The Vier Lieder
of 1830 are a unique occurrence in Mendelssohn’s song œuvre: this is his only song cycle. He did not designate it as such by name, and it is more contained in size and scope than its illustrious predecessors—Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte
and Schubert’s two mammoth cycles. But a cycle it is nevertheless. Here, Felix seems to have done something Schumannian a decade before Schumann’s 1840 cycles: he assembles four poems, three of them by unknown authors, into a narrative sequence of his own fashioning. The first, Der Tag
, on a poem by Mendelssohn’s friend Ludwig Ernst Friedrich Robert, is one of this composer’s most extended and dramatic songs, divided as it is into different zones of experience. In the first, the persona recalls the now-vanishing days of childhood happiness; in the second, he mourns the loveless emptiness of his youthful state; and in the third, he remembers first seeing her that very day. Now, he can bid lamentation be silent. In the tempestuous second song, Reiterlied
, he literally storms the castle; we ride with him through a forest of octaves and high notes galore (the song is a work-out for both performers). This outburst of ardour is followed by departure in Abschied
when the young man is impelled by patriotic duty to go to war. In Mendelssohn’s music, we alternate between military fanfares—the piano reminds us why he is leaving—and tender or impassioned injunctions to his beloved not to weep. Finally, at the end of the cycle, the soldier returns as a beggar (Der Bettler
), in company with many real-life soldiers from the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars who came home with no more than their lives and the clothes on their backs. Mendelssohn notated only the first verse of his unknown poetic source and the end of the second; therefore, Waldemar Weinheimer has supplied most of the second verse. In this last song, Mendelssohn refers to the final section of the first song, lest it somehow escape our notice that this is a true cycle, a homecoming that circles back to the start of it all so that life, love and music might begin again beyond the final barline.
from notes by Susan Youens © 2009