Composing as a Weapon of Subversion

The gentleness of Schumann's songs hides their deeper, powerful message. © Charles Thibo
The gentleness of Schumann’s songs hides their deeper, powerful message. © Charles Thibo

What is it that draws me to the Romantic song? What is it that compels me to listen again and again to Franz Schubert, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and Robert Schumann and to read poems and novels written almost 200 years ago? It is the tension between what poets and composers deemed an ideal world and the real world they faced. A tension I feel too. It is the sublime emotional message of their works and the occasional ironic twist that helps them bridging the gap between the two extremes and overcoming their pain. Romanticism soothes the Weltschmerz*.

The Romantic artist longs for a better world marked by harmony and happiness. He regrets an idealized past. He suffers as a keen observer of his time as he realizes that the world is far from what it should be. At the same time, he wants to live a free and active life. His ambition therefore is to foster change by expressing his suffering and thus highlighting the gap between ideal and real. Many of those songs, Romantic poems set to music, go back to the beginning and the middle of the 19th century. The industrial and scientific age with its large-scale de-mystification of the world was dawning. As welcome as the new rationalism was for many intellectuals, others were losing their moral and social reference points. At the same time, the fall of Napoleon had discredited Republican ideas and European monarchies repressed any liberal ambitions.

Romantic poets like Heinrich Heine could express their longing for personal and artistic freedom, for a noble heroism, true love and a life in harmony in poems. Composers like Schumann set them into music. Poems and romantic songs were deemed harmless, but Romantic artists turned them into weapons of subversion. In the end, they searched for an identity. Who am I? Where do I come from? Where do I want to go? And through their works, they encouraged the rest of society to follow suit.

Today, the digital age, global problems and boundless mobility are the reasons of another de-mystification of the world. I lose my reference points like others did 200 years before me. Hence my longing for another, better world. Hence my questions about identity. What type of life do I want to live? What type of society do I want to live in? I am not naive or courageous enough to believe that voicing my longing may change anything. Schumann was. Real world problems permeated his works and he intended Romantic music to permeate society in order to change it. Naive? Courageous?

So here is Schumann. Between 1840 and 1844, he wrote three absolutely fabulous song cycles: “Liederkreis” (song cycle) Op. 24 on poems by Heine, “Frauenliebe und -leben” (woman’s love and life) Op. 39 on poems by Adalbert von Chamisso and “Dichterliebe” (poet’s love) Op. 48 again on poems by Heine.

A political analysis

At the first glance, “Liederkreis” seems to gravitate around the theme of love and the longing of a young man for the woman he loves. But Heine would not be Heine and Schumann not Schumann if they hadn’t hidden a second meaning in their works: When you replace “Liebchen” (darling) and “Jungfrau” (maiden) by  “freedom”, the songs become a depressive analysis of 19th century reality. My personal highlights are song number 2 “Es treibt mich hin, es treibt mich her”, song number 4 “Lieb’ Liebchen, leg’s Händchen aufs Herze mein” and song number 6 “Warte, warte, wilder Schiffsmann”.

Man’s view on woman’s feelings

The cycle “Frauenliebe” Op. 39 is closely related to Schumann’s biography, especially his love for the composer and pianist Clara Wieck, that has been mentioned in an earlier post. Von Chamisso expressed in his poems the unconditional and devoted love of a woman for her husband – a man’s view on a woman’s supposed feelings! It is not without a certain sense of irony that Schumann set those poems to music since Clara Wieck had to cope with Schumann’s complicated personality and to find the right balance between her own musical ambitions and the support she gave her husband.

Songs full of Weltschmerz

Weltschmerz and a critical analysis of the world Schumann lived in permeates the cycle “Dichterliebe”. Excellent examples are “Ich grolle nicht”, “Aus alten Märchen” and “Die alten, bösen Lieder”. While Heine’s many allusions might be lost to anyone not familiar with 19th century poetry, Schumann’s music makes the poet’s desperation and pain quite palpable.

Schumann’s songs held no solution for the 19th century and they don’t hold any for present day problems. But his music can make us unearth that Romantic longing deep inside of us. Schumann can teach us to be subversive and ask the right questions about our future. Wohlan! Have fun.

Recordings I can recommend are the one by the pianist Mitsuko Uchida and the soprano singer Dorothea Röschmann, the one by the pianist Christoph Eschenbach and the baritone singer Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, as well as the one by the Norwegian pianist Torgeir Kinne Solsvik and the tenor singer John Kristian Karlsen, that features also song by Edvard Grieg.

And yes, this post is too long. I am sorry. And no, I am not.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

Writer, photographer, piano student, music enthusiast. And a lot more. You are welcome to follow my blog.

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