On Schumann's Dichterliebe

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Stanley Corngold, Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Princeton, offers this first-hand account of attending a rehearsal of Schumann's Dichterliebe:

You climb a mountain that may make you think of Purgatory Mountain: it is a bit rough and foggy and the dirt roads are slippery, but you are on the way to the Terrestrial Paradise of music. This is Yellow Barn, a cluster of lodges (called “pods”) from which emerges a foretaste of heavenly music, in pieces. I came in the evening to Nathan's Studio, a bit stunned, happily, by the beauty of the room and its setting: outside, slanting green slopes with patches of late sunlight, framed by huge, shapely pines; inside, a Zen atmosphere (“Please remove your shoes”)—sweet, fresh air; cream curtains barely blowing; the smell of polished wood; a woven white carpet on the floor; and behind the piano, a Japanese, plum-colored wall. I am going to experience the incomparable intimacy, fluency, and rigor of two superlative artists—the Artistic Director and pianist Seth Knopp, the baritone William Sharp—rehearsing Schumann’s Dichterliebe (A poet’s love)—a song cycle to texts from Heine’s Buch der Lieder (Book of songs).

The Japanese metaphor holds, since I know very little Japanese, and Seth and Bill speak about their music in a language nominally English but one that I mostly do not understand: instead I marvel at the perfection and ease of their understanding. They are native speakers of the idiom of accompaniment, the subtle work of adjusting piano music to song. But what I do understand belongs to a ritual of attentiveness and generosity: I hear Seth wonder if a piece of his playing “supports” Bill’s singing, whether his music “invites” the voice in. But I can assume from the gestures of enthusiasm from Bill to Seth that he is returning Seth’s kindness. 

From time to time I am allowed into their conversation, and now I know their language is not only pragmatic: it is full of wit (and wild comedy!), information, and canny judgments on Heine’s and Schumann’s artistic intentions.  One piece especially attracted a good deal of analysis: the Sixth Song.  The Heine text:

Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome,
da spiegelt sich in den Well'n
mit seinem großen Dome
das große, heilige Köln.

Im Dom da steht ein Bildniß
auf goldenem Leder gemalt.
In meines Lebens Wildniß
hat's freundlich hineingestrahlt.

Es schweben Blumen und Eng'lein
um unsre liebe Frau;
die Augen, die Lippen, die Wänglein,
die gleichen der Liebsten genau.

In the Rhine, in the sacred river,
there is mirrored in the waves,
with its great cathedral,
great sacred Cologne.

In the cathedral, there stands an image
painted on golden leather.
into my life’s wilderness
it has shined in affectionately.

There hover flowers and little angels
around our beloved lady,
the eyes, the lips, the little cheeks,
match exactly those of the best beloved.

Bill pointed out that that at the time of Heine’s composition of this poem (1822-23), only part of the cathedral at Cologne had been built. A portion of the south tower stood at the belfry level: it was not yet the grand monument of the third line of his poem. That monument, in its fullness, is a poetic fiction, which means, it has no real referent. This led me to wonder whether the opening fiction of the poem was being picked up at its close: the golden cathedral image resembles precisely the best beloved or most dear person, whom I took to be the Virgin Mary. And once again, where the Virgin Mary is concerned, there is no real person at hand whom the image might be said to resemble. The underlying theme of the poem, I thought, is the independence of the poetic image from the real world, thus complicating the casual claim of the great cathedral’s perfect image in the waves.

Bill pointed out the error of this reading but graciously and creatively. The best beloved is not the sacred figure of the Virgin Mary; it is, unmistakably, the poet’s beloved. The point is not that an artistic fiction—the golden cathedral image—fails to refer to a real being. The point is that it precisely does refer to a real being—the poet’s beloved. This is an audacious, secularized theology.

And yet, I wondered, is the beloved a real being? We decided to agree: she is real within the fiction of the poem. But even within the poem, isn’t she merely the poet’s fancy of a perfect beloved? We could not settle the matter on the spot—a theme that, owing to what Bill knew, turned the poem into a dizzying meditation on the riddle of poetic imitation. 

This riddle produced another riddle about the status of Schumann’s musical imitation: it mirrors the poem, and yet it does more than mirror the poem—it means to exceed it. And it does so precisely with its glorious sacerdotal postlude, as Seth pointed out—cathedral music at the close, picking up and completing the unfinished cathedral at the outset. It’s in the spirit of Bach, Seth added; of course, added Bill, Schumann was studying Bach intensively at the time, in Leipzig!

Such, such are the joys of rehearsal at Yellow Barn.