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Thomas Hampson / Twenty Songs

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A critical analysis of the Dicterliebe

It is this hypothesis which brings us to the chief theme: what is it that attracted Schumann to Heine? When, how long, and in what ways did he explore those connections? In 1828 the then eighteen year-old Schumann had met Heine in Munich and had described the poet: "On his lips there played a bitterly ironic smile, but it was a lofty smile aimed at the trivialities of life and a scorn for petty men." The notion that Schumann either ignored or tried to soften Heine's irony is a widespread one that has not been frequently enough challenged. Schumann later referred to the issue of the irony in his writings in almost Heinesque terms ­ (one can almost imagine the words come from the Lyrisches Intermezzo itself): "At certain points in time poetry dons the mask of irony in order to conceal its visage of pain; perhaps for a moment the friendly hand of a genius may lift that mask so that wild tears may be transformed into pearls."

We know that in May 1840 Schumann had begun to set a series of poems from Heine's Lyriches Intermezzo, though he had not yet finalized in his mind the exact number or sequence of the songs ­ a process which would take him a few more days. In the first edition of the Buch der Lieder, which we know Schumann owned and used to compose his cycle, the Lyrisches Intermezzo contains sixty-six songs and a prologue. In this prologue a dreamy poet, called a knight, is abruptly catapulted back from the fairyland of his illusions about life and love into a lonely poet's cell. It is essential to read the entire cycle of poems from this self-ironic premise, and naturally, Schumann had read it this way himself in 1840 when he began to compose. Heine's poetic diction employs practically the entire repertory of romantic symbols and images to give the poems a metaphorical dimension as well as to inject into them his own brand of irony. The way Schumann captures these dimensions in his songs belies any naieveté on his part or any lack of understanding of the ironic implications, though the "naive" label has remained persistently and mistakenly attached to the Dichterliebe.

Thus, knowing the original version of the complete Heine cycle contributes to understanding Schumann's appreciation for and interpretation of Heine. In the songs which were later cut, the dream world with its shadowy depths is all the clearer, just as it is that much more present in the first versions of the sixteen remaining songs before they were altered. For example, dark intimations already surface in Dein Angesicht before peaking in the self-pitying and self-ironic closing lines of Es leuchtet meine Liebe: "When I am in the grave, only then will this fairy tale be ended." In Mein Wagen rollet langsam (Nr. 16) there is a close motivic/musical connection to the next song, Ich hab' im Traum geweinet (Nr. 17) that demonstrates unmistakeably how the dream of one song influences the next and adds to it another level of meaning.

Knowing the original also reinforces the stylistic interconnectedness of the songs and the poems; in the first version the clarity of the text is even more pronounced against the melodic line, and the rhythms are closer to speech. In a song like Nr. 11, Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen, the melody ­ indeed, the entire song ­ is clothed in a different ambiance. In the manuscript above the postlude one finds the marking "vivat hoch" which captures spontaneously and vividly the fluid key structure. The accompaniment in the first version is also often patently unprettified; many dissonances may jar at first hearing, but they very quickly serve to establish the semantic reference. The phrasing of the piano part is frequently rhythmically differentiated, shifting with the fluctuation of the singing voice, as in Nr. 14, and the postludes are often a few measures longer. Then, too, some themes like that of the alten bösen Lieder, which are buried in the last of the Schumann-Heine songs, can be heard much earlier in the original version than they can in the sixteen-song 1844 Dichterliebe.

Beyond all of these difference, the manuscript of the 20 songs offers its interpreter a few more opportunities to observe divergent details. Persistently repeated printing errors can be corrected by studying the manuscript. There are also countless tempo and phrase indicators which are lacking in the printed version and which add significantly to the interpretation, just as the vocal tessitura of the original is so fashioned that a baritone ­ a flexible one, of course ­ can sing the original keys without transposition. One notes this last fact with a caution because today's listener will not hear the high notes customary in the Dichterliebe, but rather the lower-lying originals which are found in the manuscript. The 20 Lieder make much more use of the lower, rather than upper head register for the singer!

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