I’ve just started the challenging task of learning to sing Robert Schumann’s Liederkreis – a song cycle of 12 songs (liede). The song in the You Tube video is song 5 of the cycle and it’s sung by lyric soprano Barbara Bonney. She’s one of my favourite sopranos. She has a clear, sweet, natural-sounding voice and whatever she is singing, she makes sound effortless. My homework this week was to learn songs 1-3, but I think Mondnacht (Moonlit Night) (song 5 in the cycle) is going to be my favourite.
The lyrics in Liederkreis come from a collection of poetry – called Intermezzo – by Joseph Baron von Eichendorff (1788-1857), a poet of the Romantic movement.
Romanticism originated in Europe in the latter part of the 18th century, reaching its peak between 1800-1850. In a tiny tiny tiny nutshell, Romanticism was in part a reaction against the Industrial Revolution and of the scientific rationalisation of nature which marked what is referred to as the Age of Enlightenment. If the Age of Enlightenment is head, then Romanticism is heart. Romanticism is about living according to strong feeling and intuition, versus Enlightenment’s bald fact.
A majority of the artists I admire fall within the 18th century Romantic tradition. A majority of admired 20th century artists belong to the Neo-Romantic movement. My favourite Neo-romantic 20th century British landscape artist is St Ives artist Peter Lanyon.
Other Romantic and Neo-romantic artists I admire: Paul Nash, John Piper, Graham Sutherland. Then there are the Romantic visionaries: Samuel Palmer (early), William Blake, Cecil Collins.
Schumann had a tragic life. In his teens, what would be diagnosed today as bi-polar disorder – began to manifest itself. His highs resulted in immense creative output – 1840 is known as his year of song – he composed over 100. But he was also treated for syphilis – contracted in his teens – with poisonous mercury, which may have exacerbated his symptoms. After throwing himself off a bridge in a suicide attempt he was placed in a sanitarium. His wife Clara was refused visits until just 3 days before his death.
I haven’t done much research into the song cycle yet, but I have come across an interesting work by Patrick McCreless: Song Order in the Song Cycle: Schumanns Liederkreis, op. 39. Here’s an excerpt:
The twelve Eichendorff poems that Schumann sets to music in the cycle do not come from a single, self-contained source; and although they are closely knot together by a web of nature symbolism, imagery, and language, they present no single, logically necessary order.
… since what holds the texts together is not story, but Stimmung and symbol, he was free to order them according to whatever principles, musical or textual, he found most effective, in a way that would not have been the case in a narrative cycle.
McCreless goes on to posit that Schumann ordered the cycle in two different ways and each is revealing. This is as far as I’ve read in the book.
I love some of the titles of the songs in this cycle, like Waldgespräch –
Conversation in the Wood. There are lofty cliffs, a castle that gazes down on the Rhine (a gazing castle, how wonderful) and a witch called Lorelei.
My poor attempts to sing this cycle will probably never be heard publically but I will enjoy and learn a great deal from trying to sing and interpret it. And, as always, it will have a knock-on effect on my other artistic activities.
Ebook: The Dust of Life