At a concert I gave with the pianist Jeremy Denk about a week and a half ago in Chicago, Jeremy described the piano as the “iPod of the 19th century.” In the days before iPods, CD players, cassette tapes, 8-tracks, record players, and phonographs – the days during which the majority of the standard classical repertoire was written – if one wanted to hear some music outside of the concert hall, one had to make music themselves. Pianos were the primary way of doing that and experiencing music in one’s home.
My partner and I recently purchased a new upright piano for our apartment, and it has been a fun opportunity to pretend like we’re back in the 19th century, playing our 19th century iPod in our home and making music together, mostly sight reading through songs as we laugh at our silly reading mistakes along the way. Perhaps because Jeremy and I were so focused on Schumann for the past couple of weeks in preparation for our concert in Chicago, my partner and I have also been exploring Schumann’s many songs, some of which I think are perhaps some of the most beautiful songs ever written.
In one of the more romantic stories in classical music history, after a long and dramatic courtship, Robert Schumann finally married his great love Clara Wieck in 1840. The two were madly in love, but were prevented from marrying for a long time by Clara’s father, who disapproved of Robert, thinking him unsuitable since he was a poor composer. As the tension of their protracted and fraught engagement finally released, and they were able to be married, Robert suddenly had a flood of songs pour out of him – he composed 168 songs in 1840 alone, and in the process elevated the whole art form of song to an entirely new level. Among the songs he composed that year are his famed song cycles Liederkreis Op. 24 and Liederkreis Op. 39, Frauenliebe und Leben (Woman’s Life and Love), and his incredibly beautiful song cycle about a poet’s infatuation and break up with his love, Dichterliebe (which Jeremy and I performed last week in Chicago).
In a ridiculously romantic gesture, Robert grouped together the first 26 songs he composed that year into a collection entitled Myrthen and gave them to Clara as a wedding present. The first song, Widmung (Dedication), is perhaps one of his most beautiful compositions. While I don’t understand why there are jellyfish floating around in the backgroud of this video, here is one of my favorite lieder singers performing the song:
Du meine Seele, du mein Herz,
Du meine Wonn’, O du mein Schmerz,
Du meine Welt, in der ich lebe,
Mein Himmel du, darein ich schwebe,
O du mein Grab, in das hinab
Ich ewig meinen Kummer gab.
Du bist die Ruh, du bist der Frieden,
Du bist vom Himmel mir beschieden.
Daß du mich liebst, macht mich mir wert,
Dein Blick hat mich vor mir verklärt,
Du hebst mich liebend über mich,
Mein guter Geist, mein beßres Ich!
- Friedrich Rückert
You my soul, you my heart,
you my bliss, o you my pain,
you the world in which I live;
you my heaven, in which I float,
o you my grave, into which
I eternally cast my grief.
You are rest, you are peace,
you are bestowed upon me from heaven.
That you love me makes me worthy of you;
your gaze transfigures me;
you raise me lovingly above myself,
my good spirit, my better self!
Imagine getting that as a wedding present from your brand new husband - we should all be so lucky…
I’ve linked to some of my favorite recordings of each of these cycles above. If you’re in the mood to immerse yourself in the results of Robert Schumann’s romantic high in 1840 and experience the products of his honeymoon bliss, check out one of those recordings above. In case of you are curious, here’s a recording one of the songs that my partner and I have fallen in love with during our explorations at our new piano. It’s called “Schöne Fremde (Beautiful Foreign Land),” from Liederkreis Op. 39.
Es rauschen die Wipfel und schauern,
Als machten zu dieser Stund
Um die halbversunkenen Mauern
Die alten Götter die Rund.
Hier hinter den Myrtenbäumen
In heimlich dämmernder Pracht,
Was sprichst du wirr wie in Träumen
Zu mir, phantastische Nacht?
Es funkeln auf mich alle Sterne
Mit glühendem Liebesblick,
Es redet trunken die Ferne
Wie vom künftigem, großem Glück.
- Joseph von Eichendorff
The treetops rustle and shiver
as if at this hour
about the half-sunken walls
the old gods are making their rounds.
Here, behind the myrtle trees,
in secretly darkening splendor,
what do you say so murmuringly, as if in a dream,
to me, fantastic night?
The stars glitter down on me
with glowing, loving gazes,
and the distance speaks tipsily,
it seems, of great future happiness.