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The composer and folksong collector Friedrich Silcher (1789-1860) set the poem in 1838 and his is still the most famous melody for these words, in Germany at least. Perhaps Clara Schumann was inspired by this success and decided on something much more elaborate. On the other hand, Liszt’s setting of these words dates from 1841 and was published in Berlin in 1843. (He made a later, simplified version which was published in 1856.) Could Clara have known the song, or perhaps heard it accompanied by the composer himself? If so, it is difficult to decide whether her song is a reaction against Liszt’s, or written in its thrall – it has certain features in common, and others which are very different. In any case this is one of her most exciting creations and it shows how much she has learned about song-writing since 1840. It does not attempt to mix languorous (and repetitive) cantilena with wild scherzo as the Liszt does, but instead opts for a continuous movement (the marking is ‘Schnell’) which tells the story in a way that provides satisfying musical unity and excitement.
The key is G minor and the time signature 12/8. There is no piano introduction, which in this case works well; it is also a sign that Clara is not over-influenced by her husband’s style. The no-nonsense way in which the song begins means that the interlude between the fourth and eighth bars (before the legend of the Loreley is recounted) makes better sense. The whole of this intermediary passage is based on a pedal D, throbbing quavers in the bass which sustain the long upbeat which is the poem’s first strophe. (The falling melodic motif in the right hand later re-emerges as the siren’s song itself, and it is a clever touch to have introduced it thus.) The return to the home key only occurs at the beginning of the second verse, a shift which emphasises that the story of the shipwreck is recounted in the present tense.
In this moto perpetuo the throbbing quavers are pressed into service to describe wafting breezes and the flowing of the river. The ascent to ‘Abendsonnenschein’ (something which also occurs in Liszt’s song at this point – in Clara Schumann’s song a rising triad modulating from B flat major to F) signals a transition into a new mood and a change of accompanying style. The triplets continue, but now flow gently between the hands – two notes in the left crowned by a chord in the right. This change of emphasis provides an appropriately feminine touch (so far the mood has been very forthright and masculine) and also seems an effective analogue for the working of a three-toothed comb used by the Loreley to groom her watery locks. The movement of the accompaniment surges up and down like undulating waves; at times the vocal line is submerged within the texture, at others it rises as if suddenly visible above the eye-line of the boatman as he attempts to navigate his way through the turbulent river. The poem’s third and fourth strophes are joined without a hint of an interlude. Once again this is a result of deliberate planning, for it enables the motif introduced in the song’s opening page to be repeated after ‘Und singt ein Lied dabei’. No one could claim that this was really a ‘gewaltige Melodei’ (Liszt tries harder to create one) but its careful placing makes it symbolise the workings of supernatural magic. All of this music is on a D pedal; the shift into D major at ‘Melodei’ provides a fleeting but effective change of colour.
The music for the poem’s two concluding strophes is the most turbulent of the piece. The first vocal high point of the song is the sudden octave jump to the top of the stave (a high G) at ‘Ergreift es mit wildem Weh’ with a shift to the subdominant and the use of added sixth harmonies and diminished sevenths. At ‘Ich glaube, die Wellen verschlingen’ there is an effective use of a descending arpeggio motif (all on the familiar D pedal) of which Rachmaninov might have been proud. The climax at ‘Die Lore-Ley gethan’ (for so it is spelled in the Buch der Lieder) is stirring without being particularly original. Clara is not brave enough to finish the song peremptorily with only one appearance of these words – an effect which Heine, with his ‘sting in the tail’ or Stimmungsbrechung technique, no doubt wanted. Instead she brings the music to a close with a single repeat of these words, something to be preferred to Liszt’s seemingly protracted musings on ‘das hat die Lorelei getan’ which are in danger of sounding ridiculous unless hypnotically sung and played.
The six-bar postlude seems to describe the unsuccessful struggle for survival of the ship in distress (diminished chords resolving upwards on to IV and V – a ‘not waving but drowning’ motif which is reminiscent of the sequences which open both Sie liebten sich beide and Volkslied (tracks 10 and 13), only much faster. In any case this vessel is destined for the bottom of the Rhine and is duly dispatched there with a virtuoso flourish. If there are some slightly hackneyed idées reçues in this song – reminiscent of the faster songs of Mendelssohn which might almost be instrumental scherzi (Neue Liebe and Reiselied come to mind) – the whole is a real achievement as a narrative ballad. It is one of Clara’s most extended songs and shows the hand of a highly gifted musical sensibility. She has taken a great deal of trouble to plot the shape of this work to terse and exciting effect.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2001
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