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Gilbert Kalish & Randall Scarlata – May 1, 2014
Lieder, Gesänge und Balladen – Robert Schumann’s Songs
Robert Schumann
In this country, Robert Schuman is known primarily for his piano and orchestral works, with
chamber music a distant second place. In the German-speaking countries, however, his many
songs have a place of honor, right along with Schubert’s Lieder.
Song is one of the most basic of mankind’s artistic expressions, but the German Lied has
specific stylistic qualities that came to fruition during the nineteenth century. Since the high
Baroque period, songs and arias usually had opened with a ritornello played by the
accompanying instrument or instruments; the ritornello then was used as a contrapuntal
accompaniment to the vocal line. The great Baroque composers, such as Johann Sebastian
Bach and George Frideric Handel, followed a practice of making the ritornelli match the
emotional meaning of the text, thereby creating unity between the poetry and music. By the
early nineteenth century, Franz Schubert, perhaps the most prolific songwriter of the century,
perfected the practice of creating piano or instrumental accompaniments that even more
intensely and specifically reflected the text, sometimes conveying a particular interpretation
of the song as a whole. As the harmonic language developed and expanded during the
century, composers in all genres used complex harmony and unusual key changes to signal
emotional intensity and changes of mood. Schumann, who wrote extensively about musical
and literary aesthetics, was one of Schubert’s principal heirs. Not only did he employ the
older composer’s system of piano introductions and accompaniment, but he also frequently
included long piano postludes, a kind of instrumental commentary on the singer’s preceding
words; he used the postlude particularly in Dichterliebe. Although today singers perform
Lieder at public concerts, they were originally mostly performed as an important part of
middle- and upper-class home music entertainment.
The common thread for this set of songs is the lover’s death. All four are settings of poems
by Heinrich Heine composed in 1840 and were originally intended for the Dichterliebe song
cycle (see below). Schumann excluded them before publication:
Dein Angesicht (Your Visage), Op. 127, No. 2. Text by Heinrich Heine: The poet dreams
that his beloved is dying; her dear face is ashen, and her lips are still red but would soon pale.
Es leuchtet meine Liebe (My Love Shines), Op. 127, No.3. Text by Heinrich Heine. The
lover dreams a sad dream that he was a knight kneeling in front of his beloved when a giant
comes out of the wilderness and slays him. The poet says that his story will end when he
himself will be in the grave.
Lehn deine Wang’ auf mine Wang’ (Lay your Cheek on my Cheek), Op.142, No. 2. Text by
Heinrich Heine. Lay your cheek on my cheek and your heart on my heart, and I will die from
love’s yearning.
Mein Wagen rollet langsam (My Carriage rolls slowly), Op. 142, No. 4. Text by Heinrich
Heine. I sit and dream in the carriage as shadowy creatures mock me, talking gibberish. The
accompaniment and postlude imitate the rhythm of carriage wheels; the middle section, the
ghoulish voices.
Three Fantasiestücke, Op. 111
By the time Robert Schumann composed these pieces in August 1851, his mental illness
began to seriously hamper his creativity. Many of the works from that year lack the freshness
and spontaneity of his earlier work, and he tried to refresh his inspiration by going back to
his earlier works reflecting his mental duality: the characters of Eusebius and Florestan, the
names he gave to the philosophical and passionate sides of his bi-polar personality.
Although Schumann liked and promoted the “personalities” of his mood swings, we should
exercise caution in buying hook, line and sinker into the whole aesthetic scheme for any
work that employs contrasting elements. The three Op. 111 pieces are carefully structured
into fairly conventional foursquare phrases, regular repeats and an overall fast-slow-fast
format that could serve for any classical sonata structure. No. 1 with its tonally unstable
opening and stormy arpeggios is certainly the kind of work he normally associated with
Florestan. The second piece, however, although calmer in mood, is in the traditional ABA
form of slow movements and contains its own more intense middle section. Is this a
Florestan/Eusebius dialogue, a response to the same melodic material? Perhaps, but that
exegesis could apply to any operatic da capo aria. No. 3, also an ABA structure (with coda)
is an exploration of a little dotted rhythmic motive in contrasting moods.
Zwei Balladen, Op. 122
Ballade vom Heideknaben (Ballad of the Moorland Boy), Op. 122, No.1. Text by Friedrich
Hebbel: The two Op. 122 works are not actually Lieder, but “melodramas,” spoken text with
occasional atmospheric piano accompaniment. The melodrama was popular in the nineteenth
century as a subset of “gothic,” or dark Romantic literature. The completely sung equivalent
would be Schubert’s Erlkönig, which utilizes the voices of narrator, and the dialogues
between father, Erlking and son. Schumann’s music is spooky, a foretaste of the horror
movie scores of the mid twentieth century. One critic described it as a radio drama for
Halloween. It tells of a youth whose dream foretells his own murder, with a raven the sole
witness to the bloody deed. It includes dialogues between the youth and his demanding
master, and finally with his murderer.
Die Flüchtlinge (The Fugitives), Op. 122, No. 2. Text after Percy Bysshe Shelly: Describes a
couple eloping and escaping by boat in a storm, pursued by the father’s curses.
Dichterliebe, Op. 48
Although the term “song cycle” (Ger. Liederkreis) did not enter the dictionary until 1865,
groupings of songs that tell a story, contain poems that develop a single idea, or use repeated
musical themes, were by then well established. Early in the century, Ludwig van Beethoven
had been the first composer to use the term Liederkreis within the context of his cycle An die
ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved). Schubert wrote several song cycles; the most
famous, Winterreise (Winter’s journey), recounts in 24 songs the feelings of a rejected lover
as he slowly makes an actual and metaphorical journey from grief into madness and
ultimately death.
Dichterliebe, composed in 1840 probably after Schumann’s marriage to Clara, is not a true
narrative; Like Winterreise, it reflects the singer’s feelings through an unsuccessful
courtship. The poems are a selection from Heine’s 66-poem collection Lyrisches Intermezzo,
an anthology on the theme of frustrated and embittered love. Originally, Schumann had
planned to set to music 29 of the poems, but by its publication in 1844, he had revised it
several times and for unknown reasons reduced the number to 16. Four of the excluded
Lieder opened this recital.
Long before he became involved with Clara, Schumann had come to revere Heinrich Heine
(1797-1856), one of the great poets of German Romanticism. Heine’s poems, often written in
simple language, yet encompassing complex meaning and symbolism, were favorites of
composers throughout the nineteenth century. Much of his poetry brought together idealized
images of nature and love with humor and bitter ironic twists, which characterize many of
the Dichterliebe.
Dichterliebe begins optimistically but becomes increasingly grim. In the opening song, “Im
wunderschönen Monat Mai” (in the wonderful month of May), the singer first reveals his
love to his beloved, but by the final song, “Die alten bösen Lieder” (The old, evil songs), he
vows to bury his feelings in a coffin that grows larger and larger with every verse – so big
that only the sea is big enough to contain it. Like the traveler in Winterreise, Schumann’s
singer recounts his own feelings, but they cover a far wider range and are often ambiguous,
sometimes even puzzling.
The first two songs, “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” and “Aus meinen Tränen spriessen”
(From my tears spring flowers) are connected musically. Both are in the same key, but the
first one remains unresolved until the opening chord of the second. This pairing sets up the
main emotional tension and irony of the entire cycle: the beauty of nature and new love,
which from the start are united through tears.
Next, “Die Rose, die Lille, die Taube” (The rose, the lily, the dove) with its the excited piano
part, in which the two hands can never play together, represents a short ecstatic moment that
quickly turns to reverent adoration in the following song, “Wenn ich in deine Augen sehe”
(when I look into your eyes). But then why, when the beloved says “I love you,” does the
singer weep bitterly? In his musical setting, Schumann appears to ignore Heine’s ironic
interpretation of human nature; such lapses caused Claude Debussy to comment: “Schumann
understood nothing about Heinrich Heine.”
“Ich will meine Seele tauchen” (I want to sink my soul in the cup of the lily) is the first of
the Dichterliebe songs in a minor key. Although the singer’s mood is still positive, he is
slipping into an extreme emotional state that probably does not bode well for the future of his
romantic relationship. Schumann, who suffered from bipolar (manic depressive) disorder and
died in an asylum, was prone to such intense feelings. This is also the first of the songs with
a postlude for the piano alone.
In “Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome” (In the Rhine, the holy river), the accompaniment is of
particular interest. At the time of its composition, Robert and Clara were both studying the
works of Bach. While the poem compares the beloved to a painting of the Virgin Mary, it is
clear that in the ritornello/postlude the composer was associating his bride with the artistry of
Bach’s great religious music. By this time in the cycle, the singer’s love is doomed and
religion only a brief refuge.
Although the lover says in “Ich grolle nicht” (I do not grumble), the constant repetition of
these words, along with the pounding accompanying chords, sounds like a musical grudge.
The singer calls on all the usual images of nature (the flowers, the nightingales, the stars) to
witness his misery in “Und wüssten’s die Blumen, die kleinen” (If only the little flowers
knew). The fluttering accompaniment reflects both his agitation, as well as recalling the
piano part of “Die Rose, die Lille, die Taube.” The shift to darker harmonies in the postlude,
however, reflects the uselessness of nature to ease his pain.
“Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen” (That is piping and fiddling) is the mid-point of the cycle
and provides its one specific narrative element: now the beloved has married someone else!
The accompaniment is a heavy waltz in the minor mode that literally winds down into a
musical sigh in the postlude.
The quiet bell-like accompaniment in “Hör’ ich ein Liedchen klingen” (When I hear a little
song playing that my beloved used to sing.) is the musical image of a distant memory.
“Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen” (Boy loves girl) begins as the cheeriest song in the cycle,
but it offers a kind of worldly-wise humor: When you love someone, he/she always loves
someone else… and you get hurt.
The piano accompaniment wanders through a series of unusual harmonies just as the singer
paces around his garden, communing once again with the flowers in “Am leuchtenden
Sommermorgen” (On a gleaming summer morning).
The final four songs all relate in some way to dreams and dreaming, the lover’s unsuccessful
attempts to escape his pain in sleep and fantasy. In “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet” (I wept in
my dream), the singer dreams first that his beloved has died and wakes up crying. In the
second verse, he dreams she has left him, and he cries harder. In this third, he dreams that she
has been kind to him and he is completely overcome. Schumann separates the piano and
vocal parts of the first two verses; only at final verse do they come together – like the lovers.
But they separate again the postlude, affirming the reality.
The major mode and simple accompaniment of “Allnächtlich im Traume” (Nightly I see you
in my dream) appears at first to miss the meaning of the poem: The singer dreams of his
beloved, who sadly speaks to him and gives him a branch of cypress (a symbol of death). But
by the time he wakes up, he has forgotten what she said to him and no longer has the cypress
branch. On second thought, perhaps the calm music symbolizes his forgetting the bad dream.
“Aus alten Märchen” (From old fairytales) describes all the wonders of a fantasy world:
perfect love surrounded by perfect nature. The rhythm of galloping horses and hunting horns
suggests playfulness and joy. The pace, however, then slows as the singer wishes he could
live there, gradually realizing that he must awaken from his dream.
The final song “Die alten bösen Lieder” (The ancient evil songs) is by far the longest and
most complex of the songs in the cycle – and the only one with different music for each of
the verses. As the symbolic coffin becomes bigger and bigger, growing to the size of various
famous German landmarks, the music becomes slower and slower. The accompaniment
changes as well, first imitating the sound of the nails being hammered into the coffin. It
drops to the lowest register of the keyboard as the coffin of sorrows sinks into the sea. In a
surprising shift in mood, the piano plays a long dreamy postlude, recalling the first song and
affirming the cyclical nature of the piece as a whole. Although it contrasts sharply with the
final depressing poem, perhaps it reflects the happier outcome of the composer’s own love.
Program notes by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn