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Heine, Heinrich (1797-1856)

Heinrich Heine

born: 13 December 1797
died: 17 February 1856
country: Germany

Heinrich Heine was born Harry Heine in Düsseldorf on 13 December 1797 (although he later claimed that his year of birth was 1799). His father was a kindly but ineffectual merchant, and to pay for his education the boy relied on the largesse of his millionaire uncle, Salomon Heine of Hamburg – a tyrant who attempted to control his nephew’s life in return for subsidy. Attempts to interest young Harry in banking and retailing failed, so he was packed off to the universities of Bonn, Göttingen and Berlin. He obtained an undistinguished legal degree which he never used. There is rather little reliable information about Heine’s life in this early phase, but he is said to have fallen in love with his cousins, Salomon’s daughters, neither of whom were at all interested in their impecunious young relative. In this way, Hamburg and its inhabitants are forever linked with poetry concerning Heine’s unhappiness. But we shall never know to what extent the desolate lyrics of the Buch der Lieder are founded on biographical incident, and how much simply on the poet’s imagination and tendency to self-dramatisation.

Heine’s first volume of poetry (now a great bibliophilic rarity) was published in 1822. This included lyrics (later assembled under the headings Junge Leiden and Lyrisches Intermezzo) which were only to re-emerge with the Buch der Lieder in 1827. In the same year he journeyed to Poland, and in 1823 he entered into the circle and salon of Rahel Varnhagen von Ense in Berlin. In 1824 he went on a walking holiday in the Harz mountains and paid a not-too-successful visit to Goethe in Weimar. (He had the temerity to tell the great man that he, too, was working on a Faust.) In 1825 in order to widen the scope of his career opportunities he converted to Protestantism. This was arguably something that was necessary at the time, but Heine later felt he had betrayed his Jewish roots. (Felix Mendelssohn also resented that his father had decided to have his children baptised, giving them no say in the matter.)

In 1826 he visited England, and Italy in 1828. Both of these countries were described in his inimitable, often hilarious, but unforgiving style. The Reisebilder (‘Pictures of Travel’) were issued in four volumes between 1826 and 1831. The first of these, dedicated to Rahel Varnhagen, contained the group of 88 poems known collectively as Die Heimkehr (‘The Homecoming’), the Harzreise with its mixture of prose and poetry, as well as the poems which make up the first two parts of Der Nordsee. It was this small but potent volume which delighted Schober and his reading circle, and was read aloud at the beginning of 1828. The humour of Die Harzreise made a particularly happy impression – and it remains amusing to this day. Deutsch averred that the Heine songs were probably conceived at this time but there is no proof that this was the case. There is even a theory (going back to the memoirs of the singer Schönstein) that Schubert had read Heine much earlier, and that his settings date from before 1828. Of course the composer could have read the Reisebilder earlier; he could also, theoretically, have had a copy of the Buch der Lieder in his possession since 1827. (If he used this source it seems strange that he would have ignored the first 165 pages of Heine’s poems in favour of Die Heimkehr; the six poems he set are to be found in the opening pages of Reisebilder Volume 1.) But the date and condition of the Schwanengesang autograph, as well as other circumstantial evidence, point to the fact that these Heine songs were indeed among the composer’s last.

On 18 November 1830 (almost exactly two years after Schubert’s death), Heine wrote to Eduard Marxsen (later the teacher of Brahms) thanking him for a consignment of small songs set to his poetry. The poet continues ‘apparently, shortly before his death, Schubert is said to have set my lieder to very good music which unfortunately I do not yet know’.

In 1831, attracted by the new political freedom brought about by the revolution that had swept Louis-Philippe to power, Heine moved to Paris. His writings were banned in Germany in 1835, and he returned to his homeland only twice, in 1843 and 1844. It was said that his role in life was to explain the German to the French, and vice versa. Heine’s French period was notable for the development of his career as a critic, cultural historian, polemicist and so on; the lyricist known to lieder enthusiasts almost disappears from view. In 1843, in a review in the journal Lutezia, Heine wrote: ‘Schubert’s popularity in Paris is very great and his name is exploited in the most shameless way … Poor Schubert! And what words are foisted on his music. It is particularly the Heinrich Heine songs, composed by Schubert, which are favourites here …’. Heine goes on to complain about the translations into French of these lyrics, and how the publishers have cheated him of his copyright fees. But of a musical appreciation of Schubert’s songs, not a word.

Incapacitated for years in what he called his ‘Mattress Grave’, paralysed and blind as a result of venereal infection, Heine died in Paris in 1856. Vilified by the Right (including of course the Nazis) and idolised by the Left who still see him as a proto-critic of the evils of fascism and capitalism, he remains a controversial figure to this day. Some critics (Karl Kraus) thought that Heine’s populist streak had prostituted the German language. Certainly the lyrics which were set to music are no longer counted as representing the most interesting side of his poetic output … but musicians will always beg to differ.

Heine’s verse can embrace sentimentality to the point of cliché. At the same time the poet profoundly distrusts sentiment, and does everything he can to deflate it. This dichotomy is at the heart of the bittersweet irony of the verse. Hundreds of composers found his poetry touching and accessible – which indeed it is on one level. But he loved to play with the tension between ‘poesy’, as he called it, and discordant reality, and this was much harder, and less rewarding, for the Romantic composer to capture in musical terms. Although Schubert was arguably unable (or unwilling) to follow Heine down every ironic pathway, the powerful and bleak Schwanengesang songs are a far cry from the effusive, and ultra-Romantic, settings of many a later composer. Robert Schumann will go down in history as Heine’s composer par excellence: but even he never created a Heine setting as frightening and imposing as Der Doppelgänger.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000


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