Night and Dreams

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Two Men Contemplating the Moon (Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1830).

Words and images you will encounter over and over again in the Lieder of the Romantic era: night, dark, moon, dream — in German, Nacht, dunkel, Mond, Traum (German nouns are capitalized).

Think of the thick, dark (dunkel), overgrown forests in which so many of the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm take place, and recall that the Brothers Grimm were philologists (linguists) as well as folklore collectors. The brothers’ other great project, in addition to their folktale collecting, was the publication of what is still today the most comprehensive German dictionary, the Deutsches Wörterbuch.

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In the Wörterbuch, the Grimms provide another meaning for dunkel, in addition to “dark”: dämmerndmeaning dusky, dim, like twilight, the indeterminate time of day when the light yields to the dark. This haziness and indeterminacy is another prominent idea in Romanticism, in which imagination and what it produces have a greater value than reason and what it measures.

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Rocky Landscape in the Elbe (Friedrich, 1823).

In his song “Mondnacht” (Moonlit Night), notice how Schumann begins with a feeling of indeterminacy in the piano, and how, when the voice enters, it appears to be singing just a fragment of a melody. The poem is by Joseph von Eichendorff.

The text in translation by Richard Stokes:

It was as though Heaven
Had softly kissed the Earth,
So that she in a gleam of blossom
Had only to dream of him.

The breeze passed through the fields,
The corn swayed gently to and fro,
The forests murmured softly,
The night was so clear with stars.

And my soul spread
Her wings out wide,
Flew across the silent land,
As though flying home.

Here is Brahms’s setting of the same text.

How are the two musical settings different? Which do you think is more effective in capturing the “night” feeling of Eichendorff’s poem? Why?

 

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?

Free, But Lonely

Joseph_Joachim_1868(Joseph Joachim in 1868.)

“Frei Aber Einsam” — Free but lonely — was the personal motto of Brahms’s best friend, the Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim. In 1853, for Joachim’s twenty-seconnd birthday, Robert Schumann, his composition student Albert Dietrich, and Brahms decided to collaborate on a present for their friend: a sonata for violin and piano based on the musical notes F, A, and E, in honor of Joachim’s motto.

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The title page is inscribed:

F.A.E.: In Erwartung der Ankunft des verehrten und geliebten Freundes JOSEPH JOACHIM schrieben diese Sonate R.S., J.B., A.D.

(F.A.E.: In expectation of the arrival of their revered and beloved friend, Joseph Joachim, this sonata was written by R.S., J.B., A.D.)

Brahms wrote the third movement, a scherzo.

The propulsive rhythm of Brahms’s contribution should be a bit . . . familiar to you.

Do  you think Brahms was consciously imitating Beethoven?

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Don’t forget that earlier that same month — October, 1853 — Schumann had written an article in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in which he essentially anointed Brahms as the spiritual son of Beethoven, calling him

one whose mastery would not gradually unfold but, like Minerva, would spring fully armed from the head of Jupiter. And now he has arrived, a young blood, at whose cradle graces and heroes kept watch. His name is Johannes Brahms, . .  His comrades greet him at his first entrance into the world of art, where wounds may perhaps await him, but bay and laurel also; we welcome him as a valiant warrior.

Schumann was a very influential composer and critic, and this essay, entitled “Neue Bahnen” (New Paths), was read as far away as America, where it was published in translation in the New-York Herald Tribune as well as other papers. “Neue Bahnen” made Brahms’s career.

It has been suggested that Schumann had been actively looking for someone to inherit the mantle of German music after the death of Beethoven — someone who was not a member of the Lisztian New German School, which he detested, but a proponent of “pure” (absolute) music.

What must it have been like for Brahms, at twenty, to have to live up to this hype?

Incidentally, Joachim was one of the first violinists to make recordings, and, when, in the early days of Youtube, I found some uploads of his remastered recordings, it was thrilling to hear his unadorned style, with very little vibrato; it gave me some idea of the way that Brahms wanted his music to sound. Here is Joachim playing his Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no. 1.

The Blue Flower

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(Clara Wieck Schumann, Johannes Brahms, and Robert Schumann.)

On October 1, 1853, the twenty-year-old Johannes Brahms, who was on tour accompanying violinist Eduard Remenyi throughout the German-speaking lands, knocked on the door of his idol, Robert Schumann in Düsseldorf. He played his Piano Sonata no. 1 in C Major for Schumann and his wife, the great pianist Clara Wieck Schumann. Robert noted in his journal that night:

Visit from Brahms (a genius).

Clara wrote in her own journal:

This month brought us the wonderful arrival of the twenty-year old composer Brahms from Hamburg. It is as though he has been sent by God himself! He played sonatas, scherzos, and so on that he had written, everything brimming over with imagination and emotional intensity, and consummate in form. It is really moving to watch this man,with his fascinating features, sitting at the piano with an expression of ecstasy on his face. He has very attractive hands, which master the greatest of difficulties with the greatest of ease- his works are very hard. Robert says one can only hope that Heaven will grant him health.

One can hear how deeply the young Brahms had drunk at the spring of Beethoven; his sonata reflects much of the energy, freedom, and heroic gestures of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata no. 29 in B-flat Major, op. 106, the “Hammerklavier”:

And the beginning of the second movement of Brahms’s sonata sounds very much like the last number in Schubert’s great song cycle Die Winterreise, “Der Leiermann,” in which the bereft protagonist encounters a mentally unstable organ-grinder walking barefoot on the ice, and he asks the organ-grinder if he might throw in his lot and wander with him.

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Indeed, Brahms patterned the second movement after an old Minnelied (love songs sung by German troubadours) called “Vertohlen geht der Mond auf” (Stealthily rises the moon).

Verstohlen geht der Mond auf.
Blau, blau Blümelein!
Durch Silberwölkchen führt sein Lauf.
Blau, blau Blümelein!
Rosen im Tal,
Mädel im Saal,
O schönste Rosa!
Stealthily rises the moon.
Blue, blue flower!
Through silver cloudlets makes its way.
Blue, blue flower!
Roses in the dale,
Maiden in the hall,
O loveliest Rosa!

The motif of the blue flower is a strand threaded throughout the poetry of German Romanticism, appearing in works by Joseph von Eichendorff, E.T.A. Hoffmann, and Novalis; it symbolizes the Romantic longing for the infinite.

This German folk song talks about seeking the blue flower:

Several years later, Brahms wrote a choral setting of “Verstohlen geht der Mond auf”:

Can you find references to the blue flower in twentieth and twenty-first century culture?

What is your blue flower?

Variations on a Theme

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(Johannes Brahms, Clara Schumann, Robert Schumann.)

Robert Schumann, no. 4 of Bunte Blätter (Colored Leaves), op. 99.

In 1853, his wife, Clara (Wieck) Schumann, wrote a set of variations on this piece.

The following year, Schumann was confined to the insane asylum at Endenich. Clara, who gave birth to their seventh child that May, was forbidden to visit him, as his doctors believed it would worsen his condition. Brahms, who moved in with Clara and her children, wrote his own variations on the same theme from Bunte Blätter to console her, and as a tribute to the man they both loved.

Music professor Robert Greenberg muses:

What is it about older women? A cynic might claim that a young man’s attraction to an older woman reflects nothing but an Oedipal desire to sleep with his mother and a longing to be babied. But we are not cynics. We understand that Clara, as a professional musician, saw past Brahms’ childish appearance the moment she heard him play his own music at the piano. We understand that this beautiful, smart, experienced woman treated Brahms like a man and as an equal, not like a little boy . . . 

Was Clara a cougar, a Mrs. Robinson-type BABE out looking for a naïve but energized (*wink*wink*) young man with whom she could partay heartay?

Answer: Um, no.

How are the Clara Schumann and Brahms variations different? In what ways are they faithful to the original theme by Robert Schumann, and in what ways do they differ from it? Do you believe that the variations enlarge, expand, and (perhaps) even improve upon the original theme by Robert Schumann? How so?