Little Wild Rose in the Heather

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(The manuscript of “Heidenröslein.” Schubert’s marking is “lieblich,” i.e. charming or lovely.)

Read through the score here:

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The song starts almost without starting: the voice and piano begin together, without any introduction. Although the song is a setting of a poem by the great German poet, playwright, novelist, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Schubert has attempted to imitate a folksong. The song is strophic, cheerful, and deceptively simple. It’s as if Schubert is trying to evoke the naturalism of an actual folksong. Why does he do this?

Wild Rose

A boy saw a wild rose
growing in the heather;
it was so young, and as lovely as the morning.
He ran swiftly to look more closely,
looked on it with great joy.
Wild rose, wild rose, wild rose red,
wild rose in the heather.
Said the boy: I shall pluck you,
wild rose in the heather!
Said the rose: I shall prick you
so that you will always remember me.
And I will not suffer it.
Wild rose, wild rose, wild rose red,
wild rose in the heather.
And the impetuous boy plucked
the wild rose from the heather;
the rose defended herself and pricked him,
but her cries of pain were to no avail;
she simply had to suffer.
Wild rose, wild rose, wild rose red,
wild rose in the heather.

(English Translation © Richard Wigmore)

The opening statement of Schubert’s melody mimics Pamina and Papageno’s duet, “Könnte jeder brave Mann,” in Act 1 of Mozart’s 1791 opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute):

In a certain sense, Schubert’s elevation of the Lied to a high art was an act of resistance, a turning away from the rigors of “serious” musical form and towards greater simplicity and accessibility. His use of a folklike form in “Heidenröslein” — while setting Goethe, no less — seems like a deliberate and even a studied choice. What is more, the childlike strophic simplicity of the song highlights another aspect of Schubert’s compositional philosophy: irony.

What is irony?

This print, “The Hunter’s Funeral” by Schubert’s friend Moritz von Schwind, is a good example of irony.

Moritz

Another way that Schubert composes irony is in his frequent switching between parallel major and minor, as here, in his song “Lachen und Weinen” (Laughing and Weeping), where he moves between A-flat major and A-flat minor, in a kind of sonic illustration of the poem by Friedrich Rückert:

Laughter and tears

Laughter and tears at any hour
Arise in love from so many different causes.
In the morning I laughed with joy;
And why I now weep
In the evening light,
Is unknown even to me.
Tears and laughter at any hour
Arise in love from so many different causes.
In the evening I wept with grief;
And why you can wake
In the morning with laughter,

I must ask you, my heart.

(English Translation © Richard Stokes)

Schubert extends this technique to his instrumental chamber music. Listen to the beginning of his String Quartet in G Major. What makes it major, really?

His String Quintet in C Major:

Is it safe to say that Schubert, in his intermixing of parallel major and minor modalities, is expressing what cannot be said in words — emotional ambiguity? Why do you think he does this?

Incidentally, about 100 German composers wrote their own musical settings of “Heidenröslein.” The composer Heinrich Werner (1800-1833) set the poem in 1827, in a version whose popularity would make it almost a kind of folksong itself. Here it is arranged for four voices:

Read through the score here:

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The great German actress Marlene Dietrich sings “Heidenröslein” in the 1933 film The Song of Songs:

He Who Knows Longing

Johann_Heinrich_Wilhelm_Tischbein_-_Goethe_in_the_Roman_Campagna_-_Google_Art_ProjectJohann Wolfgang von Goethe in a traveling robe on a trip to Italy.

In 1795, Goethe published his novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship), a Bildungsroman (novel concerned with the growth of the individual human spirit) about a young merchant who, dissatisfied with his life in business, goes off to join a group of traveling street performers. He meets Mignon in their midst, a vulnerable and melancholy young singer and actress with a shadowy past. Goethe gives Mignon several memorable songs, written in verse, to sing in the course of the novel’s narrative. These few verses in a now largely-forgotten novel would become generate some of the greatest Lieder of the nineteenth century.

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Mignon by Dutch artist Ary Scheffer, 1836.

Mignon, it is eventually revealed, is the product of an incestuous union between a brother and sister who had not been raised together and met later in life. She has been kidnapped from Italy and taken to wander the German-speaking lands with the other performers. She is in early adolescence, androgynous (other characters in the novel don’t know at first whether she’s a boy or girl), a creature seemingly on the threshold of this world, who longs for another one.

Mignon’s song “Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt” (Only he who knows longing) was set to music hundreds of times, both in German and in various translations, throughout the nineteenth century. Here are several settings.

Schubert:

Schubert again:

Schubert again, in a setting for Männerchor:

Beethoven:

Schumann:

Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel:

Which of these do you think best expresses Sehnsucht?

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

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The legend of Dr. Faust — a scholar dissatisfied with his life, who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for renewed youth, strength, and vigor — is an ancient one. The first literary adaptations of the Faust legend began to appear in the sixteenth century, and every age since has reinterpreted the story according to its own cultural ethos.

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The great poet of German classicism, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), wrote his own version of the Faust legend as a play in rhymed verse in two parts, the first part appearing in 1808, the second published after his death. It provided the basis for many musical works in the nineteenth century, including Schubert’s great song “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel), which Schubert (above) wrote when he was only seventeen, thus changing the course of music forever.

Gretchen is a young peasant girl who has fallen in love with the new, improved version of Faust. She waits for him to come as she spins wool on her spinning wheel.

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As she spins, her thoughts take a more and more obsessive turn. She fantasizes about Faust: his noble good looks, the enchanting flow of his conversation, and his kiss — at which point she is so overcome that the constant motion of her spinning wheel, represented by Schubert in the right hand of the piano part, stops for a moment while Gretchen calms herself and gathers her wits. Then she picks up the motion of the wheel again.

At the age of seventeen, Schubert was able to enter into the inner life of his protagonist and write what is almost a miniature opera, but for only two players: the piano and the voice. The song, with the piano mimicking the outer world and the voice showing the interior life of the character, revolutionized music.

As the pianist Graham Johnson says,

There is a feeling where we no longer care about [the piano being the spinning wheel . . . It becomes synonymous with the whirring, the dislocation, of a young woman’s discovery of her sexual vulnerability . . . Everybody thinks that lieder is something incredibly outdated and non-relevant . . . But the idea of giving a woman’s anguish center stage. And she’s speaking, “It’s me who’s suffering this.” And we get a certain framework. I mean, Billie Holiday would have understood.

Waiting in vain for the beloved to come is a theme that never gets old:

The paintings of solitary women by American artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) often remind me of Gretchen waiting for Faust.

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