The long-standing dispute between France and Germany concerning the Rhineland reached one of it many crisis points in 1840. To understand this, one has to go back to the territorial losses of Napoleon after his defeat in 1815; the Congress of Vienna limited France’s frontier to the Alsatian zone, and a confederation of Prussian city states was formed on the west bank. France continued to regard the river as its old, natural frontier; Germany treasured its post-Napoleonic restorations and acquisitions as symbolic of its new power. The river itself became a magical symbol of statehood (on both sides) which was not lost on that up-and-coming young composer, Richard Wagner.
A literary debate was launched which mirrored the political. Lamartine’s Marseillaise de la paix was meant to soothe German anger. The unknown Nikolaus Becker answered with this pugnacious lyric which won him wild approbation on all sides in Germany, and pensions from the kings of both Prussia and Bavaria. Alfred de Musset then countered with his cutting ‘Nous l’avons eu, votre Rhin allemand’ (Poésies nouvelles, 1841) a poem which Albéric Magnard was to set to music in 1891. (Magnard was to perish at the hands of German soldiers in 1914 as he defended his home from the enemy.)
Becker’s words touched and torched the new German nationalism. It was a cause which seemed to have united both Left and Right in Germany, to the horror of French liberals who had supposed that their German confrères would be above such petty hate-mongering. Schumann was a liberal who liked to think of himself as a radical. But even he was caught up in the wave of patriotism, and here the composer defends ‘Vater Rhein’ with the rest of them. This quarrel with France had little to do with the issues of liberty and justice within Germanspeaking lands which were to lead to the revolutions of 1848 – indeed, such jingoism was a distraction from such issues. War was temporarily side-stepped by Louis Philippe who dismissed his militant Prime Minister. But the flare-up of feeling was ominous for the future. Within thirty years the German Reich would shatter the gates of Paris. In 1871 the map of the region was re-drawn, and again in 1918, 1940 and 1945. The Rhine remains symbolic of Germany – perhaps thanks to Wagner – but one notices little attempt these days on the part of the French to claim this river as theirs. In any case Strasbourg remains a French city, even if full of German street-names, and the ‘Opéra du Rhin’ seldom has Wagner on its affiches.
The composer was far away from the Rhine when he wrote this song; he moved to Düsseldorf in 1851. His song in praise of the river had a tragic follow-up: determined to commit suicide Schumann threw himself into the Rhine on 27 February 1854. He was rescued by friendly fishermen who returned him home. All the details of this sad story are recounted in the diary of a man with whom the composer was friendly at the time, the leader of the Düsseldorf Orchestra whose name was also Becker – first name Ruppert, not Nikolaus.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2003