Schumann: Liederkreis, op. 39

performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; Alfred Brendel, piano, or below with Günther Weissenborn as pianist

(not to be confused with the earlier op. 24 of the same name)

…my most romantic music ever, with much of you in it, dearest Clara

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

Robert Schumann

Schumann’s op. 39 Liederkreis was conceived in 1840, his “year of song.” You might know Schumann for his cello concerto, piano concerto, or his abundance of solo piano work, perhaps his small output of wonderful chamber music, his symphonies… it seems he had his hand (or pen) in just about every form there was to write, save opera (but even almost that, maybe). In any case, he thankfully also contributed a few shining pinnacles of vocal music to the repertoire, and today we will discuss one of them.

The title Liederkreis literally means ‘song cycle’, so I am a little surprised or disappointed he didn’t just treat them like forms and number them like sonatas or quartets: no. 1, no. 2, etc. In any case, this is his second work with this title, after the op. 24. Today’s Liederkreis takes its text from Joseph Eichendorff’s Intermezzo, a work of his not even mentioned in his Wikipedia article. There are 12 songs to the cycle, and it lasts less than a half hour.

Notably, at this time, Schumann had just married the woman who lives eternally in almost his entire oeuvre, Clara Schumann, née Wieck, who was barely in her twenties at the time and nine years her new husband’s junior. She was a fantastic pianist, and Wikipedia says she “was the first to perform publicly any work by Brahms.” This article isn’t about her, directly, but being a piece about a Schumann work, it is inevitably, unavoidably, at least indirectly about this woman whom the composer so loved.

That being said, we can’t assume that the solemn, melancholy tone of some of the songs bears any relevance or offer any insight into a troubled relationship. A look at the text of the works, available here in German and English (and more), shows that it’s just kind of generally Romantic in nature, as we shall see. The twelve songs are as follows:

  1. In der Fremde
  2. Intermezzo
  3. Waldesgespräch
  4. Die Stille
  5. Mondnacht
  6. Schöne Fremde
  7. Auf einer Burg
  8. In der Fremde
  9. Wehmut
  10. Zwielicht
  11. Im Walde
  12. Frühlingsnacht

In der Fremde sets off our cycle on a melancholy foot, remote, distant, longing. It means “In the foreign place,” and speaks of lighting and clouds ‘from the homeland’, remembering that Father and Mother are dead, but who’s speaking, and what is his story?

Wie bald, ach wie bald kommt die stille Zeit,
Da ruhe ich auch, und über mir
Rauscht die schöne Waldeinsamkeit,
Und keiner kennt mich mehr hier.

Remember, though, that Schumann didn’t write the text, just chose and set it, but in such a simple, two-verse poem, the composer is able to find (or create) such emotion. It perfectly illustrates what he says about this cycle:

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.

That comes through loud and clear, even if you have absolutely no idea what’s being sung. It’s beautiful music, but appreciating the text, as was intended for the audience, obviously gives the music far greater import.

The second song, Intermezzo, finds us much more able to think of Clara, singing about the beloved’s beautiful image, and the poet’s heart singing to itself, flying to be by her side. This major-key thing is much more what we’d expect from a newly-wed man.

Waldesgespräch finds our heroic-sounding speaker riding through the forest, a handsome, bold, knotty melody; perhaps he is looking for his bride, but who does he find instead? A little more than he expected, and this song takes an evil little turn, while maintaining its free, spirited melody.

Die Stille (The Silence) is an adorable little song, sounding as if it could be the flutter of excitement in an admirer’s heart, like a giddy child waiting to go to Disney World, at the excitement of waking up on a chilly morning to go visit his beloved. Don’t just go look at the text. Do you hear the anticipation and flutter in the music, its short bursts of barely-controlled energy? Read the text and see what you think it might discuss, but I love it.

Mondnacht (Moonlight Night) brings us to an equally Romantic idea, with imagery of skies kissing the earth, blossoming flowers, flying home… Is he deeply in love? Homesick? Mournful? What’s painted in this tender, increasingly impassioned song? It builds to a spirited climax, but always with a shade of tenderness and delicacy.

Schöne Fremde (something like “beautiful foreign land”), we find the speaker again away from home, but this time perhaps love sick, not mourning. He’s perhaps in pursuit of his heart’s desire, and Schumann’s lyricism and passion come through loud and clear.

Next, in Auf einer Burg, we get a sound very much like Mendelssohn’s ‘old castle’, and some of the lowest, most full-bodied writing lines for voice in this entire cycle. It’s melancholy, and the words and music both paint a picture of melancholy, nostalgia, age, bygone things, beauty at a distance, longing. It’s a tender but powerful contrast to some of the more outright sunshine and lovey-dovey beauty of the previous songs, but we’re only now just past the midpoint of this little cycle.

We are again In der Fremde, another foreign land, suddenly having changed perspectives, seemingly now, maybe, looking up on that same previous castle, much more positive, and hoping to find the love of his life, until the last heartbreaking line.

Wehmut means ‘melancholy’, as you may be able to guess from the atmosphere of the music. I think this is one of the most beautiful songs of the whole set, both the music and the text. The poet speaks of the sadness of no one knowing how he feels, crying in secret, of unrelatable pain and and sadness.

Zwielicht (twilight) comes in the form of the tenth song, which seems appropriate, as we near the end of this short but impassioned, beautiful cycle. It speaks from maturity and experience, not to trust appearances, because things change. Not everything is as it seems, as in the light and landscape transforming at twilight. I think there’s no need to describe the music, as I have mostly not done. If you’ve got the time, I highly suggest going and reading the poetry. It’s gorgeous, and there is no description necessary of the music once there’s even a basic understanding of the sentiments being expressed, but I’ll get to that later. The end of this song is appropriately unique.

In Im Walde (in the forest), we find maybe the most spirited, determined conviction we’ll hear in the entire piece, from both the singer and the pianist. It describes the fleeting excitement of passing by a wedding celebration in the woods, and we can hear the horsemen and horns, but ultimately it all passes, and the brief song ends abruptly.

Frühlingsnacht, the final song, ends on a ‘spring night’, a bustling, brimming excitement and optimism, of success, of love, of reuniting, but it quickly fades, or ends, or perhaps continues elsewhere, because these last two songs seem abrupt and incomplete.

So…. this again may come across as more a literary analysis than anything else, but a brief(-ish) discussion of the themes and subjects at hand, as cursory as that was, gives you some idea of the text and the progression of the songs. Are we to take them independently, as with Beethoven’s set, or read between the lines and connect some narrative, perhaps of various connected perspectives, to them?

Regardless of how you interpret it, Schumann’s setting of the text is sublime, perfectly, tastefully conveying the color and emotion in each song, with contrast and vividness, and an absolutely intoxicating sense of lyricism.

I picked the op. 39 Liederkreis because it was more mature than the op. 24, so perhaps a better indication of the composer’s genius and skill, but didn’t go so far as to decide on his later cycles; we will get to those eventually. For now, give Schumann’s op. 39 a listen or two. It might not get through to you at first listen, but likely by the second there will be something here, at least a moment or two, if not many more, that stirs your soul and has you eager to go back for another listen.

But don’t worry. That’s not all. There are only a few more proper cycles left in our series, but we do have about another half-dozen pieces left that feature the voice in one way or another, and I’m very excited about them, so do stay tuned, and thank you for reading.

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