For this second array of songs by Felix Mendelssohn, the performers have focused on three favorite themes---spring, love, and night---in his 125 or so solo lieder and on his involvement with two very famous poets (and the gifted woman one of them loved). Spring songs are always marketable in cold, gray climes, but Mendelssohn was especially prone to them; there are more than the six selected here. Mendelssohn’s setting of Ludwig Uhland’s (he was a Romantic poet, philologist, and important literary historian) Frühlingsglaube is very different from Franz Schubert’s famous version (D. 686, September 1820); where Schubert took his cue from the gentle breezes, Mendelssohn is all fizzing excitement and vivacity in one of the most irresistible paeans to spring of them all. Schubert had set Ludwig Hölty’s Minnelied to music in 1816, but it would not be published until 1885; Felix’s version seems simple and modest until one realizes the artfulness of its construction, for example, the twofold scalewise descent in the bass that is followed by a pedal point on the dominant and a return of the moving bass line near the end, before a prayerful conclusion----the poet is begging for his lady’s favors so that his heart might blossom as in May. Hölty, who died young of tuberculosis, was the most gifted member of the group known as the Göttingen Hainbund, or Brotherhood of the Grove, an association of Nature-loving literati founded by secret ritual in an oak grove at midnight in 1772.
In Günter Metzner’s giant catalogue of settings of Heinrich Heine’s poetry, some 250 composers were drawn to the poem ‘Leise zieht durch mein Gemüt’, which Mendelssohn entitles Gruss. There is none of Heine’s famous irony and love of paradox here: this is purest lyrical rejoicing in spring and an open invitation to composers because here, Spring sings. For this tiny, strophic song, Mendelssohn begins with elemental sounds in the piano (open fifths in the bass and broken chordal fragments wafting upwards), followed by a song in which the harmonic shift for the admonition, ‘Resound, little spring song’, and the melodic opening up at the end for the words ‘in’s Weite’ are economically magical in effect. Frühlingslied on a poem by Karl Klingemann, a diplomat and close friend of the Mendelssohns from 1824 onward, hails the advent of spring with a vivacity that should make every listener smile with delight. In almost every bar, we hear the thrumming pulsations of new life and joy. For the third verse, Mendelssohn’s harmonic and tonal shifts tell in hushed tones of winter’s ice breaking in Nature and in human hearts until at last, Spring bursts forth in full force.
The ‘German Homer’ Johann Heinrich Voss, who translated the Iliad and the Odyssey, took considerable liberties in editing Ludwig Hölty’s poem for Mendelssohn’s famous Hexenlied/Andres Maienlied about a witches’ coven celebrating the arrival of spring on the famously haunted Brocken mountaintop, where a gallimaufry of creatures swarm to worship Beelzebub. For this lighthearted exercise in the comic-diabolic (note the draconic food-delivery service), Mendelssohn devises a piano part bubbling and boiling over with brilliant figuration: ‘Did I leave anything out?’, one imagines the composer asking himself as he conceived this send-up of Paganini-style virtuosity (Paganini, of course, was reputed to have sold his soul to the devil for his seemingly inhuman performing skills). The final chord of this irresistible song is more a shout of laughter than of Satanic triumph.
Romanze was originally intended for Mendelssohn’s two-act Singspiel Die Hochzeit des Camacho, performed at the Berlin Schauspielhaus in April 1827; the pitying or harsh critiques caused Mendelssohn to cancel further performances, his operatic ambitions blighted at the outset. In the episode from Don Quixote on which this comedy is based, the Don and Sancho Panza become embroiled with the lovers Basilio and Quiteria, whose relationship is threatened when the latter's father insists she marry the rich, but insufferable, Camacho. This passionate song, with its operatic high pitches (two high B-flats in the first page!) and aria-like melismatic flourishes, was clearly meant for Quiteria. In Ludwig Tieck’s Minnelied, a man pays his sweetheart an extravagant compliment, telling her that she outdoes the whole catalogue of Nature’s beauties in spring and summer; ‘Minne’ is the Middle High German word for courtly love, and Tieck, one of the founders of German Romanticism, was fascinated by all things medieval. In Mendelssohn’s setting, the right hand keeps up a murmuring susurration of ‘Nature-music’ to accompany a melody marked by gently lilting motion. At the end, the rustling, murmuring sounds in the piano die away and then stop, bidden to do so by the persona. In Der Blumenstrauss, it is the woman who pays her lover compliments from Nature when she assembles a bouquet in the ‘language of flowers’ for him. Mendelssohn marks the song ‘Grazioso’, and it is indeed a graceful and delicate specimen of sentimentality. At the end of each stanza, the persona repeats the last words, ‘an ihn, der mich liebt so treu’ and ‘der süsseste Frühling spricht’, with ‘ihn’ (him) and ‘süsseste’ (sweetest) the most attenuated—the most important—of all.
One of the most famous encounters between a great poet (a lion in winter) and a composer (a child prodigy) took place in November 1821, when the twelve-year-old Mendelssohn lived for two weeks in Goethe’s house on the Frauenplan in Weimar. ‘Every morning I receive a kiss from the author of Faust and of Werther, and every afternoon two kisses from Goethe, friend and father’, Felix wrote his father Abraham. On Nov. 8th, there was a party, with Ludwig Rellstab (music journalist and the poet of five Schwanengesang songs by Schubert) among the guests; the boy Felix’s improvisations and compositions were evaluated against the Mozartean standard, with Goethe and the others concluding that Felix was an even better version of the young Mozart. Felix and Fanny both would have thought that the words of Suleika were by Goethe, taken from ‘Suleika Nameh’ or The Book of Suleika in his West-östlicher Divan of 1819, the poetic record of his short-lived fascination with Persian poetry. Neither could have known that the poem was actually written by Marianne von Willemer, to whom Goethe was drawn when he met her in 1814, shortly before her wedding to the Frankfurt banker who had taken her in as an orphan and educated her. Goethe visited her briefly later in 1814 and again in 1815; they never saw each other again, but they corresponded for the rest of his life. After her death in 1860 came the revelation that she was ‘Suleika’ to his ‘Hatem’ in this famous anthology. The two Suleika poems set by Schubert, in which the east- and west winds are imagined to carry messages between parted lovers, also attracted the Mendelssohn siblings, with Felix setting the latter poem twice. In Op. 34, the yearning in ‘Ach, um deine feuchten Schwingen’ (the west wind song) is gentle, more wistful; not even the turn to major mode joy in anticipation of nearness can entirely dispel awareness of separation in Mendelssohn’s reading. In the Op. 57 setting of ‘Was bedeutet die Bewegung’ (the east wind), the mood is more impassioned, feverish, throbbing; all those rapid repeated chords are a true work-out for the pianist. The undated setting of the west wind song, only recently published, is quite different from the op. 34 version, a fleet creation driven by love’s ecstatic energies. The brief, swelling figure we hear in the piano introduction evokes both the wind’s motion and rising passion.
On 10 August 1831, the year before Goethe’s death, Mendelssohn set Goethe’s Die Liebende schreibt, published posthumously as Op. 86, no. 3, to music. Here too, lovers are separated, and here too, the ‘woman’ writes a yearning missive to her beloved. Mendelssohn knew from Bach how to create expressive tension over pedal points in the bass, and he also avoids the tonic key until the end, when the woman begs for a sign of reciprocal love.
Lord Byron’s meteoric rise to fame meant that his verse was translated into German very quickly and became the stuff of songs by Robert Schumann, Carl Loewe, both Mendelssohns, Hugo Wolf, and many others. Schlafloser Augen Leuchte/Sun of the sleepless comes from Byron’s Hebrew Melodies of 1815, published in two versions: one with Sephardic liturgical melodies compiled by Isaac Nathan (circa 1792-1864, the first Jewish musician to attain public recognition in England) and another with just the poems. Here, the light of a distant star (the chiming right-hand pitches we hear at the start) is the analogy to bygone happiness; if it still shines, it is far-off and cold, and it cannot dispel the darkness. Mendelssohn’s song is notable both for the occasional pinpricks of dissonant pain, for the despair occasioned by the ‘joy remembered well’, and for the threefold descent from that height of anguish. According to Mendelssohn’s biographer R. Larry Todd, this song gave Felix another chance to bring together both his Jewish ancestry and Christian faith, this as he was working on his oratorio Paulus: in Nathan’s explanation, the star referred to Balaam’s third oracle in Number (‘A star shall come out of Jacob’), but this passage was also read as a prophesy of the Star of Bethlehem. In the mellifluous love-song Keine von der Erde Schönen/There be none of beauty’s daughters, the image of moonlight weaving a golden net on the waves sends the middle of the song to a network of chromatic harmonies before rejoining the main key.
In the final group of songs, night is the time for lovers to lament, sing serenades, and give vent to their longing, and it is also a premonition of the final rest in death. For Mendelssohn’s generation (and Schubert’s just before him), knowledge of Schiller’s writings was a touchstone of Bildung (cultivation), especially his powerful dramas. The words for Des Mädchens Klage are taken from the third act of Die Piccolimini, the second play in a trilogy about Albrecht Wenzel Eusebius von Wallenstein, the Bohemian-born generalissimo of the Habsburg armies during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). His daughter Thekla falls in love with Max, the son of Wallenstein’s lieutenant Octavio Piccolimini; the two families are, however, sworn enemies, and Thekla, parted from Max, sings this lament. Schubert set it three times (D. 6, D. 191, and D. 389), and both Fanny and Felix tried their hands at it. Mendelssohn brews up a mighty storm in the piano introduction, followed by rising chromatic tension for the power of breaking waves ‘I have lived and loved’, Thekla sings at the end as she begs the Virgin to call her out of life, and Mendelssohn crowns the verb at the heart of it all—‘liebet’---with a touch of heavenly major mode in the final bars, after so much minor mode darkness.
The text of Pagenlied is the second poem in a cycle entitled Der wandernde Musikant (The wandering musician) from the Wanderlieder (Wandering Songs) at the start of the German Romantic master Joseph von Eichendorff’s first poetry anthology. Eichendorff wrote numerous Rollenlieder, or poems in which archetypal characters are the focus; here, the title allows us to imagine a page at a court far away from his native Italy and in love with someone who reciprocates that love---but the affair, we infer, is secret. At the end of the song, we hear the plucked mandolin chords and the youthful lover’s footsteps recede, grow softer, and vanish. Mendelssohn’s setting is the perfect paradox for this persona: a lightly skipping song in minor mode.
The deeply pious Lutheran translator-poet Voss hymns the peaceful end of a day’s work in stanza 1 of Abendlied and the ‘better rest’ in God that awaits us at the end of a well-lived life. In Mendelssohn’s setting, appropriately in the ‘Trinity’ key of E-flat major, ‘gentle night veils the world’ in rich dark harmonies, this in music that flows gently, unstoppably, from start to finish.
Emanuel Geibel, the skillful translator (along with his collaborator Paul Heyse) of the Spanisches Liederbuch and the Italienisches Liederbuch, also wrote original poetry, including Der Mond; here, an impassioned lover compares himself to the dark night, his beloved to the moon whose glance alone can still his longing. However soft this hushed song, with only three very brief outbursts of louder passion, might be, the repeated ostinato pitches and thrumming syncopated chords in the right hand bespeak an unquiet heart.
Few people have expressed the sense of feeding one’s grief over loss, hugging it to oneself as the sole possible companion, better than Goethe in the poignant miniature Erster Verlust. Here, it is not a specific person who is lamented, but the time of innocence when love was brand-new and wholly beautiful. Goethe originally wrote this poem as an aria for the character of the Baroness in his Singspiel Die ungleichen Hausgenossen (The Dissimilar Lodgers), inspired by a comedy by Carlo Gozzi; another source was Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto for Le nozze di Figaro, when the Countess Almaviva laments the loss of the Count’s love in her act 3 aria, “Dove sono.” Loss was perhaps on Mendelssohn’s mind: he had just the previous month, in July 1841, left the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra for an appointment at the Prussian royal court in Berlin, thus exchanging artistic freedom for reunion with his family. What evidently captivated him in the poem was the notion of nurturing one’s grief; over and over, his persona repeats Goethe’s spare words, wringing multiple nuances from the words ‘Ah, who can bring back those beautiful days of first love, ach, who can bring back even one hour of that lovely time’. First, the singer lingers over the word ‘Liebe’, with the left hand disappearing in a tell-tale emblem of absence, then it is the adjective, ‘holden’ (lovely) that is repeated, sustained and differently colored, with more repetitions and changes to follow. At the end, an ethereal melisma impresses on us yet again just how ‘lovely’ that bygone time was.
The second song in this posthumously-published opus, Die Sterne schau’n in stiller Nacht, tells the sentimental tale of a weeping maiden at her sick mother’s bedside; this is Mendelssohn’s only song to words by Albert Graf von Schlippenbach, friend of Heinrich Heine and Adelbert von Chamisso. The narrator implores the stars above to send a guardian angel so that the mother might sleep and recover. Mendelssohn decried over-indulgence in text-painting in song, but in this work, we hear a grandiose gesture in the vocal line for the ‘rollenden Welten Lauf’ (the orbit of the revolving worlds), gentle rustling in the piano for the descent of sleep, and angelic harp-playing to accompany the narrator’s thanks to the guardian angel on behalf of all humanity.
The Mendelssohn’s friend Friederike Robert (whose beauty impelled notice from Heinrich Heine) wrote the words for Lieblingsplätzchen, which mingles talking flowers with a moral message: since life is short, it is better to suffer heartbreak from love than die loveless. Mendelssohn’s three stanzas are a perfect example of the folk-like art-song, filled with subtle touches of chromaticism, for example, the dissonance and touch of minor that inflects the word ‘gerne’ (gladly) with what seems like paradoxical melancholy---but the explanation follows. Ludwig Uhland’s narrator in Das Schifflein also muses on the vicissitudes of experience: three strangers meet on a boat (the ages-old symbolism of human life as a ship sailing on the ocean of Time) and make music together with horn, flute, and song, then go their separate ways. At the end, the narrator wonders when they will meet again in another little boat (life’s unlooked-for encounters or crossing the Styx to the land of the dead?).
Wenn sich zwei Herzen scheiden is associated with Jenny Lind, ‘the Swedish nightingale’, with whom Felix collaborated in two concerts at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1845. He was very taken with her; for Christmas that year, he sent her a little group of songs that includes this song, composed December 22. ‘Felix Mendelssohn comes sometimes to Berlin and I have often been in his company. He is a man, and at the same time he has the most supreme talent. Thus should it be’, she wrote.
Es weiß und rät es doch keiner was composed in Frankfurt for the composer Ferdinand Hiller’s wife Antonka, a beautiful and accomplished Polish singer. (Hiller and Mendelssohn were friends from 1822 to 1843, when Mendelssohn’s alarm over the Gewandhaus Orchestra’s deterioration under Hiller’s interim leadership put an intolerable strain on their relationship.) Antonka had arranged for the artist Carl Müller to sketch a portrait of Mendelssohn, and he agreed on the condition that she sing for him during the sitting. Schumann had set the same text (verses 1, 2, and 4, omitting stanza 3) two years earlier in his Eichendorff Liederkreis, Op. 39, but Mendelssohn’s setting draws out different shadings in a poem taken from the 1815 novel Ahnung und Gegenwart; after Erwin—who is actually a girl named Erwine---has embraced the protagonist Friedrich, she sings this song to wish that one, only one, might know of her love. She believes herself to be alone, but Friedrich overhears her. Mendelssohn’s setting is divided into a gently melancholy first section in minor mode (note the more passionate setting of the wish ‘that only one’ should know) and a longer, livelier second section as her wishes take flight.
The creator of the melancholy words for Da lieg ich unter den Bäumen has not yet been located, but he or she inspired an extended song in a favorite three-part design of Mendelssohn’s: stanzas 1-2, 3-4 are set to the same music, but the fifth and sixth stanzas are varied. Mendelssohn begins and ends the repeated first section in major mode but with a lengthy agitated passage in minor, its drumbeat repeated bass notes one index of doom-laden anxiety. At the end, for the realization that autumnal bleakness will give way to renewal in spring but his sorrow has no end, minor mode prevails.
We encounter Mendelssohn’s friend Karl Klingemann once more in the Herbstlied, whose persona consoles himself in the midst of autumn’s chill with the thought that love and fidelity remain even if summer is fled. Mendelssohn’s music for the first two verses (a bleak portrait of autumn) is filled with minor mode agitation, heartbeat chords pounding softly in dread, and small semitone and grace-note shudders. But all this gives way to major mode lyricism, with flowing harp arpeggiation in the piano, for the encomiums to ‘Liebe’ and ‘Treue’.
Auf der Wanderschaft is the product of Felix’s sojourn in Switzerland in the summer following Fanny’s death in Berlin on 14 May 1847; Felix was in Frankfurt and only heard the news four days later. ‘To dig and turn like a worm is preferable to human brooding’, he observed in a letter of July 9, marking a return to musical endeavors (in the early days of grief, he expressed himself through watercolors). Lenau’s poem must have seemed personal to him: as his persona wanders into a distant land, he is deprived of the beloved’s ‘last greeting’. We hear fury against fate in the emphatic setting of the words ‘ist’s nicht genug, dass du mir auch entreissest ihren letzten Gruss?’ (Is it not enough [that I must abandon my happiness, you raw, cold gust of wind] but that you also tear her last greeting away from me?).
The city of Stockerau in Lower Austria called itself “the Lenau City” because it was on nearby walks in the forest that the poet was inspired to write his Schilflieder, among his most beautiful poems. Mendelssohn’s Schilflied, which sets the fifth poem in the cycle, was also included in the Christmas 1845 gift of song for Jenney Lind; while not composed for her, its allusion to ‘ein süsses Deingedenken’ (a sweet memory of you) was no doubt something she could take personally. It perfectly exemplifies 19th-century definitions of a barcarolle, a song to be sung on the water: in minor mode (but with a change to parallel major for the ‘sweet memory’), with a melody of surpassing loveliness, and ‘water music’ in the piano.
We end with three songs by Fanny Mendelssohn-Hensel, who is finally emerging out of her brother’s shadow and receiving long-delayed recognition as one of the most important women composers of the 19th century. It used to be the done thing to decry her music as derivative, especially as she and Felix were trained in music together, but now we can appreciate the frequent chromatic richness and individual style of her songs: she had her own ‘voice’. In Abendbild, the first of three odes entitled Abendbilder, Lenau leaves his signature melancholy aside to paint an idyllic picture of Nature and a family suffused with peacefulness and love. Fanny (who wrote a cluster of seven Lenau songs in 1846) responds with an accompaniment somewhat reminiscent of Schubert’s ‘Ave Maria’ (Ellens dritter Gesang) and a serene, beautifully lyrical melody; after the poet’s second verse, Fanny pauses for an instant of silence—another Schubertian hallmark---and then goes back to repeat the first verse, Nature’s peace thus enclosing human love. We hear much more of Fanny’s signature chromaticism, rendering the main key unstable, in Im Herbste, a lament for lost love; like a last vine in autumn still clinging to a garden wall, the pain of it clings to the persona and will not let go. We hear the influence of Fanny’s great idol, Johann Sebastian Bach, in the song’s climax, the anguished invocation of ‘all nights, all days’ to a line that descends by semitones from high G while the piano weaves an extraordinary dissonant texture over a pedal point. In Fanny’s last years, she had frequent recourse to verse by the great Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff, to whom Felix also gravitated for song texts, including Nacht ist wie ein stilles Meer (the poet’s title is ‘Die Nachtblume’, ‘The Nocturnal Flower’). In the quiet ocean of night, our desires and feelings float together confusedly in gentle waves, while our wishes, like clouds in the sky’s expanse, blend in the mild winds and cannot be distinguished from thoughts or dreams. At the end, the persona says that if he no longer laments aloud to the stars, the waves of emotion are still present in the heart’s depths, a space as vast as sea and sky. In Fanny’s rising and falling staccato waves in the piano, we hear again her signature love of chromatic harmony, her deft way with enharmonic transformation, and her subtle way of underscoring key words and images with particularly striking chords.