The twenty-six songs of this important and ground-breaking cycle (spelled Myrthen by the composer in the work’s first edition, but known as Myrten to later generations of Germans, as well as in the Peters Edition) are full of secrets and allusions. An important part of their power is their inter-connectedness in terms of tonality:
Schumannians will always scan this list in admiration and wonder. This is something absolutely new in terms of a cycle. At first glance it is something of a ragbag, a patchwork quilt, but it is bound together by personal biographical allusions where every choice of poem represents an aspect of love which encompasses the legend-in-the-making that was Robert-and-Clara. This cycle casts them as a pair of star-crossed lovers who have come through their trials as successfully as a latter-day Tamino and Pamina. In so doing they join hands with others from all over the world who have endured hardships in similar and different ways. ‘Hello young lovers, wherever you are’ is how Rodgers and Hammerstein summed up such fellow-feeling. Myrten is a musical encyclopaedia of love around the world, an alpha-to-omega of love. Most of the songs were written in February of that year with the two book-end songs, the first and the last, composed a month or so later.
The poetry of Rückert lies at the Germanic heart of the work (the idea of duty and filial devotion encompassed by songs XI and XII) and Schumann chooses this famous poet of marital happiness to open and close his cycle. But the composer has consciously stretched out his arms to lovers from all countries and ages. Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan represents Persia (Suleika makes an appearance which is as much a tribute to Schubert as to anyone else; that composer’s music is also quoted in Widmung) and Heine’s exotic lotus is a flowering from the far east: songs V - IX form an oriental corner of the work as if a magic carpet had been sent out from Leipzig to survey scenes worthy of Sheherazade.
The role played by Burns’s lyrics is as a foil to the middle-class sophistication of Rückert. The Burns characters display a steadfastness of heart which beats in the sometimes wild breasts of highland soldiers and border bandits, but their music is associated with the goodness that comes from unvarnished simplicity, and their songs are distributed throughout the set like the humble straw that binds bricks and mortar. Although Mendelssohn had not himself set Burns to music at this stage the inclusion of a Scottish element to the cycle may owe much to Schumann’s conversations with the older composer who had probably waxed lyrical about the beauties of Scotland.
Thanks to Byron’s boon companion Thomas Moore we visit Italy (XVIII and XIX) for echoes of the footloose bachelordom that Robert would now willingly give up. In a parallel set of linked G major songs (XI and XII) we learn of what Clara must renounce in marrying him – close links with her family. The impassioned plea to a mother could also be addressed to her father, in this case it would have been in vain. Note that Byron and Moore are allowed to create a corner of the cycle of their own (Songs XV to XVIII) featuring lyrics by an upper-class Englishman and his Irish sidekick. Thanks to Byron’s marvellous poem from his Hebrew Melodies one of the finest evocations of Jewish lyricism is included here further to broaden the cycle’s multicultural references. Here Robert does not shrink from depicting his despair in the years leading up to the marriage, and the consolation he found in the discovery of his own genius as a minstrel of song. This is one of a number of self portraits in various moods that Schumann allows himself throughout the cycle.
And of course there are portraits of Clara. The first of these is the third song in Myrten, about the dreaming bride, Der Nussbaum, and long ago Eric Sams pointed out that this coincided with the third letter of the alphabet in a progress of twenty-six songs, itself an alphabet of sorts. If Schumann, obsessed with codes and ciphers, ever developed this idea with any consistency we will never know; if so it might have been explained to Clara who never mentioned it or wrote it down. (She passed on to posterity almost nothing regarding the songs.) But there are tantalising clues: C = Clara in III is the first. Then Sitz ich allein seems to paint the character of one of Schumann’s alter egos, the dreamer ‘Eusebius’ (E = song V), followed by the more temperamental Setze mir nicht du Grobian (‘Florestan’ – F = song VI). Can it be pure coincidence that the two pieces in Schumann’s Carnaval that depict ‘Eusebius’ and ‘Florestan’ (with those names as their titles) should also be numbers V and VI of a piano work which had originally been planned to contain twenty-six numbers?
The figure of the Lotosblume occurs in Mendelssohn’s famous Auf Flügeln des Gesanges; thus song VII representing the figure G may represent the word ‘Gesang’ or even something as exotic as the river ‘Ganges’ also mentioned in the celebrated Mendelssohn song. The letter H (song VIII) could refer to the German word by which God is addressed – ‘Herr’. The two linked Lieder der Braut are also specifically about Clara, they occupy the letters K and L in the sequence where KLara was a common alternative spelling for her name. Mendelssohn was well known to have adored the Highlands; is song XIII (= letter M) a reference to him? And so the speculation goes on. Did Robert regard Wenn durch die Piazzetta (song XVIII = R) as an autobiographical reference to his role as the person who was going to elope with Clara, spiriting her away, like the Venetian Ninetta, to an idyllic life.
Everyone will have their own ideas in this game but one observation seems worthy of more serious consideration. The greatest player in the drama of the marriage, apart from Robert and Clara themselves, was Friedrich Wieck. If he was to feature in this cavalcade it would have to be in a fashion tactful enough for Clara who was still devoted to him, though full of sorrow about his behaviour. Niemand has always been thought of as a fanfare of Schumann’s own independence, but there is an air of misanthropy behind the declaration of the man who says that if nobody cares for him, he will care for nobody. It seems just possible that Niemand represents a humorous appearance of ‘Vater’ (father) – the word that both Robert and Clara used in addressing Wieck (song XXII = V). The self-important bustle of this song might have been designed to tease a smile from the bride-to-be’s lips. The letter W coincides with the title Im Westen (song XXIII) and X is a common symbol for a mystery figure, in this case the person who dominates the entire cycle. Song XXIV is most certainly a Clara song, and it is as gentle as a kiss. The title Zum Schluss is made to line up with the last letter of the alphabet (XXVI = Z). If Sams’s reading of the work’s alphabetical mirror is correct, and if the composer played the game to the letter, there are many more discoveries to be made.
In terms of tonality the cycle owes more to Beethoven’s example in An die ferne Geliebte than to either of the Schubert cycles. The Beethoven is a collection of interconnected songs played without interruption, and Myrten, no matter how many times it has been excerpted on the concert platform, is also meant to be presented as an entity. The work is arranged as a kaleidoscope where colours are meant to be seen (and heard) one after the other without long intervening gaps. The songs are self-contained (despite the connected nature of XI/XII and XVII/XVIII) and yet flow with an inevitability which has been a lesson to every programme planner of recitals ever since. In this royal progress from A flat major back to A flat major – encompassing a grand rainbow of different tonal colours – almost every song has a strong, though not always obvious, tonal relationship with its predecessor. This is clear from the chart above. On the one occasion when Schumann wishes to make a complete break for a new and very serious mood (before XV: Aus den hebräischen Gesängen) we find the deliberately looser connection between D major of XIV and the E minor of that impassioned plaint; this is the exception which proves the rule. It goes without saying that from the point of view of the key relationships, a performance of this cycle with tenor and soprano in original keys is preferable to one between baritone and soprano involving inevitable transpositions.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2002
extrait des notes rédigées par Graham Johnson © 2010
Français: Marie-Stella Pâris
aus dem Begleittext von Graham Johnson © 2010
Deutsch: Henning Weber
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