The songs of Robert Schumann

Methuen 1969, Eulenburg 2/1975, 3/1993, Faber Finds 4/2008 [pp. xii, 292; ISBN 0 903873 18 4]

Foreword by Gerald Moore

Eric Sams's The Songs of Hugo Wolf has proved of such immeasurable help to lovers of this composer, a source of such inspiration to those of us who sing and play his songs, that we can only be grateful that the author has now performed a similar service for Robert Schumann. 

These two books are necessary; for surely, after the unparalleled Franz Schubert, Wolf and Schumann share second place in the hier­archy of the Lied.

Ardent Wolfians will protest at my honouring both equally, and indeed they have an argument; for undeniably the Austrian seemed able to feel the words as the poet felt them ‑ to transform them into music as the poet would have transformed them. Thus, we believe that Goethe, if he could, would have sung Anakreons Grab as Wolf sang it. This composer was the poet's medium and inhabited his world as completely as he inhabited the very different worlds of Eichendorff, Mörike and the Italian Songbook of Heyse.

On the contrary ‑ and as we can find in the following pages ‑ Schu­mann was apt to regard poetry as an inferior art‑form, while Wolf held it of prime importance; he often recited the lyric before perform­ing his songs. Schumann held that the poem was 'an orange from which the juice should be crushed'; or that 'it must wear the music like a wreath'. The difference, for instance, between Wolf's and Schumann's approach to Mörike's Das verlassene Mägdlein is revealing. To use Wolf's words, it had been 'set to heavenly music by Schumann'; and yet he felt impelled to set it himself. Sams truly says of the Schumann version, 'For most hearers the beauty and intuitive perception will remain behind the music rather than part of it.' But in two words he sums up for Wolf: he 'goes deep'. It would be utterly misleading and presumptuous to postulate that Schumann was superficial; but he did occasionally, if only occasionally, fail to penetrate deeply beneath the surface.

Comparisons of this nature are irresistible and desirable. When Sams suggests that Schumann's setting of Goethe's Philine is arguably preferable to Wolf's we, while not necessarily agreeing whole‑heartedly with the author, are glad to see Schumann even up the score. Speaking personally, I find Hugo's Er ist's, though enjoyable to perform and thrilling to hear, too flamboyant when compared with Schumann's version, with its shy fragrant 'Veilchen träumen schon' and the maiden modesty of 'Dich hab ich vernommen, ja du bist's'.

Wolf, be it understood, is far too precious to me for me to disparage his genius. Yet (magician though he unquestionably is) I fancy one is able to perceive, not infrequently, how he arrives at his breath­taking dénouements. We are not perhaps so mystified as we should be. Whereas hearing Der Leiermann or Der du von dem Himmel bist we kiss Schubert's hand, and not only because these songs are close to God: their simplicity and purity defeat us and hold us, eternally hold us, through our inability to explain why or how they are so sublime.

Robert Schumann has something of this mysterious quality. It can be seen in the last song of Frauenliebe und ‑leben. The writing is bare and attenuated, the two pages look commonplace; yet, in some inex­plicable way, they catch at the heart. Auf einer Burg ('the very music of a ruined castle in a timeless heat‑haze') ‑ Auf das Trinkglas eines verstorbenen Freundes ('an impressive sense of the ceremonial mourning rituals of white magic'), which invariably fills me with awe at the words 'Leer steht das Glas! Der heil'ge Klang tont nach in dem kristallnen Grunde' ‑ Stirb, Lieb und Freud ('the inward eye sees in the great cathedral one small figure; the inward ear hears among the chanting and the carillon one lonely cry') ‑ Du bist wie eine Blume ('the laying on of hands is made to seem a ritual gesture of consecration)' ‑ all these are just a handful of songs that are typically and disarmingly simple; and it can be seen by the parenthetical quotations to what eloquence our author has been moved by them.

The reader turns again and again with excitement to see if his love for such simple creations is echoed by a writer of such authority and it is an added delight to find his enthusiasm shared.

I have purposely refrained from putting too much emphasis on the piano parts in Schumann's song writing, but perhaps I may be per­mitted one paragraph on this subject.

'The prelude has the play of an April wind. The slight texture and the piano interludes let air and space into the music.' Thus, on page 75 we find this fascinating reflection on Aus den 'Ostlichen Rosen'. Of all composers none had more magic than Schumann in making us forget the percussive quality of the pianoforte. We find this again and again in such songs as Mondnacht ('the bridal of the earth and sky') ‑ Der Nussbaum, where the fingers scarcely brush the keys, and from Dichter­liebe, one of the world's supreme song cycles, the pianoforte becomes almost de‑materialized in Im wunderschönen Monat MaiHör ich das Liedchen klingen and Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen ('the piano's pre­luding arpeggios express a wind‑stirred movement of tall flowers nod­ding, painting a picture in which the opening harmony is mysteriously bright and alien to the key into which it instantly fades and vanishes'). Schumann's accompaniments certainly did not have such independence, such glorious freedom from the vocal line, as we find in Geh, Geliebter (Wolf's apotheosis) but no composer whatsoever had a more intimate knowledge of the pianoforte as an instrument. He made it breathe upon the air.

To me this is the most exciting publication of its kind since the Sams book on Wolf. So felicitous is the writing that one is hardly conscious of the erudition and profound thought that have gone into the making of it. Occasionally controversial perhaps, it is invariably stimulating and authoritative and most obviously inspired by deep affection.

Once more Eric Sams has produced a work that will be read and read again as long as Robert Schumann's songs are loved.



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