Pamela Dellal, mezzo soprano


uncommon intelligence, imagination and textual awareness...



Schumann: Liederkreis, op. 39

performed August 2012

This set of twelve songs was written in 1840 during Robert Schumann’s triumphant “year of song’ – the year he was finally permitted to marry Clara Wieck. Eichendorff’s poetry is strikingly different from the poems generally associated with Schumann – Heine, Kerner, and other intense, passionate, and sometimes sardonic lyrics. In contrast, these twelve poems evoke rather than declare; instead of a narrative in time, the songs are linked by states of alienation, awakened memory, longing, and wonder. The rustling woods appear in nearly every piece. Schumann integrates the cycle very closely through key relationships and tight joins between songs.  The sympathy and interrelatedness of nature with the human soul is the essence of the Romantic movement, and this song cycle is regarded as Schumann’s most Romantic work. Nature communicates to the poet, comforts him, confounds him, and overpowers him. Mankind is a part of nature, but can be tragically deaf to its real messages; therefore he can be as alienated from the world as embedded in it.

The cycle begins with a brooding, profound utterance of loneliness and separateness in “In der Fremde.” A song of passionate intimacy follows; “Intermezzo” expresses delight in love with impetuous syncopations. Distance is cancelled by swiftly winging songs of the heart. The third piece is a startling departure: “Waldesgespräch” reimagines the old legend of the Lorelai by placing an encounter, not at the Rhine river, but in a forest at twilight. Instead of a narrative ‘I,’ two characters speak to each other, weaving deception, desire, and domination into their communication. One main theme of the cycle – things being not what they seem in nature – is fundamental to this cinematic scene.

A charming miniature follows (“Die Stille”), which makes the female gender of the speaker evident – another shift of voice. Here the concealment of feelings is transformed into mute joy, the more delicious for being private. Schumann paints the portrait with great delicacy. (Could she be the recipient of the heart’s song from “Intermezzo”?) “Mondnacht” begins with a bold metaphor: the sky and earth as lovers. The shimmering stillness and clarity of the moonlight becomes an atmosphere charged with sexual tension and potency; when the narrator inserts himself into the scene, unfolding his soul’s wings for a mental journey, the latent desire is revealed as nostalgia for home. This transforms itself directly into the excitement and urgency of “Schöne Fremde;” meaning and messages are everywhere in the night landscape, all promising fulfillment to the one who listens.

This scene ends. Suddenly we stare at a stone fortress, bleak against the landscape (“Auf einer Burg”). With cool detachment, we observe a watchman asleep in the tower; or is he a stone carving, crumbling with age? The mystery is enhanced by the brilliant archaic music evoking the language of a Renaissance motet. Juxtaposed to this deep time is the wedding party passing below; life and music contrast with the sad silence above. But the focal point of the merry party, the bride, is weeping; we are left in suspense.

The mood of the cycle has shifted. In the next song, also titled “In der Fremde,” we are back in the forest again. Now the messages on the wind cannot be trusted; they speak of other times and places, joyous unions and loved people, who are out of reach. Nature is not there to comfort or help the lonely man, but rather is a disorienting and disturbing force. “Wehmut” takes us briefly into the poet’s soul as he confesses the painful source of his art – his pretty songs are born of deep sorrow. The pervasive melancholy slips into paranoia in the next vignette. The unreality of twilight (“Zwielicht”) engenders specters of horrid violence, betrayal and loss, while the sinuous chromatic counterpoint weaves a trap around the listener and dissolves any sense of firm foundation.

In the penultimate song, “Im Walde,” we are back in the forest. Now hyper-alert to everything, the narrator internalizes every passing sound and stimulus, but is left empty by the coming of night. This mercurial song is perhaps the most peculiar in the entire set, and is highly unsettling in its erratic tempo variations. The final song, “Frühlingsnacht,” seems like a conventional, happy conclusion after these forest hallucinations – the rustling of the spring evening once again speaking of love and happiness. But Eichendorff’s pervasive ambiguity will not be silenced; a closer look at the text reveals that the dawning joy might only be an illusion. 

© Pamela Dellal