationship to each other. If this is the case—and goodness knows how many learned tomes have been written about this—it tells us something about Schumann’s remarkable improvisational genius. I believe that the idea of a song-cycle construction of this kind dawned on him in the days of May 1840, and that he adjusted and adapted as he went along. That the songs were interrelated was in any case inevitable, given that they were written within the same fortnight, and to the words of the same poet. A good many of the cross-references thus would have operated at a subconscious level.
In these ‘wunderschöne Tage Mai’ the tally of songs grew at a daily rate. It was surely at this stage that the composer began to shift them around in his mind, beginning to notice that he was somehow instinctively drawn to E minor and E major for a number of his settings (I refuse to believe that at this early stage he forced himself to set a poem in a certain key simply for cyclical purposes). The art of the programme planner is one of shuffling, artful flower arranging or furniture moving, and the art of putting together a song cycle no less so. One does not need to have composed all the songs in a recital in order to put them together into an imaginative anthology; as Schubert proved, one does not need to have a Schenkerian scheme to put together a song cycle that hangs together successfully. Indeed, Schubert’s lack of a ‘plan’ when he added the second set of Müller’s poems to the first is an example of the deepest creative work being done in a way—an almost casual way—that seems unfathomable to musicologists.
The more songs Schumann composed, the more he began to see the possibility of constructing something more integrated, an arch of music with a beginning, middle and end. I am prepared to believe that by the time the ninth, tenth, eleventh and last songs were penned (In der Fremde in A minor, Zwielicht in E minor, Im Walde in A major, and Auf einer Burg in E minor) the composer was working within rather different creative parameters than when he wrote the first Eichendorff songs a fortnight earlier. He could now place straw in the bricks, building blocks that would make his construction stronger, an edifice that he had not planned to build at the beginning of the project, but which seemed to be taking shape of its own accord. The collision of serendipity with a conscious decision to make the best of what has ‘turned up’ is exactly the area where a very great composer functions at his best. He thinks on his feet, as it were, and it is a process that separates the men from the boys.
But even when the cycle first went to press in 1842 it had not yet occurred to Schumann to place his Liederkreis within the symmetrical bookends of F sharp minor and major. This has seemed a glaringly obvious point of reference to every musicologist who has ever written about the cycle, but it did not seem quite so obvious, or at least not so vital, to Schumann in 1839. Not until 1850 did he cut Der frohe Wandersmann (in D major, a unique tonality in the set) as the opening song of Op 39. At a stroke he achieved what now seems to be planned from the start: a twelve- rather than a thirteen-song cycle which allowed the Liederkreis to begin with the mysterious In der Fremde. On reading about the cycle in many books one would imagine that this song had been conceived as a germ or cell from which everything else grew. My guess is that when Schumann composed this he did not have the slightest idea that it would be the song that would launch his new cycle into the timeless eternity that belongs to the musical masterpiece.
An after-the-fact imposition of wishful symphonic thinking on to the Lied, an understandable desire to raise the miniature form to a higher level of public respect, unintentionally questions the composer’s carefree right to respond uninhibitedly to the song world where tonality and shape are related to the individual poem, and to the poet’s voice, rather than to a grand scheme created a priori to prove that songs can be, after all, ‘important music’. The search for evidence of cyclic thinking at all costs is as depressing as the concept that ‘size matters’. As the Wolf song says: ‘Even little things can also delight us.’ As it happens, none of the songs of Liederkreis has suffered because Schumann created a remarkable cycle with excitingly new connections and cross-references; on the contrary, the cyclic aspects of Liederkreis are an added glory to songs that are already individually marvellous. But it is my guess that the composer was bemused, as well as pleased, by how this cycle grew and settled into its present form, and that he was not particularly worried when later works, Opp 35, 36, and 37 for example (collections of settings by Kerner, Reinick and Rückert) did not work out in the same way. It may be that even as great a composer as Schumann could only expect, and wish, to write one Eichendorff Liederkreis in the course of his career.
Joseph von Eichendorff was born on 10 March 1788 at Schloß Lubowitz, which had been the home of his aristocratic family for many generations. The Eichendorffs’ castle was near the Silesian town of Ratibor—one of those contested areas that changes nationality over the centuries. In the poet’s lifetime it was part of Prussia; after the treaty of Versailles it was ceded to Czechoslovakia, and since 1945 it has been Polish, although very near to the present German border. In what he considered to be the last golden years of the eighteenth century Eichendorff and his brother Wilhelm passed an idyllic childhood on the family estate: swimming, dancing, riding and hunting were combined with his home education and early poetic activity, and visits to the theatre in Ratibor were supplemented by holidays in Prague. At the age of thirteen he was sent to the Gymnasium in Breslau where he learned English and French (he later learned the Polish language of the region). In his late teens he studied law at university, first at Halle and then Heidelberg where he became acquainted with the recently published collection of folk poetry Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which was to exert a lasting influence on his work.
At the age of twenty (1808) Eichendorff went on a Bildungsreise, a rather less grand German equivalent of the Englishman’s ‘Grand Tour’, but still requiring considerable means. On his itinerary were Paris and then Vienna—a city with which he was to have a continuing relationship over the years. In 1810 he returned to Lubowitz to help his father with the administration of the family estates which were already in financial difficulty, the economic fall-out of Europe at war. A visit to Berlin in 1809–10 was an artistic turning point: the young poet met Arnim, Bretano and Kleist, and heard Fichte give public readings. He began to write poetry prolifically. He then spent the years between 1810 and 1812 in Vienna, where he completed his legal studies and became close friends with Friedrich and Dorothea Schlegel, devout Roman Catholic converts, and a match for the poet’s own fervent beliefs. (Eichendorff was in Vienna about a decade too early for his path to have crossed with Franz Schubert, who had tentative links with this same circle.) All this time Eichendorff was writing some of his best-known lyrics; by 1811 he had completed his first novel Ahnung und Gegenwart, which contains four poems that were set by Schumann nearly thirty years later in his Liederkreis.
This was the time of the Befreiungskrieg when Germany and Austria threw off the yoke of Napoleon Bonaparte. Together with his lifelong friend from Vienna, Philippe Veit (stepson of Schlegel), Eichendorff enlisted in the Silesian infantry regiment known as the ‘Hunters of Lützow’ and became a commissioned officer (1813–15) who saw action in the field. After Napoleon’s surrender in 1814 he returned home and married Luise von Larisch, a local young lady of noble birth to whom he had been engaged since 1810. Their marriage was to last for forty years until Luise’s death. The poet’s novel Ahnung und Genewart was published in Nuremberg in 1815 with the support of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué but it made little impression at first. On Napoleon’s surprise return from Elba, Eichendorff returned to uniform and found himself posted to Aachen as part of a regiment that missed action at Waterloo by a single day. His posting in France (in Compiègne) lasted until the beginning of 1816 when he returned home.
The poet had been brought up to expect to live on his family estates in the cushioned manner of his childhood—the life of a ‘grand seigneur’ enjoyed by generations of his forbears. The disastrous financial circumstances of the post-Napoleonic era meant that his father’s death marked the end of the family’s tenure at Lubowitz—the estates were sold at first, and then in 1822, after his mother’s death, even the castle itself was auctioned and fell into a stranger’s hands. There was a certain amount of bitterness in Eichendorff’s contemplation of how social change had ruined his hopes and expectations, and this reinforced his already conservative disposition. He remained convinced all his life that he was a ‘Zu-spät-Gekommener’—someone who had ‘come too late’. In the following years he sought a way of life that enabled him to continue with his writing at the same time as earning his living. He took up a civil service job in Breslau (1816–19) but having sat further civil servant examinations in Berlin (which he passed with flying colours) he was promoted in 1820 to a senior post in Danzig, and later Marienwerder, where he distinguished himself as an administrator and wrote Aus dem Leben eines Taugesnichts—perhaps his most famous, and certainly his most witty, novella (published in Berlin in 1826).
Promotion in the civil service signalled a return to Berlin (where the poet and his family lived from 1831). He had returned to his former home in Silesia in 1828, and found it a desperately depressing visit. He had also wished to live in Koblenz, finding life in the Rhineland more comfortable than in Berlin. This was not to be, and he was to spend thirteen years in the Prussian capital in a very demanding and rather stressful job that curtailed his leisure time (although he was regularly in touch with such figures as Adelbert von Chamisso, Franz Kugler and Felix Mendelssohn at meetings of the famous ‘Wednesday Society’). From this Berlin period date Eichendorff’s novellas Viel Lärmen um Nichts (1832) and Dichter und ihre Gesellen (1834), each of which contributed a poem to Schumann’s Liederkreis. Aware that in a new age of secularization his own political feelings were not those of his Protestant employers he held back some of his other writings from publication at this time for fear of endangering his job.
The most important significant artistic event of these years was the appearance of the Gedichte, published in 1837 by Dunker und Humblot in Berlin. This gathered together all his poetry, including lyrics included in the novellas and in literary almanacs, as well as some of the poems dating back a quarter of a century that had remained in manuscript. The size and scope of this collection, and the quality of the writing (better received in 1837 than it had been in 1815) presented, at a stroke, the lifetime achievement of a great German poet. This was a real literary event, and the only thing that might have prevented someone like the young, left-leaning Schumann from buying the book hot off the press would have been the poet’s well-known conservative and religious affiliations. Schumann seems to have been sensibly oblivious to these scruples. What mattered to him was that this was wonderful poetry for a musician to set to music: in a letter to Albert Heintz (20 August 1845) Schumann urged this young Lieder composer to get to know the poetry of Eichendorff above all.
It was the Gedichte of 1837 (Robert’s marked-up copy perhaps?) that Clara Schumann had in her possession when she wrote out the poems prior to her husband setting them to music in 1840; we know this because her Abschriftbuch follows the order of their printing.
Eichendorff retired from the Prussian civil service in 1844. As far as composers of Lieder were concerned there was little of interest written after the publication of the Gedichte, although the poem for one of the most dramatic of all Eichendorff settings, Pfitzner’s In Danzig, dates from 1843. He had set about learning Spanish in Berlin and became a significant translator of that language, including the work of Calderon. The second edition of the Gedichte (1843), a copy of which was in Brahms’s possession, contains a supplementary section devoted to translations of Spanish poems. He also turned his hand to literary history and no longer constricted by the viewpoints of his employers he was able to give full rein to the expression of his beliefs; no one could doubt his integrity, and his disappointments with contemporary trends. The poet spent some time in Danzig with his daughter, and also lived near Dresden for a while. There he became friends with a Catholic convert from Hamburg by the name of Lebrecht Dreves; Dreves’s Gedichte were to appear under Eichendorff’s auspices in 1849, a volume of verse that includes the devotional Requiem that Schumann set as his Op 90 No 6 as a tribute to Lenau. The poet spent nearly a year in Vienna in 1846–7 to be near his brother; in that city of poets and musicians he was treated as more of a celebrity than at any other time of his life—something he found exciting but tiring.
It was during this sojourn in Vienna that Schumann and his wife met Eichendorff in the flesh—although the warmth of their exchange seems to have had more to do with Clara’s celebrity as a pianist than anything else. The couple called on Eichendorff on 2 January 1847. On 10 January, Clara gave a concert where the soprano Jenny Lind, wildly famous at the time, was a guest performer. Eichendorff was in the audience. The Schumanns then attended a reception on 15 January where the poet Grillparzer was also a guest. Clara’s diary for that evening reads: ‘Eichendorff said to me that Robert had given life to his poems. I replied that it was his poems that had given life to the music.’ The poet was of course aware that Robert had composed some of his texts but none had been on the programme for Clara’s concert. Eichendorff nevertheless was suitably gracious to Clara at the reception. How wonderful it would be if we could believe him, how splendid if he really was as much of an admirer of the Schumanns as they were of him! They were positively star-struck to meet one of their favourite poets, but it is sadly likely that he was guilty of being polite in a manner he felt necessary in Vienna, that city of insincere hyperbole. On 19 January, after the couple’s return to Dresden, Clara wrote to Eichendorff asking for a copy of his handwriting to place in the album of autographs and letters that the Schumanns had begun on behalf of their children. Eichendorff replied by return of post with a six-line poem that salutes Clara as a magic fairy of art, with no mention of her husband. In a letter to his son Hermann on 9 February of that year the poet enthused about the wonderful settings of his poetry by the Czech composer Joseph Dessauer (1798–1856) who lived in Vienna, but there is no mention of Schumann anywhere in his correspondence. If he had heard from one of his acquaintances that Schumann was a composer of the ‘modern school’, this would have been enough to alienate this enemy of all things avant-garde.
There can be no doubt that the events of 1848, with the revolutions and upheaval typical of that year, disturbed Eichendorff greatly; he was by now not a particularly youthful sixty-year-old. Between 1850 and 1855 he moved back to Berlin. A visit to Karlsbad was undertaken in 1855 so that Luise Eichendorff could take the cure. On the way back the couple stopped in the Silesian (now Polish) town of Neisse, the home of their son-in-law, where Luise unexpectedly died. Eichendorff was persuaded by his family to stay in Neisse and he continued to work as best as he could, utterly lost without his wife. Thus it was that one of Germany’s greatest poets was born in present-day Poland, and also died there on 26 November 1857.
For many years after his death he was undervalued as a mild and inoffensive poet of stream, valley and forest, although his devotion to the Fatherland was lauded and exploited by less scrupulous politicians. Modern literary history places him in a far more important position, alongside figures like Novalis and Tieck. Recent scholarship (that of Gunther Schiwy for example, in Eichendorff, der Dichter in seiner Zeit, 2000) has revealed his Catholicism as less rigid and more ecumenical; his right-wing affiliations now seem lightened and modified by a knowledge of his satirical criticisms. His life, dull on the surface, seems to have had a Goethean dimension—a consistency whereby his work, considered as a whole, may be taken to be a remarkably accurate reflection of his epoch. The seeming simplicity of his poetic imagery disguises a passion for mystical emblems and ‘hieroglyphics’ whereby he creates a vocabulary that interprets God’s creation; this encourages his readers in their turn to interpret his work on a spiritual level. He takes his own circumstances, in having lost his parents and Schloß Lubowitz, and in always being someone who came too late to success, as symptomatic of the Fall of Man. The struggle of all men must be to place themselves on the road that will lead them back to paradise regained. Even if Schumann was not in tune with this kind of reading of Eichendorff’s work, it cannot be denied that this poetry of an inexplicably lasting resonance owes its intensity to something more than a love of nature. If we owe the wringing out of every drop of atmosphere and feeling in Eichendorff’s poetry to a connection with his religion, each word formed on a wing and a prayer, it has been the Lieder composer and his singers who have benefited most.
Graham Johnson © 2007