Unlike Chopin, Schumann composed numerous songs – about 250 – and many of them were published in his lifetime. Schumann was almost ideally positioned to extend and enhance the blossoming of German art song in the 19th century. German Romantic poetry continued to flourish, the home and salon market made songs profitable for publishers, poets, and composers alike, and, above all, there was the model of Schubert. Being a literary man himself, Schumann participated in the contemporary theoretical jousts about the relationship of words and music, and he engaged the finest poetry in his songs (for the most part); being a pianist (largely failed), he expanded the expressive contributions of the accompaniment.
“Paralleling the development of poetry, the Franz Schubert epoch has already been followed by a new one which has utilized the improvements of the simultaneously developed instrument of accompaniment, the piano,” Schumann wrote. “The voice alone cannot reproduce everything or produce every effect; together with the expression of the whole the finer details of the poem should also be emphasized; and all is well so long as the vocal line is not sacrificed.”
Also unlike Chopin, most of Schumann’s songs were written and published as cycles or collections with varying degrees of internal relationship and narrative arc. After some tentative, unpublished songs as a teenager, Schumann hit his stride in 1840, the “year of song” inspired by the climax of his long struggle to marry Clara Wieck. One of its first fruits was Myrthen, Op. 25, a collection of 26 love songs that was to be a wedding present for Clara. This includes some of Schumann’s most famous songs, such as the joyous “Widmung” (Dedication, No. 1) on an ecstatic poem by Friedrich Rückert and the longing “Die Lotosblume” (The Lotus Blossom, No. 7) on Heinrich Heine’s poem. “Jemand” (Someone, No. 4) is a passionate expression of a Robert Burns poem (in a German translation), with its gently brilliant variation in the second strophe shifting from minor mode to major.
The Op. 39 Liederkreis, twelve songs on texts by Joseph von Eichendorff, comes from later in the year, when Schumann was feeling separation pangs. Some of them, such as the folk-like “In der Fremde” (In Foreign Lands) are quite dark, looking to death as consolation for loneliness. “Die Stille” (Stillness), on the other hand, is lightly flirtatious.
After the outpouring of the Liederjahr, Schumann almost abandoned song composition until 1849, when he returned anew to the medium, inspired this time by the completion of his opera Genoveva. The Lieder-Album für die Jungend, Op. 79, is 28 songs on texts that might be considered appropriate for a youth’s poetry anthology. Schumann’s expression of them is by no means child-friendly in technique, but there is a childlike feeling of bubbling wonder at a new Spring in “Er ist’s” (It Is, No. 23), on a poem by Eduard Mörike. The last song in that album is “Mignon,” the mysterious kidnapped girl from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister. Schumann used the same haunted strophic setting, with its urgent yearning for Mignon’s homeland, as the opening of the Lieder und Gesänge aus Wilhelm Meister, Op. 98a.
“Die Blume der Ergebung” (The Flower of Resignation) is another Rückert setting, the rustling second of the Op. 83 Three Songs. The last of the Op. 89 Six Songs (dedicated to Jenny Lind) on poems by Wielfried von der Neun, “Röselein, Röselein!” (Rosebud, Rosebud!), is a musically subtle and sophisticated setting of a folklike poem – “remember, all roses have thorns.” “Nachtlied” (Night Song), the first of five Lieder und Gesänge, Op. 96, is another Goethe text and another example of Schumann’s most highly developed interaction of voice and piano, almost proto-Wagnerian.
In Op. 98a, “Mignon” is titled “Kennst du das Land?” (Do You Know the Land?). Mignon is represented in several of the other songs in the group, including the dramatic “Heiss’ mich nicht reden” (Do Not Ask Me to Speak, No. 5), Mignon’s plea to Wilhelm to let her keep her dark secret. In complete contrast, “Singet nicht in Trauertönen” (Sing Not in Sad Tones, No. 7) is the merrily amorous paean of the actress Philine.
– John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.