The identity of this song’s poet is uncertain. The initials ‘J.B.’ at the head of the score possibly stand for the Düsseldorf publisher Julius Buddeus (the acknowledged author of another Schumann song, Die Meerfee). The poem is perhaps not quite the ‘sickly drivel’ of Eric Sams’s description but it is difficult to see what Schumann saw in this gushing piece of Victoriana (for some reason it has always suggested English poetry in translation to me) except if it is something written by a colleague and set to music in a spirit of friendly indulgence. The subject matter is not of the kind that usually appeals to Schumann—there is nothing like this in the other romantic settings during the great period of Robert’s wooing of Clara, nor is there a reference in any of the mature songs to a love that will achieve its dubious consummation only in the afterlife (the ‘Jenseits’ of the poem). Schumann’s triumph after all was that he had won Clara as his bride in the here and now, and with only a few minor exceptions he avoided the composition of religious music. If we knew of an incident where the composer, ten years into his marriage, had conceived a hopeless passion for someone else the setting of this poem might have made more sense, but this scenario has never been proposed by even the most inventive of the biographers. Of course it is possible that the poet, in confessing to an extra-marital romantic dream, required his friend Schumann to be discreet regarding the lyric’s authorship—thus the enigmatic ‘J.B.’ instead of a full name. It was certainly not the composer’s usual habit to fail properly to acknowledge poets with regard to their contribution to his songs. Another motive (as opposed to motif) for non-disclosure of authorship is suggested below.
One can only think that Schumann was searching for a lyric—a kind of thinking aloud in music—that enabled him to practise a new kind of composition where melody and melodic shape were less important than an ongoing confessional, part recitative and part arioso. The marking Nicht schnell, mit freiem Vortrag (‘Not fast, to be performed with freedom’) is itself an indication of this. Schumann has chosen a text that sounds like an excerpt from a libretto, and the song itself begins in mid-stream as if it were part of a larger work, an opera perhaps. In fact Schumann has set this poem like a letter aria, imagining either someone writing it, like Tchaikovsky’s Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, or someone reading it; the flexibility implied by the encouragement of rubato (mit freiem Vortrag) suggests the singer creating the words on the spur of the moment, or perhaps reacting to them while reading them. The motif that opens the song, a sighing chromatic figure with adjacent semitones in the alto register, suggests in its short and constrained musical journey a passion that is stunted by circumstance; its reappearance throughout the song is indicative of the obsessional nature of a blighted love affair.
The title ‘Resignation’ says something of Schumann’s mood in the ‘down’ times of these later years but the song is far from down in the mouth. Rather it is passionate, and in the right hands it can be surprisingly persuasive. In the absence of a printed source, the poem, I would suggest, was originally in six quatrains with the composer leaving out either the first or the last line of the third (the rhyme scheme is essentially ABAB with a large number of approximate or near rhymes—something that could indicate a translation from another language). The two-line interjections (printed above in brackets) make no metrical sense but they are in the spirit of the poet’s explosive ‘Gewiß! doch trostlos nicht!’ in the poem’s fifth strophe. It is possible, even likely, that these extra lines are by Schumann himself and these are surely indicative of the sort of song he was attempting to write in the wake of his own opera Genoveva. Like Wagner, and like Debussy in Pelléas et Mélisande, Schumann is trying to express the naturalness of speech; the formality of more strait-laced word-setting, as in the Heine or Eichendorff songs, must have temporarily seemed old-fashioned and a thing of the past. If Schumann had indeed interpolated his own words into the poet’s structure this would go some way in explaining his diffidence in terms of placing a poet’s name at the head of the music.
Resignation alternates between full-blooded recitative (where the accompaniment seems orchestrally conceived) and arioso (with piano-writing that is familiar in style from such better-known late songs as Liebeslied, Ihre Stimme and so on). The song opens in its home key of D flat major (with an accented passing note as part of an ongoing inner chromatic motif) but almost immediately shifts to the subdominant and from there to the supertonic. It is as if we have discovered the suffering hero in mid-song—not actually a new device if we remember the brilliantly disorientated opening of Im wunderschönen Monat Mai from Dichterliebe. The accompaniment suggests lower strings and winds giving the voice a certain amount of unaccompanied freedom. Schumann sets the poet’s first quatrain in this wide-ranging and harmonically unsettled manner; the additional two lines possibly by Schumann himself (‘Wie’s kommt? Wie kann ich’s wissen?’) are a musical throwaway, eerily prophetic of how Hugo Wolf set the parenthetical ‘Wo find’ ich’s nur’ in the song Was für ein Lied? (Italienisches Liederbuch No XXIII). Wolf’s inspiration in that finely judged piece of prosody was undoubtedly Die Meistersinger and it is not impossible that Schumann was influenced here by what he had heard from Wagner’s earlier works in terms of both word-setting and harmony.
At ‘Wohl höher schlägt mein Herz’ we return to the world of the more conventional lied. The vocal line blossoms into something of a melody built on repetition and sequence. The obvious (and inexplicable) absence of one of the poet’s lines is felt in the slightly awkward phrase lengths of this section; the stop-start accompaniment with rather too many off-beat syncopations between the hands seems mannered. But this is piano-writing as opposed to orchestral make-believe and it serves as an intended contrast with the recitative section. After ‘Wechseltausch’ there is another sectional break: the motif of the opening returns transposed up a tone, leading to another of the composer’s interpolations, in this case a rhetorical expansion of the poem’s opening words (‘Lieben, von ganzer Seele’) to include the rather exaggerated repetition ‘lieben, lieben’—it must have been this corner of Resignation that tipped Sams’s unforgiving verdict towards ‘sickly drivel’. These lovesick words adorn a strong cadence on the dominant and we expect to return to the tonic key of D flat major.
In fact the next section is in the tonic minor of C sharp with a key-signature change to four sharps for ‘Du wirst mich nie umschließen’. Once again the chromatic slidings of string-writing are here replaced by oscillating passagework in semiquavers that could only be intended for the piano. After this fourth strophe the rhetorical first line of the fifth (‘So hoffnungslos mein Lieben?’) prompts a return to recitative, while the response to the beginning of the second line (‘Gewiß!’) is spacious minims followed by semiquaver accompaniment for ‘doch trostlos nicht!’. A repeat of this line (with heightened tessitura for the second ‘Gewiß!’) allows for a combination of the song’s two styles—part piano arpeggio, part chromatic contortion—but this merely adds to an impression of melodrama that renders the song rather less natural than Schumann surely intended.
There is now a return to a key-signature of five flats before the poet’s quatrain has ended. The composer delighted in tricking eye and ear by disturbing four-square symmetries. At first we believe that ‘Will Gegenwart nicht trüben’—a return of the opening motif with its rising semiquavers—is the beginning of a new musical section but it stands on its own before the setting of the poem’s final quatrain. This introduces an accompaniment in triplet quavers for no clear reason apart from the fact they appear as a kind of default in many a late Schumann song. At ‘Lächle mit bleichem Munde’ we are uncertain whether we are in recitative or arioso mode, and this is surely as the composer intended. Six bars from the end (incorporating a five-bar postlude) the now-familiar motif, rising hopefully but with nowhere to go, reappears in the alto and tenor registers and brings the song to a muted conclusion. We are left with some admiration for a structure that is experimental and forward-thinking (actually always a characteristic of Schumann’s songs) but the question arises as to whether a song of this kind, unnecessarily complicated for Schumann’s own lyrical gift, defeats its communicative objective. If we find ourselves wishing that the composer had expended all this effort on a better poem, the composer might have replied that such a musical experiment was better performed on a lyric that had little to lose in being tinkered with and pulled apart.
Even Eric Sams, no staunch admirer of most of Schumann’s late songs, owns that this is ‘among the most endearing and enduring keepsakes of Schumann’s last period’. He is tempted by the piece’s musical fecundity to ascribe the song to 1840, but eventually agrees that some of its puzzling aspects (which in his view mar its unity) are more characteristic of 1850 after all. The Haushaltbuch entry places it firmly in April 1850, but it is possible that Schumann was re-cycling older material. Certainly this beautiful piece about a speaking flower reminds the pianist, under the fingers as it were, of Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen from Dichterliebe (1840) where the flowers beg the ‘trauriger, blasser Mann’ not to be angry with their sister. In both songs the right hand pricks out a melody in the most gentle fashion which is underscored and complemented by semiquavers which fall away from the pianist’s singing tones in a mood of demure acquiescence. This is a challenge to the player who has to be fully in control of voicing in order to differentiate between the layers of melody and accompaniment. Despite these artistic struggles there is a mood of peace here (the words ‘in Stille warten’ are important enough for Schumann to repeat them not only in the last strophe of the song but also for a third time right at the end) as well as a type of superhuman humility and sweetness. Almost all the phrase endings (at ‘Garten’, ‘warten’, ‘Sonne’, ‘Wonne’ and so on) are falling feminine cadences which seem to bow on the stem to superior forces. As in Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen the atmosphere is unearthly and rapt in a way that is typical of Schumann—he transports us into a magical world of enchantment behind the looking-glass, a world of fanciful tenderness that borders on the eccentric and which is his alone. There is a rapture here (and it seems to be the composer’s own) in the very passive nature of the adoring—the song Mein schöner Stern works up to a similar sense of submissive delight in revering the beloved to the point of self-negation. It is extraordinary that in a song with such a fluid vocal line and accompaniment the composer has succeeded in suggesting that the flower is somehow rooted to the spot, planted in a bed and helplessly vulnerable to whatever surprises nature may have in store for it. The natural and seemingly uncomplicated way in which the tune unfolds is perhaps the reason which suggests an 1840 provenance; certainly the way in which Schumann engineers the recapitulation where the first strophe is repeated in even more intimate manner is most touching and worthy of this composer at his best. Elsewhere there are corners which are not nearly as lucid as the Dichterliebe style, a type of almost wilful awkwardness in which we may see deterioration or experimental modernity depending on our viewpoint. In any case we have come to admire this song for what it is rather than what it is not.
The choice of the key of A major is significant in this song—it is Schumann’s springtime key (cf Er ist’s and a song like Jasminenstrauch).
Komm, Trost der Welt, du stille Nacht!
Wie steigst du von den Bergen sacht,
Die Lüfte alle schlafen,
Ein Schiffer nur noch, wandermüd’,
Singt übers Meer sein Abendlied
Zu Gottes Lob im Hafen.
Die Jahre wie die Wolken gehn
Und lassen mich hier einsam stehn,
Die Welt hat mich vergessen,
Da tratst du wunderbar zu mir,
Wenn ich beim Waldesrauschen hier
O Trost der Welt, du stille Nacht!
Der Tag hat mich so müd gemacht,
Das weite Meer schon dunkelt,
Laß ausruhn mich von Lust und Not,
Bis daß das ew’ge Morgenrot
Den stillen Wald durchfunkelt.
Joseph von Eichendorff (1788-1857)
Come, comfort of the world, quiet night!
How softly you climb from the hills,
The breezes are all sleeping,
One sailor still, travel-wearied,
Sings over the water his evening song
In praise of God in the harbour.
The years, like the clouds, go by
And leave me here in solitude,
Forgotten by the world,
Then wondrously you came to me,
As I sat here lost in thought
Beside the murmuring wood.
O comfort of the world, quiet night!
The day has tired me so,
The wide sea darkens now,
Let me rest from joy and pain,
Until eternal dawn
Flashes through the silent wood.
This song, composed in April 1850, is Schumann’s farewell to Joseph von Eichendorff, poet of the composer’s glory years. Written in the same month as Resignation it shows that the latter kind of song, chromatic and complex of construction, was only one of Schumann’s signposts towards the future. Schumann continued to believe in the old German virtues of the chorale; had he lived and worked longer he would undoubtedly have been drawn to the study of folksong. In Der Einsiedler we have a strophic setting—three six-line verses all set to exactly the same music with the addition of a simple two-bar coda.
The key is D minor and the immediate plagal colouring of the opening tonic and subdominant chords signals the spiritual nature of the hermit’s quest. This is one of those poems combining religious awe with veneration for nature in which the deeply Catholic Eichendorff excelled—the kind of lyric by this poet hitherto scrupulously avoided by the composer when selecting texts for the Liederkreis Op 39. If Schumann had been religious himself he would surely have been led to a grander setting than this with some change in the final verse where God, the ‘Trost der Welt’, is directly addressed and mention of ‘das ew’ge Morgenrot’ crowns the poem. For Schumann however this hermit is more philosopher than monk. He clearly sees the words as belonging to the same kind of generalized farewell to the world as Goethe’s ‘Lynceus der Türmer’ lyric from Faust Part 2 (set as Op 79 No 27, part of the Lieder-Album für die Jugend) in May 1849 and the same poet’s Nachtlied (to be composed as Op 96 No 1 in July 1850). That Schumann is already in such a valedictory mood is surely an indication of an ongoing depressive mental state.
The song is surprisingly moving despite a strange awkwardness in the deployment of the piano-writing—the little imitative semiquaver figure in bar 6, between the voice at ‘Lüfte’ and the piano’s echoing of this two beats later, is one of those late Schumannian touches, not unpleasant or disturbing in themselves, but inexplicable in terms of the composer’s motivation. These are clearly the winds that sleep in the poem (‘Die Lüfte alle schlafen’) but they are made to rustle in the music nevertheless, as if by an old impulse that refuses to desist—as if one simply cannot set the word ‘Lüfte’ without an illustrative tremor. Nothing, however, can take away from the beauty of this simple but haunting melody and the whole song achieves a quiet majesty in a fine performance. Sams is right to draw attention to the curiously beautiful phrase ‘Singt übers Meer sein Abendlied’, once again supported by a bass on the subdominant and a luxurious ninth chord, languid and resigned. In the third verse the words ‘hat mich so müd gemacht’ remind us of a similar phrase in Brahms’s immortal Heine setting Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht; it is perhaps coincidental that the whole of that song’s accompaniment is pervaded with the syncopated rhythm announced at the beginning of Der Einsiedler—a motto that goes nowhere and has no further role to play in the Schumann song. The two-bar postlude has the quality of a hymn with a rather awkward tremolo in the piano’s left hand in the final bar (cf the Andersen setting Weihnachtslied Op 79 No 16).