Des Sängers Fluch op. 139



Des Sängers Fluch or The Minstrels Curse; it looks (and sounds) like melodrama of the old school. In his last years, Schumanns verbal skills no longer stand up to examination; his comprehension is audibly failing. He treats fine verse trivially, and connives at tasteless travesties of it; he even omits rhyming lines (as here at letter B on p.3). More ominously still, he seems to convert his tests into sermons on his own mental state. Thus each of the annual Uhland ballad-cantatas 1851-3 (Der Königssohn, Des Sängers Fluch, Das Glück von Edenhall) preaches the unreality oldie kingdoms of this world; and he last few are darkly prophetic or doom and destruction.

     Current commentators tend to reject the view that Schumann’s brain-sickness infected his music, self-evident though that seemed to 19th-century critics. For Hanslick, Wolf and Shaw the music was the man; so the posthumous corpus of Schumanns work sounded to them like an autopsy report. The modern view of music as independent life and structure sees work like op.139 as not only vital but seminal. It is certainly arguable that the narrative cantata form inspired Elgar (The Black Knight is also by Uhland) and that its motivic techniques enriched the songwriting of Brahms (e.g. the doom-laden octaves at “in einer finstren stürmischen Nacht”, p.18). Wolf (the bold juxtaposition of unrelated tonalities fur outlandish effect, p.47) and even Fauré (the rhythmic fluidity of the accompaniment, p.20). Such influences suggest that this piano score was, as no doubt often with Schumann, the original conception, from which the orchestral version was elaborated; at least the Provençal Song is especially memorable in its voice and piano version, as admirers of Gerhard Hüsch will know.

     For the sake of this (admittedly not flawless) masterpiece the work as a whole is well worth a hearing and perhaps a recording. This publication tatty bring about that result, which just shows what can be done without really trying. The well-known square old cover design borders on the antiquated. The dedication to Brahms is tiresomely omitted, despite its authenticity and its touching relevance (My time for singing is past” laments the old musician, “a younger man stands here before you”). And perhaps some time in the next 100 years or so either Breitkopf or Härtel could somehow manage between them to correct the obvious misprint of “Schachtgesang” for “Schlachtgesang” on p.23, which still stands exactly as in the old Gesamtausgabe. If nothing about that edition is changed except the price, wont it risk becoming known as the gazumped Ausgabe?


The Musical Times, Jan., 1975 (p. 59) © the estate of eric sams