Robert Schumann was particularly evocative in the Romantic vogue of word-painting due to his extraordinary capacity for stylistic mimicry and prodigious command of the piano as a communicative tool, evidenced by the now well-publicized coded messages to his future wife Clara, embedded within so many of his compositions. While these ‘codes’ quoted topical songs to imply their subsequent lyrics, Schumann was equally adept in portraiture and illustration by purely musical-stylistic means. The song cycle Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) is no exception and the following report reflects upon some of the ways by which Schumann’s musical setting directly annunciates and responds to the poetry of Heinrich Heine and develops its own subliminal narrative in the vein of a ‘song without words’.
1 Im wunderschönen Monat Mai / In the lovely month of May
Angst is established at outset by an alternating submediant-dominant harmonic arpeggiation in F# minor; the uneasiness of an inverted interrupted cadence. Particular use of the leading tone E# at phrase ends, the natural propensity for rubato on upper neighbours G# and F# preceding it, and use of rhythmic anticipations in the right hand immediately invite a highly romanticized style even before the voice enters.
The harmony relaxes to reflect the seasonal security of nature through the comfort of an easy perfect cadence in A major, casting into question the apparent minor opening. As the text moves to introverted reflection (Da ist in meinem Herzen die Liebe aufgegangen / There is in my heart a love upspringing), the tonal centre modulates back to D major for a repeat of the VI-V sequence, passing dramatically through the secondary dominant of B minor by way of sequence in the vocal part. The upper neighbour appoggiatura of the pianistic opening is echoed now in the voice, its unresolved wail in the upper tessitura reminiscent of the “Sehnen und Verlangen” (yearning and longing) and left equally unresolved by an incomplete phrase (Taylor, 1982, p.196).
3 Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube / The rose, the lily, the dove
This song speaks of the poet’s former all-encompassing love of minutae and detail (Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne, die liebt’ ich einst alle in Liebeswonne / The rose, the lily, the dove, the sun, I once loved them all in love’s bliss), now surpassed and overwhelmed by a more focussed, profound level of love for his muse alone, herself “aller Liebe Bronne” (the fount of all love). This transgression is reciprocated in the musical setting through expansion of range and rhythmic augmentation.
This excerpt captures the moment of transgression: its first measure demonstrates the filigree semiquaver style in close range which has persisted for the seven measures preceding. At mention of the ‘fount of love’, the bass descends in fuller quavers, followed by a brief but soaring theme in the left hand, leaping from the texture and leading an implied ritenuto into G major; a romantic-dramatic rhythmic expansion from the pointillistic staccato writing. The bass then continues to sequentially descend, allowing it to ‘pop’, until in the final piano phrase of the song, the accompaniment stretches across a two octave span which fuses the semiquaver right hand motif with bell tone effects in the bass.
4 Wenn ich in deine Augen seh’ / When I look into your eyes
Crystalline harmonies and simplistic canon here illustrate the poet’s declaration that he is made “ganz und gar gesund” (wholly and completely healthy) by the healing gazes and kisses of his beloved. Consequent and antecedent phrases are uniform in melodic shape and give uncharacteristic predictability to the song thus far. This is melodramatically altered at “doch wenn du sprichst: Ich liebe dich!” (but when you say: I love you!”); the first change from antiphonal accompaniment to a gentle harmonic cushion for the voice. This coming together of the two performers acknowledges this first texted instance of the poet’s muse as an interactive and wilful player in the romance. The poet’s subsequent confession that he will ‘weep bitterly’ is touchingly illustrated by dampened quaver chords to simulate the sobbing; this is a figure which had occurred throughout the song but is only contextualized so literally and emotively in the closing bars.
6 Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome / In the Rhine, in the holy stream
Schumann evokes a severe, ceremonious solemnity through masterful conjuring of the Germanic sacred Baroque tradition. Heine’s text cites a specific painting held within the Cologne cathedral in which the poet claims the facial features of the angels are identical to those of his lover. Schumann builds his musical setting on actual historical truth which holds Cologne’s cathedral as the first with a diatonic bell sequence. This would likely have been an obvious aural reference for Schumann’s audience. Momentous octave bell tones in the bass are interspersed with fragments of what is purported to be a Bach organ fugue, although the specific citation is unknown (Liu, 2009). This song also enjoys belated application of words and/or literal meaning to a figure which has been heard before, thus creating a new level of depth through reference and recontextualization of themes: in this case, the ghostly resonance of “die Augen, die Lippen, die Wänglein” (the eyes, the lips, the little cheeks) in the angels’ faces take the melody of the very opening piano line.
8 Und wüßten’s die Blumen, die kleinen / And if the little blooms knew it
Three identically-structured verses list various elements of the natural world that might be sympathetic to the poet’s suffering. The rippling accompaniment resonates with figures traditionally simulating a brook or stream, perhaps most notably, Schubert’s Trout Quintet (1819). The voice is supported by tremolo descending gestures; typically associated with sadness and despair according to their likeness to the natural pitch phenomenon of a human sigh.
Follows an impassioned accusation that the poet’s lover has “zerrissen, zerrissen mir das Herz” (torn, torn up my heart). The piano breaks from the melancholy tremolo, invigorated by the resonance of the ‘z’ and ‘ss’ consonants and the aggressive capacity of an onomatapeiac rip. The playout, with cascading sextuplets layered over the assertion of the dotted semiquaver, is the most impassioned and heartfelt outburst in the work to this point.
9 Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen / There is fluting and fiddling
A typically rollicking, unremarkable wedding dance becomes backdrop for a despairingly boisterous vocal scenario whereby the poet watches his beloved participating in a wedding from which he is detached. The voice is high in the tessitura at a point in the range at which the ‘trumpets blasting’ and the ‘ringing and roaring of drums and shawns’ can only be sung in outright declamatory style. The jolly oom-pah of the accompaniment, passing merrily through the cycle of fifths, creates a distinct stylistic opposite and increased edginess to the ardent, almost lunatic shouts of the poet.
13 Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet / I have wept in my dreams
This vocal setting implies an incantation in classic evensong style, set against the ritualistic motions of a dirge or funeral procession. Strophic in form, the piano writing is unusually spare for Art song (Liu, 2009), remaining entirely antiphonal to the voice for the first two stanzas. The harmonic brightness of the augmented interjection at each “ich wachte auf” (I woke up) anticipates the significantly more languishing third verse, now with sustained piano writing and a declamatory tonal ascent by the voice to Db major. At this final awakening, the poet is distraught to realize his continued yearning and passionate ‘flood of tears’ despite a presumably positive dream that his lover has been faithful.
Angst at his own incapability of happiness is illustrated harmonically through successively rising major chords, all unresolved and non-directional, over the voice’s Db pedal. This Db is eventually revealed as cadential preparation to Ab minor (iv), which itself leads back to the original V-i funeralistic motif in Eb minor; a suggestion that it is in fact the poet’s own emotional death and insufficiency to which the lamenting style ultimately refers.
In conclusion, the ‘intimate interconnection’ of voice and piano (Chissell, 1948, p.131) is fundamentally driven by Schumann’s own particular self-identification as Romantic hero and victim.
The Dichterliebe cycle is an even more intense autobiographical statement – more sincerely and intensely autobiographical in Schumann’s music, indeeed, than in Heine’s poems, with their self-pitying, semi-ironical flavour. In the title alone – which is Schumann’s, not Heine’s – lies his equation of poet and musician, both in himself and as a symbol of the unity of all art, and also his identification with the joys and sufferings that sustain the poems he has selected (Taylor, 1982, p.189).
Schumann’s songs are imbued with the integrity of his own emotional circumstance; conveying a level of intent and discernable discourse which is essentially inseparable from the real-life communicative function of his untexted compositional output.