Des Sängers Fluch
Op 139—a work in thirteen numbers composed in January 1852, is dedicated to the young Johannes Brahms; it was published posthumously in 1858. Dismissed as inept at the time it is a work that is increasingly winning favour among modern commentators who are far less content to write off late Schumann than their predecessors. John Daverio refers to Schumann’s ‘Ossianic manner’ in regard to this music, positing an unexpected link between Schumann and the Ossian settings of Schubert. The scenario of this oratorio-like collage, an experiment that might be seen as a viable alternative to opera, was arranged by the musicologist Richard Pohl (1826–1896). Pohl took as his basis a famous ballad by Uhland—Des Sängers Fluch
—which tells the story of two minstrels, a young man (‘Jüngling’ in Pohl’s adaption) and his father (‘Harfner’) who are bidden to perform before a king and queen. The king takes exception to the youngster and the stirring effect his music-making has had on his wife; in a fit of temper he runs him through with a sword. As he cradles his son’s body the older minstrel curses the castle and its inhabitants. The edifice crumbles and the surrounding gardens turn into a desert; part of the curse is that the king’s name will never resound as part of any song or minstrel’s epic—an honour reserved for ‘good’ kings.
Uhland’s ballad is terse and to the point; the story is told in sixteen tightly knit strophes. A novel usually has to be condensed to make an opera libretto, but a poem is another matter: for Schumann’s purposes Uhland’s ballad has to be expanded. Pohl broadens the scenario to include the various performances of ballads in different styles and moods by the two minstrels (merely mentioned in passing in the poem). The songs are only two of them—the first sung by the young man, the tenor, the second sung by the older ‘Harfner’, while the chorus members act as onlookers, as if they were awe-struck courtiers. Many of the words of the original ballad are retained, but Pohl uses ten other Uhland poems (either complete or in extracts) and adds words of his own to make sense of the connecting tissue of the narrative. The addition of a female voice as narrator makes for five solo voices in all (the king and queen are soprano and baritone).
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2009