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Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Song Cycles

James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Tilbrook (piano)
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Recording details: March 2014
Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: September 2015
Total duration: 76 minutes 46 seconds

The expressive tenor of James Gilchrist casts a warm light over thirty-seven of Schumann's greatest songs: the two Liederkreis cycles—to poetry by Heine (Op 24, Schumann's first vocal work to be published) and Eichendorff (Op 39)—and the seminal Dichterliebe of 1840.

A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.


'For all three cycles at one go, Gilchrist makes a good-value recommendation' (Gramophone)
What, exactly, makes a ‘song cycle’? It is conspicuous that apparently the earliest formal definition, in von Dommer’s 1865 revision of H C Koch’s Musikalisches Lexikon (1802), comes a quarter of a century after Schumann’s Dichterliebe and its two companion cycles—all date from 1840, his miraculous Liederjahr—let alone 40 years after Schubert’s cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. And although von Dommer does not mention the work by name, it is Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (1816) which lies behind his words; subsequent definitions were quick to adopt Beethoven’s work explicitly as the ‘model’ of the genre.

The difficulty is that there are important aspects of Beethoven’s cycle—it begins and ends in the same key, for example, and uses linking passages between songs so that the whole forms a continuous musical statement—that are simply not consistently characteristic of the cycles by Schubert and Schumann (though read on for Schumann’s key schemes). It may have been the palpable unity of An die ferne Geliebte, indeed, that led to its being regarded as the standard-bearer of its type, for it was in the 1860s also that public performances of complete Schubert and Schumann cycles took hold. This was largely thanks to the baritone Julius Stockhausen, who gave the first complete performance of Dichterliebe with Brahms in Hamburg on 30 April 1861 and that of the Eichendorff Liederkreis with O Smith in the same city on 6 May 1863 (the premiere of the complete Op 24 has not been established).

If unity is an important factor, then the Liederkreis, Op 24—Schumann’s first published vocal composition, dedicated to the French mezzo-soprano Pauline Viardot—is an interesting case from the perspective of both composition and reception. Writing to his beloved Clara on 24 February 1840, he enthused that ‘in recent days I have finished a large cycle of (interrelated) Heine Lieder’. By ‘interrelated’ (‘zusammenhängend’) Schumann was probably referring to the fact that he had set the nine poems from the 1827 edition of the Buch der Lieder by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) in the sequence of the source text (something which is not the case for the Dichterliebe poems, which come from the same book, or for the Eichendorff settings; for those cycles Schumann ‘anthologized’ the sources for his own ends). But ‘interrelated’ could as well refer to the musical construction of Op 24, which begins and ends in D major and exhibits great care in the tonal sequence from song to song, provided of course that the songs are not transposed inconsistently.

Heine grouped the nine poems under the title Junge Leiden. Lieder (‘Youthful sorrows. Songs’), which alludes to the familiar narrative of love and loss: as Jon Finson puts it, Op 24 traces:

The persona’s anticipation of his beloved’s arrival (songs 1 & 2), hopes for her affection (3 & 4), rejection (5), rage and flight (6 & 7) and resignation (8), and concludes with a reflective account of healing that enshrines the whole story in verse (9).

Finson also points out that Schumann’s manuscript shows that he originally planned Op 24 in two volumes (it would be published as a single book). The division was to occur after the fifth song, the longest poem thus far and the turning point in the poetic narrative. From a musical point of view, this would have resulted in each ‘half’ of the cycle closing with a minor–major pair of songs, the first of each pair being pointedly terse, even sarcastic in tone, compared with the lyrical expansiveness of the second (an analogy to the recitative–aria pairings of opera and oratorio is not inappropriate).

The pairing is particularly transparent when the penultimate song, with its unmistakable allusion to the chorale ‘Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten’, closes on the dominant of its D minor key, and thus invites the resolving D major of the concluding ‘Mit Myrthen und Rosen’. Yet generations of singers setting out to learn this cycle will have been faced with the curious, not to say absurd, fact that Max Friedlaender, in his venerable three-volume Peters edition of Schumann’s Lieder, chose to print ‘Mit Myrthen und Rosen’ separately in Volume 1, as one of a series of ‘selected’ Lieder whose purpose was to fill out a volume otherwise devoted to complete cycles (including the other two recorded here); Op 24 Nos 1–8 were relegated to Volume 2. What Finson describes as ‘arguably Schumann’s most meticulously crafted cycle’ was thus summarily disassembled. ‘Cyclehood’, it seems, may be decided by the publisher over the wishes of the composer.

But the status of the cycle need not be permanently fixed even in the mind of the composer. The version of the Liederkreis, Op 39 to poems by Joseph von Eichendorff (1788–1857) recorded here is not Schumann’s original, which was published in Vienna in 1842; that version began with a song in D major, ‘Der frohe Wandersmann’, which in its folk-like tone as well as subject matter would immediately have linked this cycle to the tradition of Wanderlieder. Nor was ‘Der frohe Wandersmann’ conceived together with the rest of the cycle, for its composition date of 22 June 1840 falls a month after that of the other songs. Eight years later, in April 1850, Schumann issued a new edition of the cycle (as he did revised versions of some of his early piano cycles, including the Davidsbündlertänze, Op 6, in the same year). That began with ‘In der Fremde [I]’: a song utterly different in tone and imagery from its predecessor (which eventually was to open the collection Lieder und Gesänge, Volume III, Op 77, of 1851), it immediately establishes a quite different aura for this cycle, which Schumann described to Clara as ‘probably my most Romantic work, and there is much of you in it’.

It was Clara who had copied out the complete texts of Op 39 in the manuscript anthology of poems for setting to music which she and Robert maintained assiduously from 1839 onwards. The poems are taken from the section ‘Intermezzo’ in Eichendorff’s collected poems of 1837, and are replete with the dark imagery of forests, ruined castles (especially ‘Auf einer Burg’, with its strong intimations of the past glories of Germany), old folk tales (the Lorelei in ‘Waldesgespräch’) and the like, all of them celebrated tropes of German literary Romanticism. Another such is moonlight, which is celebrated in the fifth song, the best-known of the cycle and a staple of the recital repertory in isolation from its companions. Much has been made of the sequence of bass notes, E–B–E, which recurs several times: since in German the note B is designated H, the sequence spells E–H–E, or Ehe, the German word for ‘marriage’; that would finally become a reality for Robert and Clara on 12 September 1840, the day before Clara’s 21st birthday. (H–E has also been understood as referring to the kiss between ‘Himmel’ and ‘Erde’ in the first two lines of the poem.)

‘In der Fremde [I]’ may serve as a more extended example of the relationship between Wort and Ton in Schumann’s hands. Eichendorff’s poem is cast as two quatrains rhyming ABAB and CDCD: entirely regular, save for an enjambment between lines 6 and 7. The first quatrain deals with events of the past, the second with those of the future. Schumann sets the first as two almost identical four-bar phrases: harmony is simple and cadentially closed, the melodic line highly restricted in range. The music of the second quatrain is double the length of the first; four-bar phrasing is abandoned, and at the enjambment (‘und über mir / Rauscht…’) Schumann crafts a return to the opening melody but now in the subdominant, B minor. The cadential return to F sharp minor occurs almost as an afterthought, at the end of line 7 (‘Waldeinsamkeit’), so that the final line, which balances that of the first quatrain, is consigned to what is effectively a coda; and the shadow of B minor hangs over the closing F sharp major of the piano postlude. As the song progresses, then, musical certainties give way to uncertainties, to the point where the tonic key of the song itself is destabilized. Schumann’s music undoes the regularities of Eichendorff’s verse; poetic and musical structure become alienated—‘entfremdet’—from one another.

Another description for the relationship of text and music in ‘In der Fremde [I]’ might be ‘ironic’. The term takes us back to Heine and to the 16 (originally 20) poems from the Buch der Lieder that Schumann set in a single week, 24 May to 1 June 1840, as Dichterliebe, Op 48; the title is Schumann’s own, and though as in the Op 24 and Op 39 cycles the texts assume a male protagonist, Dichterliebe was published in two volumes (eight songs each) in August 1844 with a dedication to the soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, who had created the role of Senta in Der fliegende Holländer the previous year.

Opinions vary as to the extent to which Schumann understood or felt it necessary to reflect in his music the biting irony that is a hallmark of so much of Heine’s verse. For many, Schumann simply misses the point in ‘Ich grolle nicht’, the stand-out number in the cycle, as he does in his seemingly matter-of-fact response to the protagonist’s bitter tears in the face of the beloved’s ‘Ich liebe dich!’ at the end of the fourth song. But there is perhaps a larger irony to seek at the level of the cycle as a whole.

Beyond ‘Ich grolle nicht’, Dichterliebe is particularly celebrated for the tonal ambiguity of its opening song, which returns circularly to an unresolved dominant 7th (on C sharp) of F sharp minor while never actually confirming that key as tonic; and for the extended piano postlude (itself an extension of the corresponding part of the twelfth song) with which the whole cycle concludes.

The contrast between the ambiguity of ‘Im wunderschönen Monat Mai’ and the harmonic clarity and simplicity of the songs that immediately follow it may be understood as articulating a temporal shift: the protagonist turns his mind backwards in the first song, whereupon the memories evoked (the second song onwards) become effectively present to him, as though their events are happening in the present. The reference back to ‘Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen’ at the end of the cycle is often understood as signifying the protagonist’s acceptance of his loss: he has taken to heart the admonition of the flowers at the end of that earlier song. But this is not the only backwards reference in the closing pages of Dichterliebe.

Rather as in the first song of Op 39, the structural cadence of ‘Die alten, bösen Lieder’ falls at the end of the penultimate verse of the poem, as the protagonist vows to bury his songs in the waters of the Rhine (there is a significant extension here of the burial imagery at the end of Op 24). Immediately following this cadence (‘Wißt ihr, warum …’), the music returns to the unstable C sharp7 harmony of the first song; and the singer-protagonist, now effectively addressing the audience (‘ihr’: ‘you’) rather than his beloved, returns from a past made present in memory to the here and now.

This is the context in which the famous postlude unfolds. In the autograph manuscript Schumann wrote it out in C sharp major, but he directed his publisher to notate it enharmonically, in D flat. Was this merely for ease of reading, or did he wish to obscure visually the fact that the final chord of Dichterliebe leads seamlessly back to the opening? Like its opening song, this Liedercyklus (as Schumann styled it) is a true Liederkreis, or ‘song circle’: despite his words and actions, the protagonist cannot move on but must relive his unhappy experiences forever. And to some listeners, the three-note melodic descent heard three times in the closing moments may seem not merely naïve and conventional, but more an uncanny recall of the near-identical figure (though transposed by a tritone) to which Heine’s devastating ‘bitterlich’ is set at the end of the fourth song, ‘Wenn ich in deine Augen she’.

Nicholas Marston © 2015

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