Completed in April 1880, Tragödie
(or its translation, ‘The Tragedy of Life’) was included in Six Songs
, Opus 14, published by Boosey in 1882. Stanford had already exercised his interpretative powers on twelve of Heine’s poems in his Opp. 4 and 7 sets but in these instances the settings were of shorter, more concise lyrics. In Tragödie
the structure is a broader triptych, employing elements of narrative more in the manner of a ballad. The first section begins with the words of the lover as he beckons his beloved to flee with him so that they can marry (‘Entflieh mit mir und sei mein Weib’), a passionate utterance which culminates at its conclusion in a bold, four-bar statement from the piano. The expected cadence is, however, deliberately avoided, yielding to a second section using words, as Heine admitted, from a Rhineland folksong. Stanford’s response was, appropriately, to invent his own ‘folk’ material emulating, in a stark F minor, the fantastical Romanticism of Schumann’s Legenden Ton
. Commenting on the action of the first section, the text recounts the tale of a youth and a maiden who recklessly stole away in the dead of night – unbeknown to their parents – and were bedevilled by ill fortune, dying in penury. This moral in turn becomes the subject of reflection in the final, more tonally discursive section. Here the two lovers (of the first section), having fled their homes, sit beneath a lime tree over a grave (the grave of the hapless couple of the folksong narrative). Amid the faltering breeze and the sweet yet sorrowful song of the birds, they are overwhelmed by an incomprehensible sadness. Once again Heine’s sense of fate is tinged with a bitter cynicism and irony, and this is highlighted by Stanford’s profoundly poetic reiteration of the piano’s heroic melody, first in the flat submediant (A flat) as an elegiac reference to the doomed lovers (‘Die Winde sie wehen so lind und so schaurig’), and latterly in the postlude where the restatement of C major is muted in tragic solemnity.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2000