When Liszt in 1856 heard that the poet Heinrich Heine had died, Mathilde Wesendonck (who wrote the poems for Richard Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder
) asked him if he thought that Heine’s name would be inscribed in the temple of immortality. ‘Yes, but in mud’, Liszt famously replied. The two men knew each other in Paris, but Heine could, and often did, attack erstwhile comrades with the razor-sharp weapon of his matchless wit, and his dislike for Liszt the man eventually outweighed his qualified admiration for Liszt the performer. Fortunately, Liszt created some of the best Heine songs of the century—and Heine was enormously popular with composers—before the ultimate rift between the two men in 1844, and one of those songs is Im Rhein, im schönen Strome
. Heine initially supported the massive campaign to complete the building of Cologne Cathedral (the Kölner Dom, officially the Hohe Domkirche St Peter und Maria), begun in 1248 to house the Shrine of the Three Kings but left unfinished in the sixteenth century. The poet even served as vice-president of the Parisian fundraising committee but withdrew when he realized that the Prussian king Friedrich Wilhelm IV had reactionary politico-religious reasons for underwriting the project. But it is the poet’s youthful fascination with the cathedral and its treasures that infuses this poem, in which Heine invokes the famous retable altarpiece depicting The Adoration of the Magi (the scene when opened) and The Annunciation (the scene when closed) by the late Gothic artist Stephan Lochner from c1440–45. The pious Catholic Liszt was more deeply involved in the Cologne Cathedral enterprise than was Heine: Liszt was elected an honorary member of the steering committee in 1841 and gave concerts on behalf of the giant building project in Berlin and Cologne. We hear his first setting of these words, composed in 1840, in which Liszt creates cascading water-music half a century before Debussy and Ravel made watery strains a hallmark of Impressionism in music. We cannot mistake the sheer power of this river as it ripples up and down the length of the piano. (The later setting brings the river’s waves under control and darkens them in accord with the increased melancholy of his late songs.) For the first setting Liszt provides a choice of two piano accompaniments, and on this recording we hear the ‘ossia’ version—marked, with some understatement, ‘più difficile’.
from notes by Susan Youens © 2010