In the Beautiful Month of May: A Schubert & Schumann Cabaret
flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, horn, harp, piano, 2 violins, viola, 2 cellos, contrabass
notes by Katherine Baber
Composed 2003. First performance: June 23, 2003, The Holland Festival. The Schönberg Ensemble cond. Reinbert de Leeuw. Barbara Sukova, soprano.
The origins of music lie in song, a binding of words and melody that the ancient Greeks called melos—meaning both poetry and the singing of it. Composers of the Romantic generation, like Schubert and Schumann, viewed themselves as the inheritors of this tradition, as did Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Heine, and Wilhelm Müller, whose poetry they gravitated toward. In publishing a collection of poems under the title Lyrisches Intermezzo (1823), Heine invoked both an ancient form (lyric) and a modern musical genre (intermezzo), practically begging for its eventual setting as Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe (1840). The Lieder (“songs”) you will hear this evening are true examples of melos—they bring the poetry to life by setting it in motion, locating the words in the flow of time, teasing out the meanings hidden in its symbols, sometimes creating paradoxes, and binding poems together to tell stories.
Most of the songs on this program come from two cycles: Schumann’s Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love) and Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter’s Journey) on Müller’s poetry. Both had compelling reasons for turning to song. While Schubert had already made a household name of himself as a composer of Lieder, the barren landscapes and existential solitude (Einsamkeit) of Müller’s poems allowed the composer to confront his own bleak fate—he was suffering from the late stages of syphilis and died the following year. Schumann, on the other hand, was about to enter a new stage of his life while composing his cycle—as a married man. In 1840, his legal battle with Clara Wieck’s father was nearing its end, and during this “Year of Song”, he published ten collections, including the larger cycles of Dichterliebe, Liederkreis, and Myrthen. Not all of this can be put down to overflowing emotion, however, as songs were one of the most profitable musical genres at the time and Friedrich Wieck’s main complaint about his daughter’s suitor was Schumann’s financial instability.
Since Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte (1816), the song cycles of the nineteenth century had evolved their own architecture—great narrative and harmonic circles composed, paradoxically, of musical fragments. The first song you will hear this evening is a good example. “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” begins the Dichterliebe cycle with the blossoming of the poet’s love, but it is a beginning only. After setting out from home in F# minor and wandering through a few harmonic meadows, including key areas that will reappear in later songs, it dissipates on a half cadence, depriving us of the expected resolution. The song is itself an unfinished fragment, but it is also a gateway to the rest of the cycle through which we can hear the harmonies to come. That we turn next to Schubert instead is not a problem, though, as the D minor of “Gute Nacht,” the first song of Winterreise, is only half a step away harmonically. And we should not feel we are missing out, either, since even in Schubert and Schumann’s day these cycles were rarely performed as a whole. To select and arrange songs, weaving one’s own musical narrative, is in keeping with the spirit of this repertoire.
With the opening songs of Dichterliebe and Winterreise, Part I sees a beginning and the beginning of an end. There is a gentle irony to “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,” in that its poet confesses his love but never hears a response, with the lack of a firm cadence in the music betraying the uncertainty that runs underneath the joy. “Gute Nacht,” on the other hand, treads slowly into shadows as the speaker sets out on his wintry journey to visit all the places where he had loved in the spring. In this song, Schubert sets up the temporal aspect of the music that will distinguish the rest of the cycle—memories of the past take place in the lighter major mode, and the present dwells in the darkness of the minor mode. Schubert uses this duality to poignant, symbolic effect in the last moments of the song. We hear the wanderer’s statement “an dich hab’ ich gedacht” (I thought of you) twice, first in a shining D major as he dwells in the memory, and then the echo in D minor as he comes back to himself in snowy solitude. The sights and sounds of nature permeate these and the two songs that follow—buds burst open, the moon follows the walker over white fields, the lover renounces the flowers, the birds, and sun in favor of his paramour, dogs bark in a quiet town—and at moments, the music breathes life into these images. In “Gretchen am Spinnrade” and “Lied der Mignon”, we hear of love from the female perspective and the restless energy it can inspire in two poems by Goethe, from his Faust and Wilhelm Meister. In one of the more potent metaphors in any Schubert song, Gretchen considers all that Faust has promised her while at her spinning wheel. The ceaseless whirling of the music captures the motion of the wheel, which suddenly stops as she recalls his kiss. As she begins to spin again, we realize that the music represents not just the wheel, but also her agitated, circular thoughts. In contrast, “Meerstille,” with its placid melody and static accompaniment, is the calm before the storm.
Part II descends fully into sorrow and then escapes into dreams. “Ich grolle nicht” presents a paradox, in that the poet swears he will not complain, but harmonically, the music conveys a great deal of turmoil. Both are true—his heart is breaking, but by force of will, he will not bear a grudge against his love—and the constant pulsation of the accompaniment to the voice shows his determination. In “Die Nebensonnen”, we encounter perhaps the strangest image in any of these songs: three suns in the sky. There are many interpretations of what the suns might mean, but the most compelling is that the first two (which have already set) represent love and hope. The third sun is life, and the poet begs it to set so that he might welcome oblivion. At this point, we have left earthly reality and entered the realm of dreams, where we encounter two eerie specters. The Erlkönig is a creature out of folk tales who appears to beckon an ailing child away from his father to his death; the weeping apparition in “Der Doppelganger” turns out to be the poet’s mirror image. The music for Erlkönig is a relentless gallop from start to finish—a challenge to the pianist’s endurance in its original incarnation—as a father rides with his ailing son in his arms. Again manipulating harmonic shading in a way similar to “Gute Nacht,” Schubert casts the Erlkönig’s entreaties to the son in a luminous major mode, offering beguiling visions of his fairy world, as opposed to the dark and stormy night of the rest of the song.
In Part III, we return from the otherworldly to the realm of the living. As the wanderer of Winterreise passes back through the gates of his city, he is greeted by “Der Leiermann,” the blind hurdy-gurdy player who begs there. The creaking drone in the music depicts the man’s instrument, which uses one string to sustain a single pitch while playing a tune on the others. In “Kennst du das Land?” we hear again from Mignon, the waifish girl of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, with a song that embodies the specifically German feeling of Heimweh (a kind of homesickness). The following songs revive us with visions of youthful love. In keeping with the notion of a nighttime serenade (“Ständchen” in German), the orchestra imitates the plucking of a guitar or lute as accompaniment to the singing—imagine an impetuous young man below his beloved’s balcony. “Heidenröslein” blossoms out of the Lied’s roots in folk song with its appealingly simple and naive melody. Even as we return home, however, there is ambiguity. “Wehmut” is more wistful than peaceful and “Dis alten, bösen Lieder,” while it buries grief in its own coffin, consigns some portion of the poet’s capacity to love as well. You are free, of course, to discard any or all of these ideas about the story hidden in these songs and find your own—Schubert and Schumann would tell you as much.