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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHUMANN, R.: Lied Edition, Vol. 6 - Myrthen, Op. 25 / 6 Gedichte und Requiem, Op. 90
Robert Schumann’s literary interests influenced his choice of the poems he used for his songs, many of which were composed in a burst of activity during the ‘Year of Song’ 1840. This sixth disc in the Naxos series of the complete Schumann Lieder features the 26 songs of Myrthen (Myrtles), which date from February of that year. Dedicated to his beloved Clara (myrtles were used for bridal wreaths), this album of exquisite songs explores themes of devotion, longing, loneliness, matrimony and maternity. His Six Poems and Requiem of August 1850 set mournful texts by Lenau, concluding with an anonymous Medieval poem ‘Héloïse’s lament for Abelard’.
Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Myrtles • Six Poems and Requiem
Robert Schumann is in many ways typical of the age in which he lived, combining in his music a number of the principal characteristics of Romanticism, as he did in his life. Born in Zwickau in 1810, the son of a bookseller, publisher and writer, he showed an early interest in literature and was to make a name for himself in later years as a writer and as editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, a journal launched in 1834. His father encouraged his literary and musical interests and at one time thought of sending him to study with Weber, a proposal that was abandoned with the death of the latter, closely followed by the death of Schumann’s father.
Schumann’s career now followed a more conventional course. In 1828 he entered the University of Leipzig, where his attention to his studies was as intermittent as it was to be the following year at Heidelberg. He was eventually able to persuade his mother and guardian that he should be allowed to study music under the well-known piano teacher Friedrich Wieck, whose own energies had been directed with some intensity towards the training of his daughter Clara, a pianist of prodigious early talent. Schumann’s ambitions as a pianist, however, were frustrated by a weakness in the fingers, whatever its true cause, and his other musical studies had, at the very least, lacked application. Nevertheless in the 1830s he wrote a great deal of music for the piano, often in the form of shorter, genre pieces, with some extra-musical literary or autobiographical association. There was an affair with one of Wieck’s pupils, later broken off, but by 1835 he had begun to turn his attention to Clara Wieck, nine years his junior. Wieck had good reason to object to the liaison. His daughter had a career before her as a concert performer and Schumann had shown signs of instability of character, whatever his abilities as a composer might be. Matters were taken to an extreme when litigation was resorted to, in order to prevent what Wieck saw as a disastrous marriage.
It was not until 1840 that Schumann was eventually able to marry Clara, after her father’s legal attempts to oppose the match had finally failed. The couple married in September, remaining first in Leipzig, although journeys took place for concert appearances by Clara, generally accompanied by her husband, whose position was of lesser distinction. In 1844 they moved to Dresden, where it seemed that Schumann might recover from the bouts of depression that he had suffered in the earlier days of marriage. Here again no official position seemed to offer itself and it was only in 1849 that the prospect of employment arose, this time in Düsseldorf, where Schumann took up his position as director of music in September 1850.
Mendelssohn had enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the Düsseldorf authorities, and Schumann, much less skilled in administration and conducting, proved even less able to cope with the difficulties that arose. The pressures on him led to a complete nervous breakdown in 1853 and final years spent in an asylum at Endenich, where he died in 1856.
As a composer Schumann’s early piano pieces had been followed in 1840 by the composition of song after song, some 150 in the space of a year, a period that had brought the pressures of Wieck’s law-suit, although all had ended in a measure of final happiness. Clara Schumann now encouraged her husband to tackle larger forms, major orchestral works and operas. This did not prevent Schumann writing more songs and more shorter piano pieces, both of these being forms in which he excelled. His last songs and last significant short piano pieces were written in 1853.
Schumann came from a literary background and his interest in literature is evident in his choice of texts, particularly in that productive ‘Year of Song’, 1840, which saw the composition of a hundred or more songs, starting with a group of settings of Heine, a poet to whom he never later returned after this early period of composition, and settings of Kerner, Rückert, Eichendorff, Chamisso and others. 26 songs are included in Myrthen, Op. 25, written in February 1840, the month of the Heine Liederkreis, Op. 24 (Naxos 8.557075). The album, not a song cycle, includes five settings of Goethe, five of Rückert, a poet he later found increasingly congenial, three of Heine and eight settings of German versions of poems by Robert Burns, two of Thomas Moore, one of Byron and a setting of Catherine Maria Fanshawe’s Riddle, once widely attributed to Byron.
The first song, Widmung (Dedication) , is a setting of a poem by Friedrich Rückert, and remains probably the best known of the whole set. The son of a lawyer, Rückert was born in Schweinfurt in 1788 and led a varied career, changing his largely academic employment until his retirement from Berlin University in 1848 allowed him to spend the years until his death in 1866 on his own interests, which included a study of oriental languages. As a poet he had a certain facility, a technical command of verse forms and a directness and simplicity that seemed to appeal to Schumann. The poem is taken from Rückert’s Liebesfrühling (Spring-Time of Love), verses written during the poet’s courtship, before his marriage in 1821, and therefore particularly appropriate to Schumann’s situation, a song of love for his beloved Clara. The other Rückert settings include two more poems from Liebesfrühling, the Lieder der Braut (The Bride’s Songs)  and , in which Rückert adopts a female persona. In the first song the bride reassures her mother, telling her she will still love her. The second, with a simple chordal accompaniment, declares her love for her husband, a love that will never end. The collection ends with Rückert’s Ich sende einen Gruss wie Duft der Rosen (I send a greeting like the fragrance of roses) , taken from the poet’s 1822 collection Östliche Rosen (Eastern Roses) and Zum Schluss (The End) , a simple chordal setting of a song to his Sister Bride.
The five Goethe settings start with Freisinn (Freethinking) , a poem from the Westöstlichen Divan in which Goethe drew inspiration from the Persian poet Hafiz. Here poet and composer gallop off in freedom under the stars. From the same collection of poems, assembled by Goethe into twelve books, come Sitz’ich allein (I sit alone)  and Setze mir nicht, du Grobian (You oaf, don’t put the jug down so roughly) , from Das Schenkenbuch (The Tavern Book). The other two Goethe poems included are Talismane (Talismans)  from the Westöstlichen Divan, with its proclamation Gottes ist der Orient! Gottes ist der Occident! (God’s is the east! God’s is the west!) and the Lied der Suleika (Suleika’s Song) , from the Buch Suleika, attributed to Marianne von Willemer, the third wife of the Frankfurt banker J.J. Willemer. Goethe enjoyed a close friendship with her, collaborating on the Buch Suleika, in which some of her poems were incorporated, and playing Hatem to her Suleika.
Schumann includes settings of three poems by Heine, Die Lotosblume (The Lotus Flower) , Was will die einsame Träne? (What is the pont of this single tear?)  and Du bist wie eine Blume (You are like a flower) . The first of these, taken from Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo of 1822–23, has a simple chordal accompaniment, while the second, included first in Heine’s Die Heimkehr of 1823–24, introduces unusual discords, as tears and love are dismissed. The third poem, from the same collection, is matched by the apparent simplicity of the throbbing accompaniment.
Eight of the songs are settings of translations by Wilhelm Gerhard of poems by Robert Burns, a reminder of the importance of remote and colourful Scotland in the romantic imagination. Gerhard published his translations in 1840. Schumann read widely in foreign literature, approached generally in translation, and, as might be expected, had read works by Sir Walter Scott. The settings of Burns included in Myrthen are ‘My heart is sair’ (Jemand / Somebody) , ‘I am come to the low countrie’ (Die Hochländer-Witwe / The Highland Widow’s Lament) , ‘My heart’s in the highlands’ (Hochländers Abschied / Highlander’s Departure) , ‘Slumber sweetly, little Donald’ (the gently lilting Hochländisches Wieglied / Highland Cradle Song) , ‘O mount and go!’ (the energetic Hauptmann’s Weib / The Captain’s Lady) , ‘O how can I be blythe and glad’ (Weit, weit / Far, far) , ‘I hae a wife o’ my ain’ (Niemand / Nobody) , and finally ‘Out over the Forth I look to the north’ (Im Westen / In the West) . As so often the piano in these songs often doubles the melody, in one way or another, with barely a Scottish musical cliché among all the songs.
There are two settings of Thomas Moore in translations by the politically involved banker Ferdinand Freiligrath, also a translator of Burns and Scott. The two poems are taken from Moore’s National Airs and evoke the world of Venice in two Venetian Airs. The first, Leis’ rudern hier (Row gently here, my gondolier)  reflects the rhythm of the gondola, interrupted at the words ‘O könnte wie erschauen kann’ (‘Had heav’n but tongues to speak’), a contrast to the second, Wenn durch die Piazzetta (When through the Piazzetta) , a love song. The light-hearted Rätsel (Riddle)  sets a translation by Karl Friedrich Ludwig Kannegiesser, distinguished as a translator of Dante as well as of Byron, of a riddle on the letter H by Catherine Maria Fanshawe, verse often attributed to Byron. It is preceded by Byron’s Mein Herz ist schwer (My soul is dark) , the sadness of the gentle sounds of the harp relieved at a ray of hope in ‘Kann noch mein Herz ein Hoffen nähren’ (‘If in this heart a hope be dear’). The translation of the poem is by Karl Julius Körner. From the 1836 Gedichte of the playwright and poet Julius Mosen comes Der Nussbaum (The Walnut Tree) , one of the best known songs in the collection.
It was natural that Schumann should be particularly drawn to the work of Nikolaus Lenau, a man of impulsive character, changeable in life and feelings and a depressive, who suffered a final mental breakdown in 1844, spending his last years in an asylum. In Sechs Gedichte und Requiem, Op. 90, Schumann offers a tribute to Lenau, completed as he heard of the latter’s supposed death in August 1850, anticipating Lenau’s actual death three weeks later. Schumann’s opera Genoveva had been performed, to little acclaim, in Leipzig in late June, and in July Schumann returned to Dresden, where he worked on his settings of Lenau, songs later transformed into a tribute to the poet, with an added Requiem, a setting of what is described as ‘an old Catholic poem’, a lament attributed to Héloïse on the death of Abelard. The month also brought preparations for the move to Düsseldorf, since Dresden had offered him no position.
The set opens with Lied eines Schmiedes (Blacksmith’s Song) , in the manner of a folk-song, with the smith’s blows on his anvil heard in the accompaniment. Meine Rose (My Rose)  starts the theme of lost love. Kommen und Scheiden (Arriving and Departing)  brings the sadness of parting and Die Sennin (The Herd-Girl)  evokes the song in a mountain landscape of the herd-girl, destined to depart, whether for marriage or for death. Einsamkeit (Solitude)  brings the lament of the fountain in the dark pine-grove and deep hopeless love. Der schwere Abend (The Oppressive Evening) conjures up the sombre evening scene, dismal and starless, like the poet’s love, wishing both dead in the anguish of bidding goodnight. Requiem  prays for rest from pain and the suffering of love, respite that might seem to have its own echo for Schumann himself.
The Lenau songs seem to lead towards the final period of Schumann’s creative life, in which earlier conventions are developed or discarded in this second ‘Year of Song’.
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