The poem has twelve strophes, but the concision of the words ensures that the action is swift and decisive, even if the majority of the poem comprises the intimate but public interrogation of Hedwig by her lord. Schumann frames the poem with a long piano prelude of twenty-four bars that seems an overture of sort, the curtain rising on a medieval dining hall where a Ritter (surely more of a king than a knight) is surrounded by his entourage. The entry of Hedwig whose lowly duty it is to fill the wine goblets is accompanied by an oboe-like theme, demurely feminine in contrast to the pianistic testosterone of the opening. The long conversation between the knight and the beautiful maiden who has caught his eye occasions fragments of music indicative of Hedwig’s modesty, and the knight’s determination—the latter music derives from the opening motif that recalls the rising sixths of hunting horns. When he asks her outright whether she loves him the narrator’s voice is accompanied by solemn yet lyrical music in crotchets and minims—the legato a respite from the aggressive mood of the opening. When Hedwig eventually admits in public to loving her master there is no other course for her (she believes) than that she should enter a nunnery. It takes less than a page of music to allow the knight to sweep the astonished girl away on his arm to marry her straightaway in the chapel. There is a brief return to the music of the opening for a ‘happily ever after’ ending.
Hebbel’s poem dates from 1838. It was written partly in protest at Griseldis, a play in blank verse by Friedrich Halm that enjoyed huge success in Vienna in 1835. The action of Griseldis is set in Arthurian England; the eponymous heroine leaves her husband Sir Perceval when she discovers that the trials that she has undergone have been cruelly unnecessary. This theme of independent ‘womanhood in conflict with itself’, an elaboration of Kleists’s Käthchen von Heilbronn, was repugnant to Hebbel. In Schön Hedwig a gallant knight of yore chooses his fair lady and marries her forthwith. In Hebbel’s poem beautiful Hedwig is an illegitimate foundling (who has ‘come from God’); it is within the power of the knight to respond quixotically to his instincts concerning her goodness, and to sweep the shame of her birth aside, elevating her to the highest rank in the land. Paternalistic certainly, but Hedwig is no princess in disguise to preserve the status quo. The poet’s conservatism had nothing to do with the social niceties of the time. In fact, when he wrote this poem he was living in Hamburg with a devoted seamstress, Elise Lensing, with whom he had children out of wedlock, though they died in infancy.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2007