Schumann, Eichendorff Liederkreis, Part I, 2017

Schumann, Eichendorff Liederkreis, Part I, 2017

April 10, 2017.  Robert Schumann, Eichendorff Liederkreis, Part I.  Today we present the first part of an article about one of the most captivating song cycles in the history of European music, Schumann’s Liederkreis (song cycle) op. 39.  Based on the poetry of Joseph Eichendorff, the cycle Robert Schumannis usually called Eichendorff Liederkreis to distinguish it from another song cycle, op. 24, written on the poems by Heinrich Heine earlier that same year (1840), Schumann’s Year of Song.  There are many great recordings of Eichendorff Liederkreis, made both by male (tenors and baritones) and female (soprano and mezzo) singers: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau made a famous recording, and so did Hermann Prey, also a baritone.   The English tenor Ian Bostridge made a wonderful recording, and Peter Schreier, a German tenor.  Jessye Norman, a dramatic soprano, was excellent in this cycle, but so was the Dutch lyric soprano Elly Ameling.  We decided to illustrate Eichendorff Liederkreis with the recording made by a lesser known but superb Leider singer, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher.  Gerold Huber is on the piano.  ♫

In his early years as a composer, Robert Schumann composed virtually exclusively for the piano. However, the year of 1840 saw at least the creation of 138 songs. Since then, this abundant creative outpouring has become known as Schumann’s Liederjahr, or “Year of Song.” The sudden shift from piano to vocal music, though, was not purely coincidental. It marked the culmination of his courtship of Clara Wieck, and his long-awaited and hard-won marriage to her.

Schumann and Clara first met in March 1828 at a musical evening in the home of Dr. Ernst Carus. So impressed was Schumann with her skill at the piano, he soon after began taking piano lessons from her teacher and father, Friedrich, during which time he took up residence in the Wieck’s household. In such close proximity, Schumann and Clara soon formed a close bond that would, in time, blossom into a romantic relationship. Friedrich, however, did not think highly of Schumann. Thus, they kept their relationship a secret, and in 1837, on Clara’s 18th birthday, Schumann proposed to her. Clara accepted, yet her father refused to give his consent. However, this did not deter the two young lovers, though it did place a strain on their relationship. Schumann and Clara continued to exchange love letters, and met in secret whenever they could. In a display of tender devotion, Schumann would even wait for hours in a café just to catch a glimpse of Clara as she left one of her concerts. Refusing to be apart, the couple sued Clara’s father. After a lengthy court battle, Clara was finally allowed to marry Schuman without her father’s consent. The wedding took place in 1840.

Liederkreis, op. 39 was one of the song cycles, along with Frauenliebe und -leben and Dichterliebe, composed during the intensive creative episode surrounding Schumann’s marriage to Clara. Based on poetry of Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, Schumann himself described the songs as his “most Romantic music ever.” The cycle was begun in May, and thus displays Schumann’s rapid advancement and growing sophistication as a composer of song. Interestingly, for a composer with such an affinity for motivic and thematic unity, opus 39 is one of Schumann’s least unified cycles. No narrative links the songs to together as in Frauenliebe und -leben, nor are there connecting or recurring themes as in the case of that cycle or of Dichterliebe. However, a common thread still weaves its way throughout the songs. All, except for Intermezzo, are explicitly set in nature. Furthermore, a theme of longing and separation permeate many of the songs, with a few evenly grimly touching upon death. Yet, ultimately, the cycle culminates in the blissful “Frühlingsnacht,” in which the poet, quite beyond his own belief, has won the object of his affection, and reveals that the songs of opus 39 were perhaps Schumann’s emotional outlet during the time leading up to Schumann’s marriage to Clara.

Opening the cycle is the lonesome “In der Fremde” (here). In a foreign land, the poet looks longingly towards his homeland. Yet, even there, he knows he would remain a foreigner—his father and mother dead, no one would know him (“Es kennt mich dort keiner mehr”). He longs for the peaceful rest his parents now enjoy (“Wie bald kommt die stille Zeit”), when no one in the strange land shall know him either. An unsettled accompaniment of broken chords forms the foundation of Schumann’s setting. The vocal melody is simple. During the first stanza, it hovers closely above the tonic, reaching only up to the subdominant and each time falling back down, effectively capturing the gloomy thoughts that weigh down upon the poet. The melody, as well as the piano accompaniment, changes, however, during the second stanza. Briefly, the music turns away from F-sharp minor to A major as the poet wistfully turns his thoughts towards his parents. Yet, a grim A-sharp foils the melody’s diatonic descent on the words “da ruhe ich auch” (“I, too, shall rest”), and quite startlingly ushers back in the morbid state of the poet. The final line of the poem (“und Keiner kennt mich mehr hier”), twice stated, is most poignantly rendered in F-sharp major. Yet, the warm and comforting resolution of the major key is entirely thwarted by Schumann’s persistent inclusion of G natural, most affectingly in the closing strains of the voice. The piano then echoes the vocal melody’s last strain during its brief postlude.  (Continue reading here).Starkly contrasted from the opening song is Intermezzo (here),in which the poet speaks with rapturous bliss of the image of his beloved (“Dein Bildnis wunderselig / hab ich im Herzensgrund”) and the sweet song that travels from his heart to hers (“Ein altes schönes Lied, / das in die Luft sich schwinget /u nd zu dir eilig zieht”). In a warm A major, the affectionate vocal melody floats above an accompaniment of gentle syncopations, which eloquently portray the poet’s yearning affection. After a close in the dominant, the second stanza begins a passionate ascent, propelled onward by an accelerando, and culminates on a beautiful chord progression from C-sharp major to a dominant seventh on A. Seamlessly, Schumann begins again the first stanza, slightly altered at first with the bass mimicking the vocal melody. During its latter half, the music builds into an affectionate climax just before the final cadence in which the word “jeder” (“every”) is emphasized.

The third song, “Waldesgespräch” (“Forest Conversation,” here), draws on the myth of the Lorelei, a female spirit that seduces and traps men, often sending them to their death. The four stanzas of Eichendorff’s poem alternate between the characters of the hapless traveler who has wandered into the enchanted forest and the Lorelei. In the first, he believes her to be a lost bride (“Der Wald ist lang, du bist allein, du schöne Braut”), and offers to escort her out of the forest. The Lorelei at first gives the man a chance to flee in the second stanza (“O flieh! Du weißt nicht, wer ich bin”). Entranced, however, he marvels at her beauty in the following stanza (“So wunderschön der junge Leib”) until he sees through her façade, and realizes who she is at its close (“Jetzt kenn ich dich - Gott steh mir bei! / Du bist die Hexe Lorelei”). In the last stanza, the Lorelei fully reveals herself, and proclaims that the traveler will never leave the forest (“Kommst nimmermehr aus diesem Wald”). Schumann contrasts the two characters musically by ascribing a heroic E major melody, imitative of horns, to the traveler, and a more lyrical melody in C major with an accompaniment of harp-like arpeggios to the Lorelei. Against the horn-like melody of the piano accompaniment, the vocal melody begins with the virile strains of the traveler, concluding with heroic declarations of leading the seemingly lost bride home (“Der Wald ist lang, du bist allein, / du schöne Braut! Ich führ dich heim”). By means of a deceptive cadence, Schumann transitions with no warning into the harp-like accompaniment and the lyrical melody of the Lorelei. Twice the vocal melody rises coaxingly from the dominant to the tonic. However, towards the stanza’s end, the Lorelei’s warning (“O flieh! Du weißt nicht, wer ich bin”) is given with great effect on a descending line that returns the music to E major. Under the spell of the Lorelei, the traveler’s reappearance in the third stanza is now more lyrical, though still accompanied by the horn-like melody. At his realization of the Lorelei’s true nature, the music shifts suddenly into the parallel minor. The final appearance of the Lorelai retains the E major tonality. The vocal melody during the last stanza at first remains as entrancing as before, but quickly turns sinister, reflected in the chromatic harmonies of the accompaniment, when the Lorelei pronounces the fate of the wretched traveler. To complete the song’s rondo form, Schumann gives a final statement of the traveler’s melody.

In another dramatic shift, Schumann leaves behind the sinister nature of “Waldesgespräch” for the flirtatiousness of “Die Stille” (“The Stillness,” here), though it still shares with the first and second songs a similar sense of longing. Inwardly, the poet experiences a sublime bliss, but no one else is capable of seeing it (“Es weiss und rät es doch keener / wie mir so wohl ist, so wohl!”). For him, it matters not, but only that one other particular person knows (“wüsst es nur einer”). He is at peace, and even the snow on the ground or the stars in the sky are not as silent as his thoughts. Yet, in this moment of bliss, he feels an intense longing, wishing for his soul to fly as a bird (“Ich wünscht, ich wär ein Vöglein / und zöge über das Meer”) to heaven—to the source and fulfillment of his happiness. A minimal accompaniment of predominantly staccato chords supports the cheerful and coquettish vocal melody that takes pleasure in its blissful secret. During the second stanza, where the poet describes his thoughts as more silent than the snow and stars, the accompaniment is reduced even further with chords becoming an isolated feature amidst crisp, bare octaves. As the poet’s soul would undoubtedly take flight if it were capable, the music of the third stanza becomes more animated. The vocal melody first weaves about the tones of a dominant ninth chord, before soaring upward on the final two lines (“Wohl über das Meer und weiter / bis dass ich im Himmel wär!”). Schumann then returns to the music of the opening, and repeats the first stanza to complete the song’s ternary form.

Though the moon is never actually mentioned in the fifth song “Mondnacht” (“Moonlit Night,” here), there is no doubt of its setting. In the rays of the celestial body, the protagonist of the poem now belongs solely to her beloved (“Von ihm nun träumen müsst”), kissed (“still geküsst”), and thus transformed, by their magical glow. The breeze gently rustles the grain and trees about her. Then, into the starry night, her soul takes flight in an intense longing for her beloved. Eichendorff’s ethereal lyric could not be more beautifully portrayed in Schumann’s setting. In a radiant E major, the gleams of moonlight seem to fall to Earth before the listener during the slowly descending, chromatic motif given by the piano. Before the introduction can resolve into the tonic, the piano takes up an accompaniment of repeated notes that seem far too quaint to be so full of anticipation. As the vocal melody begins, the left hand enters with a melodic idea of its own that briefly serves as a sort of countermelody to the voice, but soon morphs into a chain of descending fourth and fifths that imparts a magical glow to the music. The couplets of the first two stanzas are set to virtually the same music, with the music of the introduction reappearing as an interlude before the second stanza. The third, however, follows closely on the heels of the previous stanza. The music, fixated at first on the dominant, crescendos through a reappearance of the introduction’s motif while building towards the close of the stanza, which recalls the early melody in a slightly altered form of the earlier stanzas. The piano then provides a brief coda of quiet arpeggios to bring the song to close.

“Schöne Fremde” (“Beautiful Foreign Land,” here) begins with the night falling upon the poet. The trees are gently rustled by the wind (“Es rauschen die Wipfel und schauern”), and speak softly to him, while the stars, recalling once again the theme of longing, shine down with loving gazes (“Es funkeln auf mich alle Sterne / mit glühendem Liebesblick”) and tell of a distant, future happiness. A mere three beats is given to the piano to set the stage of Eichendorff’s poem before the voice enters with its yearning melodic line. However, the listener can readily hear the rustling of the trees in Schumann’s accompaniment of sixteenth notes, nestled between a flowing bass line and hints of a melodic motif in the treble. As night falls, and the poet believes more and more in the loving light of the stars and of some future happiness to come, Schumann gradually moves the music from the obscure tonal beginnings of the song to a warm and radiant B major, necessitating a through-composed approach, and finally affirming the tonic on the poem’s final words (“wie von künftigem grossen Glück”). In the piano’s postlude, the motif heard in the first measure returns, but now transformed from a fourth into an expectant upward sixth.