Carl Loewe

Radio script, 1980s; © the estate of eric sams (Typescript courtesy of Miss Audrey Twine)


[Music examples have been inserted in place of the relevant audio clips of the original broadcasting]



Carl Loewe was born in 1796 and died in 1869. His songs embody the North German romantic nineteenth century. There are about 400 of them; and they're rarely heard in recitals. Their usually rather long and serious; and they don't always escape dullness. They can also be very difficult for both performers; Loewe was a virtuoso sínger and pianist. But he could turn all those qualities to good account. His best music is notable for strong since a feeling as well as technical brilliance. That mixture is also highly personal and original. It was made for story-telling; and that was Loewe's favourite song form – the narrative poem or ballad, with scenes and characters made vivid and meaningful by direct vivid communication from artist to audience.

   Here's a sample. The great god Odin is riding to battle through the night sky. A light shines over his head; not even his own eagles can keep up with him.




    Earlier in that same song, Odins Meeresritt, we're told how the god needed mortal help. His war-horse had to be shod. The blacksmith in his confusion made a normal-sized horseshoe, which was of course far too small. “Es ist zu kleine”. The music tells us what happened. “Da dehnt’ es sich aus”. It's miraculously enlarged, as the piano explains in huge spread chords.  



   All this is typical Loewe. The words and music, together make a picture-book; they tell the armory and also provide illustrations that stand out as the pages are turned. Because Loewe was a singer, he can draw and colour his pictures with vocal lines as well as keyboard effects. Here's another supernatural being, the water-sprite, Der Nöck, singing to the harp. Like Orpheus with his lute, he could make trees bow themselves when he did sing. “Die ume neigen sich tief...”; and we hear the voice bowing down deeply, from crown to root. No wonder the nightingale is content to listen, as the poem says.



    Here's another example of how to use music graphically, almost photographically – this time with less exalted subject-matter. A crusader has returned to find his castle in ruins. He has to bed down in the stables. But the piano knows, even before the voice tells us, that the premises aren't quite as deserted as he thinks. He's got company – rats, running about in the straw, like this



   So our heros slumbers are disturbed and he has bad dreams, with similar subconscious music. Goethe’s poem and Loewe’s setting combine to make the same point. Romantics are also realists. They know that their fantasies have deep roots in the everyday world. So myths and legends are just as full of meaning as ordinary human experience. Loewe chooses his themes from both worlds, and he shows us how they belong together. That's his message for modern times; that's what his music can still teach us.


   Listen to what happened to Herr Oluf, Lord Olaf , as he rode out to invite his wedding guests. He met the Erlking's daughter, queen of the elves. The piano prelude tells us that these two characters, the bold riding gentleman and the sinister dancing ghost, natural and supernatural, both inhabit the same world. They're both in the same time and the same key.


    Now we hear the covering that same ground again, to the same music. But when the Erlking's daughter holds out her hand, Loewe sounds a warning note, on the last word of the final phrase: “reicht’ ihm die Hand”. In the whole passage, only that one note lies outside the main key.




   The Erlking himself, in Goethe's famous poem, also belongs in the same world as the frightened boy who sees him. As we hear the father's attempts at reassurance, the Erlking stands in the shadows, only a semitone away. His voice sounds like the wind among the trees.



   I think that song can stand comparison with Schubert far more famous setting of Erlkönig.

   Like the father in that poem, Loewe lost his own child to another world. His son sailed away to America and was never heard of again. The composer himself disappeared. In his sixties he fell into a deep trance that lasted for many weeks. A few years later he went into another long coma from which he never returned. In between, he wrote a song on that same favourite theme. It makes a happy ending, in music. It tells how Tom der Reimer, the minstrel in an old Scottish ballad, was spirited away by the queen of the elves. He was quite content to go; enchanted, in fact. The ride off together through the bright birdsong and sunshine that we hear in the long last syllable “Sonnenschein”; and the silver bells on the horse’s mane ring a wedding chime.


   With that sweet simplicity, Loewe could write memorable love-lyrics, and comic songs too. But it’s as a musical story-teller and illustrator, I think, that he'll be best remembered. Like a true ballad-writer, he usually depicts all features but his own. There's one little song, though, that sounds to me like a self-portrait. It's called Der Freibeuter, The Freelance. The poem is written in dialect; so is the music, which is a regional country-dance. The words, again by Goethe, say “I'm unlike everybody else”; and you can hear the piano melody going its own way, not just independently of the voice but in what might be called contrary motion. This too is the artist's manifesto; he's in the real world, but also in a world of his own; and he can communicate both of them vividly and directly, to our lasting pleasure and profit