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Why "Dichterliebe" (Schumann) Is Awesome

Updated: Feb 6, 2020

If you've never heard of "Dichterliebe" (A Poet's Love), here are the things to know:

- Year: 1840

- Composer: Robert Schumann

- Text: Heinrich Heine

- Origin: Heine's Lyrisches Intermezzo (1822-1823) and published as part of the poet's Das Buch der Lieder. Schumann did change some words, though.

- What it is: A German Lieder song cycle containing 16 songs for voice (usually male, but sometimes female) and piano, going through the poet's (or his made-up character's) journey of being in love, being bitter about love, and being ready to move on from it all. Wikipedia describes it as "a hothouse of nuanced responses to the delicate language of flowers, dreams and fairy-tales". Exciting stuff!

Heine and Schumann

Both the piano and the voice are so important in this cycle - they have different "voices" and evoke different things - mostly emotions and things going on in nature, as with most Romantic era German poetry and art music. As you listen, see what different images you can hear being painted by the two instruments (yes, the voice is an instrument). Read through the short explanations of each song first, and then listen. There are 16 songs, so get settled in! I've put the full set at the end of this post.


The first song in this cycle, "Im wunderschönen Monat Mai", is my favourite. Utterly beautiful. Here's a translation:

"In beautiful May, when the buds sprang, love sprang up in my heart: in beautiful May, when the birds all sang, I told you my desire and longing."

Now, just listen to how Schumann evokes this beautiful, Northern Hemisphere spring day! I happen to be writing this post at the beginning of May, so it is particularly appropriate right now. As I look outside, there are leaves in all the trees and flowers blossoming everywhere, the sun is out, and winter is over - finally!

There is such a mixture of happiness and sadness throughout this minute and a half of music, performed here by singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and pianist Gerald Moore. Are the poet's memories good or bad, of this day when he confessed his love? I am conflicted every time I listen to it, and I have listened quite a number of times!

There is a fleeting, unresolved moment for reflecting on what the poet's feelings are about this May day before the second song, "Aus meinen Tränen sprießen", moves us gently along. Spring things are born from the poet's emotions: "Many flowers spring up from my tears, and a nightingale choir from my sighs: If you love me, I'll pick them all for you, and the nightingale will sing at your window", writes the poet.

"Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne" takes off in another direction entirely, galloping away before you get the chance to settle in. "I used to love the rose, lily, dove and sun, joyfully: now I love only the little, the fine, the pure, the One: you yourself are the source of them all". I find Schumann's setting really makes the text like a list of things that don't matter to the poet - the rose, the lily, the dove, the sun, etc. etc. etc.; they are no match for his beloved - yet they are all the more beautiful because she has brought joy to his life!

"Wenn ich in deine Augen seh" calms down again, as the poet thinks about his intimate relationship with his lady friend. She is a healer - taking his brokenness and putting him back together: "When I look in your eyes all my pain and woe fades: when I kiss your mouth I become whole: when I recline on your breast I am filled with heavenly joy: and when you say, 'I love you', I weep bitterly". The poet has found his home in her.

"Ich will meine Seele tauchen" is lively again, and no wonder, when we see what the poet is saying! "I want to bathe my soul in the chalice of the lily, and the lily, ringing, will breathe a song of my beloved. The song will tremble and quiver, like the kiss of her mouth which in a wondrous moment she gave me". I wonder what is going on there!

"Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome" is immediately grandiose, as the poet sets the scene: "In the Rhine, in the sacred stream, great holy Cologne with its great cathedral is reflected." I haven't been to Cologne yet, but I have high expectations now! Maybe I should add it to my list of travel destinations...

But wait! The song isn't finished yet! In the reflection of Cologne, seen in the stream, "there is a face painted on golden leather, which has shone into the confusion of my life. Flowers and cherubs float about Our Lady: the eyes, lips and cheeks are just like those of my beloved". The music changes a bit to match the change in the text, between talking about the city and talking about this mysterious beloved who has invaded the thoughts of the poet.

"Ich grolle nicht" is next - this is one of the most frequently excerpted songs from the set. I particularly enjoy singing the first line in my best quasi-baritone voice. This is the bitter post-break up/post-friend zone song, sung by a jilted lover. "I do not chide you, though my heart breaks, love ever lost to me! Though you shine in a field of diamonds, no ray falls into your heart's darkness. I have long known it: I saw the night in your heart, I saw the serpent that devours it: I saw, my love, how empty you are".

The fast-falling piano tremolos in "Und wüßten's die Blumen, die kleinen" are contrary to what we would usually think when talking about a broken heart; this is no slow, melancholy song. "If the little flowers only knew how deeply my heart is wounded, they would weep with me to heal my suffering, and the nightingales would sing to cheer me, and even the starlets would drop from the sky to speak consolation to me: but they can't know, for only One knows, and it is she that has torn my heart asunder". We hear the tears of the little flowers, the singing of the nightingales, and the starlets falling from the sky. Bold piano chords at the end accompany the poet's statement about his heart being torn apart.

"Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen" is quite obviously a dance - specifically, a wedding dance. Not a happy one, though; the poet's beloved is getting married, and the groom is not him. "There is a blaring of flutes and violins and trumpets, for they are dancing the wedding-dance of my best-beloved. There is a thunder and booming of kettle-drums and shawms. In between, you can hear the good cupids sobbing and moaning". The poet's heart sinks, as he realises that the bride will never be his.

"Hör' ich das Liedchen klingen" is a broken hearted song, and this one IS slow and melancholy. The poet hears a beautiful song, which his beloved used to sing. He heads to the forest, and weeps from pain and longing. Fun times. "When I hear that song which my love once sang, my breast bursts with wild affliction. Dark longing drives me to the forest hills, where my too-great woe pours out in tears".

We need a bit of respite after that one! Along comes "Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen" to give us a break, or so we think. It seems like a typical little happy folk song, but we quickly realise that this is just a trick. The story goes that "A youth loved a maiden who chose another: the other loved another girl, and married her. The maiden married, from spite, the first and best man that she met with: the youth was sickened at it. It's the old story, and it's always new: and the one whom she turns aside, she breaks his heart in two".

"Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen" begins with the poet's melancholy, but we soon hear the beauty of the summer morning. The flowers tell the poet off for his attitude towards his ex-beloved and for being in such a state about it. They do feel sorry for him, though. "On a sunny summer morning I went out into the garden: the flowers were talking and whispering, but I was silent. They looked at me with pity, and said, 'Don't be cruel to our sister, you sad, death-pale man".

In "Ich hab' im Traum geweinet", the poet has several dreams - in the first, the woman has died, in the second, the woman has abandoned him, and in the third, the woman is still good to him. He cries both in sleep and when he wakes up over these three dreams - even the third, as in reality, she is lost from him. "I wept in my dream, for I dreamt you were in your grave: I woke, and tears ran down my cheeks. I wept in my dreams, thinking you had abandoned me: I woke, and cried long and bitterly. I wept in my dream, dreaming you were still good to me: I woke, and even then my floods of tears poured forth."

The poet is still talking about his dreams and crying in "Allnächtlich im Traume". But here we get the first sign that he is starting to move on from his lost love. "I see you every night in dreams, and see you greet me friendly, and crying out loudly I throw myself at your sweet feet. You look at me sorrowfully and shake your fair head: from your eyes trickle the pearly tear-drops. You say a gentle word to me and give me a sprig of cypress: I awake, and there is no sprig, and I have forgotten what the word was".

"Aus alten Märchen winkt es" brings us to a magical, fairytale land "where great flowers shine in the golden evening light, where trees speak and sing like a choir, and springs make music to dance to, and songs of love are sung such as you have never heard, till wondrous sweet longing infatuates you". The poet wants to visit this paradise - a place where he can be free from his hurt: "Oh, could I only go there, and free my heart, and let go of all pain, and be blessed! Ah! I often see that land of joys in dreams: then comes the morning sun, and it vanishes like smoke".

The poet finally is ready to move on in "Die alten, bösen Lieder". "The old bad songs, and the angry, bitter dreams, let us now bury them, bring a large coffin. I shall put very much therein, I shall not yet say what: the coffin must be bigger than the 'Tun' at Heidelberg. And bring a bier of stout, thick planks, they must be longer than the Bridge at Mainz. And bring me too twelve giants, who must be mightier than the Saint Christopher in the cathedral at Cologne. They must carry the coffin and throw it in the sea, because a coffin that large needs a large grave to put it in. Do you know why the coffin must be so big and heavy? I will also put my love and my suffering into it". Two more places to add to my travel itinerary - Heidelberg and Mainz. The cathedral in Cologne is mentioned again - the poet was obviously quite impressed with it.

At the end of the cycle, we are left with some questions. Perhaps Heine answered those questions in his poetry - I haven't read them all! Did the poet really move on? Did he fall in love again? Did he get married and live happily ever after? One can hope!

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