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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHUMANN, R.: Romances and Ballads
In spite of the political disturbances of the year Schumann regarded 1849 as one of the most fruitful in his career. His compositions of 1849 include a wealth of choral music, written principally for the choral society he had established in Dresden, both for mixed choir and for female voices.
By David Denton
Robert Schumann (1810–1856)
Complete Romances and Ballads for Mixed Choir
Complete Romances for Women's Voices
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 energies had been directed with some intensity towards the training of his own 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 resort was had to litigation, 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 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 break-down in 1853 and final years spent in an asylum at Endenich, where he died in 1856.
In 1847 Schumann's friend Ferdinand Hiller had left Dresden to take up the position as municipal director of music in Düsseldorf. He left Schumann to direct the amateur male choir or Liedertafel that he himself had taken over from Wagner. The work involved, although not necessarily musically satisfying, brought the composition by Schumann of a number of part-songs for male voices. The following year Schumann decided to establish a more ambitious mixed choir, his Verein für Chorgesang, with a complement of some hundred amateur singers. It was for this choral society that he embarked on his four albums of Romanzen und Balladen, the last two volumes of which were completed in 1851 and published posthumously in 1860. His Romanzen for women's voices also date from 1849, a year that Schumann regarded as one of his most productive, and this in spite of the political disturbances in Dresden.
With his literary background, Schumann showed some discrimination in his choice of texts for his Romanzen und Balladen. The first volume starts with a setting of Gretchen's song, 'Es war ein König in Thule' (There was a king in Thule), from the first part of Goethe's Faust. The second takes a poem by Mörike, ' Schön-Rohtraut', in which dialogue is divided between men's and women's voices. Third is the familiar poem by Goethe 'Heidenröslein' (Little Wild Rose), a strophic setting of its three verses. This is followed by the dramatic 'Ungewitter' (Thunderstorm), a poem by Adelbert von Chamisso, son of a French émigré family and author of Frauen-Liebe und -Leben, eight of the nine poems of which were set by Schumann in his so-called Year of Song, 1840. The first set ends with a German version of Robert Burns's 'John Anderson'.
The second series of Romanzen und Balladen starts with the old German song 'Schnitter Tod' (Reaper Death) where the Grim Reaper cuts down the fairest flowers, that will bloom again in Heaven's garden. 'Im Walde' (In the Forest) sets a poem by Eichendorff, with its echoed phrases. 'Der traurige Jäger' (The Sad Huntsman) is also by Eichendorff, a song in which a huntsman laments the death of his beloved, a miller's daughter. The following song, 'Der Rekrut' (The Recruit) returns to Burns, a German version of the song 'Cock Up Your Beaver' ('stütz'auf deinen Biber!'), originally a satire on Scots who sought to improve their lot by following James VI to England. The volume ends with 'Vom verwundeten Knaben' (The Wounded Lad), from a traditional German poem in which a girl finds a boy wounded and lying in the forest.
The third volume starts with Uhland's poem 'Der Schmid' (The Smith), later set by Brahms. The verse, in characteristic folk-style, describes the effect on his work as his beloved passes by. In 'Die Nonne' (The Nun), by an unknown poet, the nun gazes sadly out from her convent cell on the countryside. The third song again takes a text by Uhland, 'Der Sänger' (The Singer), in which the singer of the title goes from his native countryside to the royal palace, to be garlanded with flowers by the most beautiful of the court ladies, which brings tears to his eyes and a glow to his cheeks. This is followed by a second setting of Burns's 'John Anderson'. The volume closes with 'Romanze vom Gänsebuben' (Romance of the Goose-Boy), the German translation by Otto von der Malsburg from a Spanish original, where the goose-boy, afraid of losing his flock, would rather have his pangs of love fly away.
The final collection of Romanzen und Balladen starts with a setting of Uhland's 'Brautgesang' (Bridal Song). Schumann takes a Burns translation, as he had done in his first set of five part-songs in 1846. 'Der Bänkelsänger Willie' (Ballad-Singer Willie), a song by Burns, translated, as are the other Burns poems set, by Wilhelm Gerhard, is a version of 'O rattlin, roarin Willie', in which the fiddler resists the temptation to sell his fiddle to pay for his drink. Uhland's ' Der Traum' (The Dream) suggests two ghostly figures, lovers, hand in hand in a beautiful garden, but this is a dream: she is in a convent, and he buried in the grave. 'Sommerlied' (Summer Song), by Rückert, laments the passing of earlier, happier days, and 'Das Schifflein' (The Little Boat) is another Uhland setting, which Schumann arranged with a soprano solo, flute and horn, elements that illustrate the words of the poem.
Schumann sketched out the six songs of the first volume of Romanzen during three days in mid-March, 1849, following this, over the next three days, with a second group of six part-songs for women's voices, all with optional piano accompaniment. 'Tamburinschlägerin' (Tambourine-Player), in four parts, sets a text by Eichendorff, a translation from the Spanish of Alvaro de Ameida in which the singer shakes her tambourine, although her heart is far away. The four-part 'Waldmädchen' (The Forest Maiden) is again by Eichendorff; the girl is a bright fire, a roe-deer that can never be caught, and a bird that is equally elusive. 'Klosterfräulein' (The Young Nun) is a four-part setting of verses by Justinus Kerner, a friend and distant relative of Uhland. The song takes the conventionally romantic view of the young nun gazing out on the world, from which she has been separated. In 'Soldatenbraut' (The Soldier's Bride), a four-part setting of a poem by Mörike, the girl wishes that the king knew how brave her beloved is. This is followed by 'Meerfey' (The Sea Fairy), a five-part setting of verse by Eichendorff, a brief story of the spirit that lures sailors to their deaths. Uhland's 'Die Capelle' (The Chapel) is set as a four-voice double canon. Here a shepherd boy hears a funeral dirge that some day will sound too for him.
The second volume of Romanzen, the first five songs of which are in four parts, opens with a setting of the traditional German 'Rosmarien' (Rosemary) in which a girl seeks to make a wedding garland of roses, but can only find rosemary, a funeral garland to lie with her beloved under the linden tree. In 'Jäger Wohlgemut' (The Huntsman Full of Cheer), taken from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, the huntsman is united with his beloved, to lie for ever together, as two roses of the field. For 'Das Wassermann' (The Water Sprite) Schumann takes again a poem by Kerner in which the spirit of the title takes a girl, from among the May dancers, and dances with her to the river, down into the water, where she will be his wife. In 'Das verlassene Mägdlein' (The Deserted Maiden) by Mörike a girl rises at cock-crow to tend the fire, into which she looks in sorrow, thinking of her faithless lover. 'Der Bleicherin Nachtlied' (The Laundress's Night Song) is a setting of a poem by the painter and poet Robert Reinick, who settled in Dresden in 1844. The laundress bleaches the linen, implies her own ruin, with her red cheeks, and declares that all in the end must be bleached as white as linen. The volume ends with 'In Meeres Mitten' (In the Middle of the Ocean), a six-part setting of a poem by Rückert, a fitting conclusion to the series, leading to a final prayer for intercession with the Child Jesus.
The German texts with English translation may be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretto/570456.htm
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SCHUMANN, R.: Romances and Ballads