The Songs of Robert Schumann
Robert Schumann was a composer steeped in literature. His compositions bear the dual imprint of both German musical and literary Romanticism. Literature was the family business, one might say, as his father, August Schumann, was both a publisher and a bookseller in Zwickau, Saxony, where the composer grew up. He began to write about the aesthetics of music when he was barely into his teens, at the same time as he was composing—an early indication of his future activity as a founding editor of Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, one of Germany’s most important music journals, still published today.
So it was natural that when writing his first songs as a teenager he should try his hand at writing poetry, as well. In Sehnsucht (Longing), written in 1827 to his own song text, is a typical product of German Romanticism, with its heightened awareness of the natural world as an echo chamber of the poet’s inner thoughts and emotions. Many of the features that would become standard in Schumann’s song settings were already in place in his early songs, including the “framing” of the sung text within a musically significant opening piano introduction and closing piano ‘postlude’.
Another early song, Gesanges Erwachen (Song’s awakening) of 1828 is a good example of how Schumann likes to wrap the voice in the attentive embrace of its keyboard companion. In this strophic song the piano also provides instrumental interludes between the verses, and even aspires to the status of a duet partner as it trades melodic phrases back and forth with the voice.
After composing a good dozen songs in the late 1820s it became obvious to Schumann that his real interest was the piano and he wrote for nothing else during the entire decade of the 1830s. The lyrical impulse of song, however, would remain a strong influence on him even during this time, evident in his use of music from his early songs in the piano sonatas Opp. 11 and 22 and in his quotation from Beethoven’s song cycle An die Ferne Geliebte in his Fantasie Op. 17 for piano.
* * *
The year 1840 marked Schumann’s so-called “Year of Song” (Liederjahr), in which he produced over 125 songs, more than half his total output.
The songs from his Liederkreis Op. 39 are based on the nature poems of Joseph von Eichendorff. Waldesgespräch (Forest dialogue) depicts a dramatic meeting between a hunter and the seductive forest spirit Lorelei, who bewitches men and brings them to an early death. The nonchalant postlude of this song, a reprise of the pleasant hunting music of the opening, has the childlike innocence of a story from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Mondnacht (Moonlit night) by contrast is pure scene painting, untroubled by any thoughts of danger or magical mischief. It depicts the earth and sky as joining together for a lover’s kiss, with the high and low registers of the keyboard as stand-ins for the natural elements. A different kind of scene painting is featured in Schöne Fremde (A beautiful foreign land), with its rapturous depiction in the piano accompaniment of both the wind rustling in the treetops and the poet’s blood coursing through his veins. The last song in this set, Frühlingsnacht (Spring night), features an even more feverish piano accompaniment to convey the unanimous opinion of all forest creatures large and small that the poet’s love life is on a definite upswing. The accompaniment in this song could easily be a stand-alone piano piece.
Dein Angesicht (Your face) explores darker territory, but in a typically Romantic way, combining the innocence of a dream with the fear of losing a loved one. The placid pulse of a gently swaying accompaniment leaves the drama of this text to be conveyed by unexpected changes in harmony.
The songs from the collection entitled Frauenliebe und Leben (A woman’s love and life) Op. 42 all deal with a woman’s emotional life. Concern has been expressed in modern critical circles that “the woman in these poems is really too much of a doormat” to her hero husband, but the tone may well have been an accurate description of the relationship Schumann had with his wife Clara, who was nine years his junior.
Seit ich ihn gesehen (Since first seeing him) describes the ‘blindness’ of a woman in love. The halting pace and low register of the piano accompaniment imitates the tentative steps of a person lost in the darkness. Helft mir ihr Schwestern (Help me, O sisters) describes the excitement of a woman being dressed on her wedding day, with hints of a wedding march throughout that are made explicit in the piano postlude. Nun hast du mir (Now you have caused me my first pain) is an utter contrast in mood, a dramatic monologue of loss and despair as a woman faces burying her dead husband. The tragic chords of the piano provide scant support for the voice, left as isolated and alone in the musical texture as the woman pictured in text.
The songs of Schumann’s Op. 35 take us back to the world of nature. Erstes Grün (First green) is a delicate evocation of the coming of spring, unusual in its play of major and minor tonalities. Sehnsucht nach der Waldgegend (Woodland longing) is an evocation of nostalgia for the woods, birds & streams of the poet’s homeland, richly conveyed in a rolling accompaniment in the low register that won this song the admiration of Brahms. Even deeper and richer in low piano tone is Stille Tränen (Silent tears) with its sustained melody and throbbing chordal accompaniment.
The voice stands in bold relief against the piano, however, in Der Himmel hat eine Träne geweint (Heaven shed a tear) that sees a tear from heaven made into a pearl as symbolic of the love that a lover guards preciously inside. The tone of this song is noble, but with more than a touch of sentimentality. Piano and voice return to a duet texture in O ihr Herren (O you lords) with another accompaniment that could be a piano piece on its own. Herbstlied (Autumn song) expresses the contrasting emotions brought on by the change of seasons. It has a two-part structure: the passing of summer is regretted solemnly in the minor mode with a Bachian contrapuntal accompaniment until the mood brightens with major-mode thoughts of how winter will preserve everything till spring.
The first half of this recital ends with the great Biblical narrative of Belsatzar (Belshazzar), the Babylonian ruler whose jubilant feasting in celebration of his conquest of Jerusalem is interrupted by a the appearance of a mysterious message from the Almighty written on the wall. The score follows the narrated events of the tale with picturesque evocations of the flickering torches, the martial menace of the warriors in attendance, the sounds of riotous banqueting and the shock and awe of the story’s dramatic conclusion.
* * *
The duet Liebesgram (Love’s sorrows) is a serious song, in keeping with its subject: death. The contrast between life and death is played out in the contrast between the major and minor mode, with the piano providing both serious contrapuntal and plangent harmonic comment on the text.
Exquisite delicacy characterizes Schneeglöcklein (Snow drop) which plays on the double sense of the name for the flower with the bell-shaped head that presages the coming of spring, here pictured as both a source of melting “snow drops” and the light tintinnabulation of a tinkling bell, charmingly portrayed in the high register of the piano. Equally cute is the naïve childlike enthusiasm for the arrival of spring in Er ist’s (Spring is here) with its twinkling accompaniment in the high register and imitation of the harp with—what else?–arpeggios.
Harplike sounds abound as well in the Goethe poems of Schumann’s Harfenspielerlieder. The tone of Wer sich der Einsamket ergibt (He who gives himself up to solitude) is serious, with a tortured melody and very little phrase repetition ranging widely over a harmonically restless accompaniment. More sober still is An die Türen will ich schleichen (I shall steal from door to door), which describes with great pathos the slow awkward gate of a wandering beggar.
Scholars are still puzzled by the text of Liebeslied (Love song), which may have been a secret coded message from Schumann to his wife Clara. This song is infinitely romantic, with the piano rapturously enveloping the voice’s voluptuous melody in a luxury of sympathetic swells of harmony and echoing its sighs. A more turbulent relationship is described in Es stürmet am Abendhimmel (A storm rages in the evening sky) that features a meteorological love affair between a cloud and the sun, with the piano vividly portraying the black cloud’s dark billowing presence. An eerie stillness returns in Nachtlied (Night song) with a virtually impassive melody drifting over a solemn succession of chords in the piano. Aufträge (Messages) is another nature song, this time on the theme of “Who will take this message to my love?” Will it be a wave, a bird, or the moon? The piano simply froths with excitement trying to find out.
Die Sennin (The cowgirl) features a gently yodelling melody that with its memorable leaps conveys the expansive feeling of being outdoors. The free and easy feel of this song’s opening is tempered by the bittersweet thought that “all things pass.” Sadness also tinges Meine Rose (My rose), a song which despite its comfortable ‘slow waltz’ pulse manages to rise to an almost operatic level of passion. Requiem is a reverent but passionate tribute to the life of German poet Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850) with a translated text attributed to the 12th-century abbess Héloïse about her lover, the philosopher-poet Peter Abelard.
* * *
Schumann’s songs take a darker turn near the end of his creative life. In Abendlied (Evening song) we hear both the hope for a better future in heaven and disturbing echoes of life on earth, especially in the piano’s pulsing triplet chords in 6/4 while the singer sings in 4/4. Even more unsettling is the storyline in Warnung (Warning): a bird is told to be silent lest by attracting the attention of the owl it become its prey, an obvious hint at the approach of death. Even more eerie is the way in which the piano and singer seem to inhabit separate worlds, the piano in the underworld, the voice a lonely presence still back on earth.
With Abschied von der Welt (Farewell to the world) we arrive at the last of Schumann’s compositions. The piano plays the role of the orchestra in a dramatic operatic recitative, punctuating the singer’s plangent pleas and its own heartbreaking commentary on the existential questions: What use is the time I have left? Who will remember me? More heartrending still is the very moving Gebet (Prayer), with its implacably stern piano chords and the singer’s increasingly urge pleas for help. It was shortly after completing this song that musical Romanticism’s most sensitive poet, Robert Schumann, attempted to drown himself in the Rhine and was confined to an asylum, where he died three years later.
Donald G. Gíslason 2017