Schumann: The Complete Songs, Vol. 5 – Christopher Maltman
Indeed the song is a tightly sprung coil which unwinds bit by bit – or so it should if the composer’s direction are followed: ‘Im Anfange nicht zu schnell, nach und nach rascher’ (‘in the beginning not too fast, and then faster and faster’). A metronome mark would have been more helpful, not to mention clear indications of tempo changes, but this is not Schumann’s way, at least not at the very beginning of his song-writing career. The music seems to have been conceived during a fevered session of piano improvisation, by moonlight one imagines, with an added vocal line sung in an enraptured (though probably not enrapturing) voix de compositeur. The original key of E minor, a minor third lower than the key recorded here, suggests that the composer allowed his own untrained voice, singing along with the piano, to determine the song’s tessitura. Thus it is probably almost by accident that we have that rarest of things, a Schumann song for bass; in G minor, however, the piano writing has greater clarity and both voice and piano sound more exciting at the climaxes.
There is more than enough mood music here to suggest the mystery of midnight, the eastern exoticism of Babylon (a place of dark evil and pagan cruelty), a sense of impending doom (the enemies of God struck down from on high) – indeed all the things which have made biblical epics (the poem’s source is Chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel) popular from the beginnings of the cinema. Perhaps that is why the piano writing sometimes seems suited to the accompaniment of a silent film. The song starts with a panoramic view of Babylon at midnight, then pans into the royal palace behind the doors of which there is an orgy of blasphemous celebration. We move from the general to the particular in a way that suggests the cinema techniques of wide shot and close-up.
As this is one of Schumann’s first 1840 songs one has the feeling that Belsatzar is a transitional work, as if Schumann is feeling his way into song-composing. The piano writing is more dense than in most of the lieder, nearer to the textures of his solo pieces. And there are so many ideas on the drawing-board that they jostle with each other for attention. In one of his letters to Clara Wieck, Schumann mentions that he is ‘brimming with music’, and there are ideas enough for three songs in this one ballad. If there is any sense of unity it is because the music is bound together by a fragment of melody (the first four bars of the vocal line) and one principal pianistic idea. This motif is a bar long: it consists of an ominous staccato bass note followed by a slew of semiquavers snaking their way between right hand and left, and from the middle of the keyboard down into the bass clef, and back again. Hairpin dynamic markings squeeze the musical tension to the middle of the bar, an effect which contributes to the melodramatic effect of the music. There is something of a Bach-like organ prelude in this chromatic figuration; Eric Sams detects the influence of Beethoven (the last movement of the ‘Appassionata’, for example) and the same writer notes that the composer’s use of the diminished seventh is a motif associated with night-time – In der Nacht (Spanisches Liederspiel Op 74) and Zwielicht (from the Eichendorff Liederkreis Op 39, and also in E minor) are other songs which use the harmony of the diminished seventh to depict nocturnal mystery.
This poem is, however, far from the nature poetry of Geibel and Eichendorff. There is a rip-roaring story to be told and Heine is on superb form. Surely he was inspired by his admired Byron’s Hebrew Melodies (1815) where the poem The Vision of Belshazzar deals with the same subject. Heine had probably read Franz Theremin’s clumsy translation of this poem and resolved to do better by the same biblical theme. At a later date the poet claimed also to have been influenced by the Hebrew hymn ‘Bachazoz halajla’. But if Byron was indeed Heine’s inspiration it would make nonsense of his later claim to have written the poem by the age of seventeen (c1814). It is now thought likely that the poem was written in 1820 at the earliest. It is typical of this poet’s output that the story can be held up to be both Jacobin and anti-monarchist (the destruction of an unjust king) and ultra-conservative (the destruction of anyone who attempts to subvert the divine order).
Heine, normally king of the quatrain, here chooses to express himself in twenty-one two-lined rhyming couplets. As a result, the pace is breathlessly terse and exciting. The trick in musical performance is not to play one’s trump card too soon. The semiquavers which open Belsatzar can be made to rush past, but they can also be made to spread slowly across the stave like a thick blanket of chromatic fog, an opaque mist of evil, as if even a mention of Babylon were enough to summon images of a dangerous place, devious and depraved. The two bars of piano introduction are in the dominant, which adds to the sense of impending doom. Many performances of Belsatzar begin precipitously, but Schumann’s markings permit, even enjoin, opening with a slower tempo to depict the ‘stummer Ruh’ which envelops the city. (One is reminded of the opening of the Eichendorff setting Zwielicht.)
By the ninth bar (verse 2) the left-hand staccati illustrate the flickering of the palace torches and the pace begins to gather momentum. With the words ‘dort oben in dem Königssaal’ the vocal line rises up with the narrator’s gaze towards the palatial heights, only to plunge to the bottom of the stave in horror: the word ‘Belsatzar’ is set on a downward trajectory, the last syllable (‘zar’) a melismatic shudder of semiquavers. In this we hear both the composer’s contempt for the son of Nebuchadnezzar, as well as the unhinged nature of a despot who is both bad and mad. The word ‘Königsmahl’ ushers in a drinking scene. Belshazzar depends on his vassals for his power. They are no doubt all armed to the teeth, so the jollifications are depicted in clattering dotted rhythms appropriate to military might and heartless pomp. In this mirthless celebration of Babylonian power (and in the hysteria of a high-lying phrase like ‘Es klirrten die Becher, es jauchzten die Knecht’) there is a prophecy of the rallying cries of Nuremberg. The piano writing here is very inventive: arpeggios tumble down the stave and adjacent tones bump into each other in clashing major seconds in the pianist’s right hand, as if they were goblets clinking together in a bloodthirsty toast.
Verse 6 initiates the ‘scene’ devoted to the king’s drunken state. Appropriately enough, this is one of the most chromatic (and harmonically unstable) sections of the song. The piano writing under ‘Und blindlings reisst der Mut ihn fort; / Und er lästert die Gottheit mit sündigem Wort’ is unique in Schumann’s songs – the normal pattern of four semiquavers is reduced to three with semiquaver rests on the second and fourth beats in the left hand. This wrong-foots the music and makes it convulsive, as if the king were reeling, stumbling and foaming at the mouth (we later get this very image: ‘mit schäumendem Mund’). The blasphemous obscenities are as yet implied rather than specific, but the composer leaves us in no doubt concerning their crudity and ugliness. The short piano interlude in staccato quavers after ‘lästert wild’ depicts the laughter (again mirthless, as if forced and automatic) of the dangerous sycophants who will later murder their master. The cadence which takes us back into the home key at ‘ihm Beifall brüllt’ is hammered out in double octaves, the doubling of note upon note an analogue for cheering in regimented unison.
Verse 9 is introduced by another statement of the opening motif, this time (unlike the introduction) on the tonic. The first four bars of the vocal line are the same as for the opening of the song, but this is only a hint of a strophic aspect to Schumann’s treatment of the poem. At ‘Er trug viel gülden Gerät auf dem Haupt’ there is a momentary lightening of tension as our attention shifts to the ‘Diener’, the slave who has been told to fetch the holy artefacts of the Jewish temple into the king’s presence. The music for this section is new and somewhat puzzling. Does the presence of the major key merely betoken the king’s glee, or could it be that Schumann has imagined a type of blasphemous dance to the sway of this music, as if a eunuch were carrying the precious vessels on his head and making fun of them as he does so? Or perhaps this interlude is meant to describe his efforts to carry a large tray of heavy objects on his head: the vocal line, balanced on the bass like a weight supported by uncertain feet, settles briefly into the equilibrium of E flat major (on ‘gülden Gerät’) before returning to the swaying uncertainties of B flat7 (note the stumble of the left-hand quavers under ‘war aus dem Tempel Jehovahs geraubt’). A vivid little moment this, during which the composer’s imaginative response to the words is usually overlooked.
As soon as the king stretches out to snatch a holy goblet (verse 11) the music is steered back into the minor key. Happiness at the arrival of the stolen booty is replaced by something far more sinister – a sequence of modulations support a chromatically ascending vocal line which indicates the king’s boorish demeanour and his overweening arrogance. This is a wonderful example of a harmonic crescendo where Schumann uses the ever-widening distance between the vocal line (climbing gradually higher as if growing bolder by degrees) and the bass (marching to the lower reaches of the stave as if determined on depravity) to paint an ever more intense picture of Belshazzar’s drunkenness. It is one of the composer’s achievements that this music, impressively loud though it may be, is not at all heroic; indeed this chromatic vacillation makes a suitably craven impression. At verse 13 and the reckless challenge addressed to Jehovah (‘Ich bin der König von Babylon!’) we have the posturing of a spoiled child despite all the grandeur of the musical trappings, and the ominous quaver chords which staunch the flow of semiquavers and enable the phrase to be delivered as a recitative of some grandeur. Eric Sams points out that the high note on ‘Ich’ makes it sound as if the Babylonian succession were in dispute; it is this that emphasises the king’s petulance. He is a god, and Babylon is the only state he knows – he is unable to conceive of a more powerful world of the spirit. There is something about that shriek on the word ‘Ich’ which diminishes all Belshazzar’s majesty. This cry to the heavens is followed by four bars of piano interlude; the familiar semiquaver patterns (beginning higher on the keyboard) are now made to crash and roar as much as possible. It is as if the king has terrified himself with his own outburst, and this is indeed what the poem says (verse 13). The effect should be like those rumblings of thunder which signal divine wrath in biblical cinema epics. It is just a pity that a mere piano is scarcely up to such an awe-inspiring task, and it is here that the silent cinema, and its accompaniment, comes to mind.
This is the last time in the song that this motif is heard. Having shot his bolt, the composer, perhaps wisely, does not attempt to cap what has gone before in terms of pianistic virtuosity. Melodrama must now be served by other means. Unfurling semiquavers are replaced by quavers which pulsate through verses 13 to 17 like a heart beating in suspense. (Again this is prompted by the poem itself in the lines ‘Dem König ward’s heimlich im Busen bang’ – Schumann repeats ‘heimlich’ to masterful effect.) For the song’s last page these nervous quavers will be reduced to mere interjections on the first and third beats. This gradual thinning of the piano writing successfully depicts a sense of shrunken fear and the king’s increasing isolation. Little bursts of left-hand staccato quavers add to the sense of unease. After ‘Busen bang’ there is a four-bar interlude which incorporates a mirror image of those descending left-hand staccato quavers which are now transferred to the right hand in an ascending pattern followed by accented crotchets which paint the king’s increasing panic. It is difficult for music to depict the sound of silence, but accents in the right hand, and offbeat left-hand quavers (at ‘Das gellende Lachen verstummte zumal’) depict Belshazzar’s uncomfortable reaction to it.
The hand of God writing on the wall (the Bible, not Heine, tells us the words are ‘MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN’) appears without further ado. Under an A flat pedal in the vocal line (transfixed, the singing observer forgets about melody) the pianist’s left hand is given its own marking of ‘pianissimo’ and makes an eerie entry deep in the bass clef on the notes B natural to C. In the next bar we hear C – D flat. So far the message has been ‘Minim, Minim …’ (or rather dotted minims). The vocal line falls to a G, another upper pedal; the hand, now warming to its task, rises from D flat to D natural; immediately afterwards this is followed by B flat – to B natural as if the left hand were writing two letters of a word rather than one. The same pair of motifs is heard a semitone higher in the following bar. Under ‘Und schrieb und schrieb’ (verse 17) these tentative beginnings crystallise into clear and continuous script – syncopated ascending sixths in the left hand which drag themselves across the stave like the movement of a writer’s hand across a blackboard (‘upon the plaister of the wall’ says the Bible). The vocal line is now falling at the faster rate of two notes per bar. It is as if Belshazzar is being squeezed in a vice, caught between the waxing wrath of God and the waning confidence of his own followers. All of this is achieved by rather phlegmatic musical means; for example no attempt is made to paint the image of ‘letters of fire’ – more important is the vacuum left with the words ‘und schwand’. The composer manages to create here a remarkably silent image of silence.
Verses 18 to 21 are treated as stunned recitative. Significantly, there is so little accompaniment that we have to listen twice to realise that the melody for ten bars of this section is taken, almost note for note, from the song’s opening vocal line. But the composer tells us (‘leise und deutlich zu rezitieren’) that he wants to hear the piece less sung and more spoken. Only the bare bones of the harmony remain to support the singer; an analogue perhaps for a tyrant about to be stripped of his kingdom. The events leading up to Belshazzar’s downfall are quickly sketched. The spare quaver interjections do good service to depict the ‘schlotternden Knien’ of the king – ‘the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against the other’ as the Authorised Version of the Bible has it. In his narrative, Heine has no time for the prophet Daniel and his interpretation of the handwriting on the wall. (This part of the story was also excised in Osbert Sitwell’s libretto for William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast.) According to the Bible, astrologers, Chaldeans and soothsayers were first called on to interpret the text (these Heine refers to under the blanket title of ‘Magier’). Daniel was then summoned and gave the meaning of the writing for which he was clothed in scarlet and a chain of gold. Only after this, on the same night, was Belshazzar slain. Heine, with a superb disregard for biblical accuracy, brings the regicide forward, and makes it both sudden and almost non-consequential. In this music, the phrase ‘banality of evil’ comes to mind, as well as the banal way in which the mighty perish, often at the hands of their former supporters. The word ‘umgebracht’ is intoned in ‘Adagio’ tempo and with horror certainly, but it is set simply and without pianistic fuss. With it the song comes to an unceremonious end. It is difficult to decide whether this was simply the result of attenuation of musical invention or a conscious attempt musically to reflect the poet’s tendency to dry and ironic endings. Another biblical character, Salome, is made to meet her fate in the same sudden way in the last moments of Strauss’s opera. Both Oscar Wilde and Heine understood that when tyrants and monsters fall from power, death is something that follows quickly and inevitably.
Interestingly enough, Belsatzar is one of the only Schumann songs composed in 1840 that has nothing to do with love. In it there is no role for his beloved Clara, although one might imagine that the composer might have hoped that the tyrannical Friedrich Wieck might be murdered by his piano pupils, or by some other form of divine intervention. But the song, standing right at the beginning of the year, opened a very important door. Robert was able to interpret its meaning as easily as any Daniel: he had a talent for lieder composition and in a very short while – a matter of weeks rather than months – he would find himself to be an out-and-out master of the medium. For all future lovers of song this was the handwriting on the wall.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2010