Recital 2016 Part 1: Schumann, Heine, Wolf, and Eichendorff

Program notes are serious and important things, and I prefer to leave such things to the professionals. Scholars such as my old professor at the University of Notre Dame, Susan Youens (who wrote the program not for my last Carnegie recital at Weill Hall), are able to bring deep knowledge and objective perspective to the works on the program, and I think the audience deserves that information explained by an accomplished writer such as Professor Youens. But I also do want to share my own particular, personal, haphazardly researched, and sometimes specious understanding of the songs I am singing with the audience in a less formal way. I am taking the opportunity to do so by way of this blog in advance of my Zankel recital at Carnegie Hall on March 16, 2016 with Ken Noda and Matt Aucoin. When you come to the concert that Wednesday night (tell all your friends, too), you can read the pro’s take on the program, but in preparation (or retrospection as the case may be), these are some of my thoughts about Schumann and Heine, Wolf and Eichendorff, Berlioz and Villa Lobos.

Although this is one of the few recitals I have performed that does not include Schubert, his presence is nonetheless deeply present in the German language works on the first half the program. Besides his broad, monumental achievements in the lied, Schubert’s six Heine settings—published as half of Schwanengesang—are some of the most complex and perfect examples of text-setting songs in the canon. After those six songs, however, Schubert famously gave his book of Heine poetry to a friend saying, “I have no more need for it.” Whether he said this realizing that his life would soon end or as a kind of rejection of Heine’s ethos we can never be certain. I personally suspect that although Schubert recognized both the greatness of Heine’s poetry and his own settings of it, there was something in Heine’s art that did not resonate with Schubert’s aesthetic principles. There is a sneering impudence and more than a hint of mockery lurking in Heine’s immaculately composed meter. This combined with its pre-modernist self-awareness turned Schubert off despite the artistic heights it made possible. All the same, the legacy of his Heine settings was immense, and I believe that Schumann deliberately set out to pick up Schubert’s lieder baton by continuing the master’s unfinished business with Heine.

I see Schumann looking back to his predecessor in the lied with a unique appreciation for the debt owed to him while simultaneously looking to the future with uncanny foresight. There are distinct echoes of Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise in the cycle. In the fifth song “Schöne Wiege meiner Leide,” our hero ends telling of his heart-broken schlepping on foot to a cool, distant grave after bittersweet reminisces of his once-happy love affair, i.e. a brief synopsis of Winterreise. The sadly nostalgic seventh song, “Berg und Burgen” is a touching homage to Die Schöne Müllerin by emulating not just the key of A major and strophic structure of “Tränenregen,” but also by evoking the central metaphor of images projected onto and reflected off the mirror of water.
But where Schubert rejected Heine’s irony, Schumann embraces the self-conscious art-making in the poet’s work. These layers are most clearly present in op. 24 no. 9, “Mit Myrthen und Rosen” as Heine’s persona fantasizes about fashioning a book of songs. Schumann’s carefully constructs the architecture of the song even though its musical ideas unfold fitfully as his setting scans the poem’s scattered timeline of past, present, and future. Like the text, and perhaps like Schumann himself, the music is conscientious and chaotic all at once. Schumann’s writing twists the text of the first six songs into a tightly structured yet mercurial and tumultuous flow of songs by turns anxious, frustrated, depressed, and angry as his protagonist works through his rejection. The peaceful, hard-won wisdom found in the last three songs are expressed, in my imagination, after no small amount of time and distance from the troubled relationship. In broad strokes of the cycle and finite moments within each song alike, confusion and understanding, love and hate, denial and acceptance, life and death dance together in the same space.

Looking forward to his masterpiece, Liederkreis, op.39, it is clear that this first song cycle served as a kind of early draft of that later work. Both cycles consist of nine songs that follow a similar trajectory of key relationships and texts. For example, the third song of each cycle involves a walker in the woods in conversation with some manifestation of nature, birds in op. 24’s “Ich wandelte unter den Bäume” and Lorelei, the siren of the Rhine in op. 39’s “Waldesgespracht.” The postlude of op 24 no. 5 “Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden” is repurposed as the prelude of op. 39 no. 5 “Mondnacht.”

There are too many similarities between the two cycles to innumerate here, but all told they provide instructive insights to Schumann’s process and how to interpret and perform his songs.

If indeed Liederkries op. 39 is the perfection of the form first essayed in op. 24, it was Eichendorff’s poetry that allowed Schumann to achieve even greater expressive heights. Unlike Heine’s culturally subversive aims, Eichendorff’s poetic mastery served an earnest effort to describe the human condition through Romantic artistic ideals. He is every bit as daring as Heine in exploring the dark corners of the human heart, but more brave for engaging the darkness without the armor of irony. I selected tonight’s collection of Wolf songs in the desire to explore a comparison between these two poets.

Although Brahms made himself a kind of apprentice to Schumann, I see Wolf as his true heir, at least in the realm of lieder. Like Schumann, Wolf suffered from a kind of mania that produced both periods of intense, febrile inspiration and destructive bouts of severe, life-threatening depression. Like Schumann, Wolf worked as a critic. He was vociferously engaged in the musical debates of the day, always fighting for the progressive voices while championing the greats of the past. These included his compositional role models Schubert, Schumann, and above all, Wagner. In Wolf’s songs, he condenses Wagner’s extreme chromaticism and the enormous emotional content it communicates into dense, Schubertian-sized songs.

In his “Das Ständchen,” Wolf pays tribute to Schubert’s famous “Ständchen” by seamlessly oscillating between major and minor modes in the key of D. The ostensible romance of a serenade is undermined in both songs by the loss and rejection that haunts each song’s narrator. To confirm the homage, Wolf employs a classic Schubert signifier of obsession by repeating a single pitch over and over again throughout the song. (Wolf also borrows a Wagnerian trick by writing the literal lute part into the accompaniment à la Beckmesser.)

All the Wolf songs on tonight’s program share two common threads. Each protagonist is separated from the object of his love by death, distance, or rejection, and each poem includes someone or something singing. In “Seemans Abschied,” our Romantic hero seems almost to welcome his lover’s rejection as it frees him to embrace adventure on the high seas (but not without some Heine-esque mockery and spite). The piano accompaniment of Heimweh expresses the proud yet modest gait of its wandering hero who moves through foreign lands despite having lost his home and his love. It is hard to hear his ending salute, “Grüß dich, Deutschland, aus Herzensgrund” without hearing echoes of Hans Sachs and everything that reference now connotes. “Wolkenwälderwärts gegangen,” recalls the description of the creative process explored in the Schumann/Heine “Mit Myrthen und Rosen.” Wolf illustrates the cloud of the first line by writing a piano accompaniment made up of a ceaseless string of eighth notes that perpetually glide along with the unfolding poem. Through this evocation of time relentlessly drifting forward, the sad distance between the narrator’s life and the songs he once wrote is tinged with a forlorn nostalgia.