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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.”
After some tentative, unpublished songs as a teenager, Schumann hit his stride in 1840, the “year of song” inspired by the climax of his long struggle to marry Clara Wieck. Many of Schumann’s songs were written and published as cycles or collections with varying degrees of internal relationship and narrative arc. The Op. 39 Liederkreis, twelve songs on texts by Joseph von Eichendorff, comes from later in 1840, when Schumann was feeling separation pangs. Some of them, such as the folk-like “In der Fremde” (In Foreign Lands) that opens the cycle, are quite dark, looking to death as consolation for loneliness. “Die Stille” (Stillness), on the other hand, is lightly flirtatious. Schumann described these songs to Clara as “my most romantic music ever, with much of you in it.” Several ideas and moods recur in the poems, and Schumann carried those reflections over into the music, most overtly in launching both “Auf einer Burg” (In a Castle) and the second “In der Fremde” (which has its own castle) with the same motif – though in very different moods and character.
Heinrich Heine was one of the composer’s favorite poets, and Bryn Terfel begins this recital with Heine’s ballad retelling of Belshazzar’s feast as almost a ghost story, with the handwriting on the wall and the doomed arrogant king. Schumann responded to it in dramatic, pictorial detail. Schumann published four groups of Romances and Ballads, each of three songs. Op. 49 is the second set, and the two that Terfel has chosen are also Heine ballad settings. A rising vocal line and relentless dotted rhythms drive “Die feindlichen Brüder” (The Enemy Brothers), the tale of two knights long ago who killed each other over love for the same countess, expressed in warm contrast. “Die beiden Grenadiere” (The Two Grenadiers) evokes a similar martial mood, colored by defeat. As the dying grenadier affirms his allegiance to the vanquished Emperor (Napoleon), Schumann crests the music triumphantly in “La Marseillaise,” letting the piano collapse the glory in a fading postlude.
Schumann composed his setting of Heine’s “Mein Wagen rollet langsam” (My carriage slowly rolls) in 1840, intending it for his Dichterliebe cycle Op. 48. He cut it from that collection, however, and it was not published until after his death – hence the high opus number. It brings together several of the themes of the Eichendorff Liederkreis – woods and nature, reflection on love, and enigmatic weirdness. That last element is picked up by the piano, which has the second half of the song to itself.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.