The nineteen year-old poet had fought at the Battle of Wagram when the Austrians had lost 40,000 men, but he too is enthralled by his former enemy. Napoleon’s return was the worst nightmare of the European leaders, and Zedlitz here describes just such a scenario in terms of a supernatural thriller. Without actually naming the ghostly emperor, the poem describes him in his famous hat and in simple clothes; at the last stroke of midnight he emerges to review his troops, skeletons marshalled in all their glory. The generals gather around Napoleon, awaiting his orders; he whispers a single word, a destination which gradually resounds through the ranks – ‘France!’ – and the password is ‘Saint Helena’.
The music in C minor is in Schumann’s new ballad style. The piano writing is dominated by the dotted rhythms of the drummer (cf Hugo Wolf’s Der Tambour) who is the first to emerge from his grave. The vocal line avoids melody in favour of a dramatic fanfare-like figure; this proclaims the verse on the same note for an entire bar before plunging down the octave – a repetitive feature of this fragment. The strange sound of this drumming is painted by a discord in semitones at ‘Die Trommel klinget seltsam’. For the fourth strophe the music changes. At ‘Und die im tiefen Norden’ there is a shift into F minor, a subdominant modulation which introduces the pity of war as a contrast to its bellicose celebration. A note of pathos introduced by the D flat on ‘die’ (‘those who’) shows the composer’s sympathies with the tragic way that the soldiers lost their lives in Russia. The cold of those regions and the heat of Italy are not musically differentiated, but there is a shift of tessitura and a darkening of harmony for those who perished in the Egyptian campaign.
Schumann allows all these spirits to rise from their graves, weapons in hand, before abandoning the song with a final convulsive triplet. If he had continued with this setting, one of his problems would have been how to conjure an appropriately impressive climax with the minimal forces of voice and piano. His initial enthusiasm for the bracing imagery of the poem’s opening lines could no longer disguise that he had bitten off more than he could chew. It is clear that this music has nowhere else to go; we have had a welcome glimpse of this composer’s humanity, but he was defeated here by the limits of his ability with his chosen forces to martial a vast military parade.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2003