Notturno – Overcoming Times of Sorrow

Dark blue. © Charles Thibo


Oben, wo die Sterne glühen,
Müssen uns die Freuden blühen,
Die uns unten sind versagt;
In des Todes kalten Armen
Kann das Leben erst erwarmen,
Und das Licht der Nacht enttagt.1

The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote these lines between 1812 and 1827. The night illuminated by stars as the place of salvation – a very Romantic idea, and for once, Heine did not succumb to the temptation to mock himself about his own Romantic ideas. That ironic tone on which Heine ended many a poem and thus broke the Romantic spell – Fanny Mendelssohn didn’t like it. She met the poet several times, in Berlin and in the French seaside resort Boulogne. She set to music quite a number of his poems, she admired his talent, but his mocking attitude estranged her from him, much to her regret.

Heine is my favourite German poet since… 1985. Since I read a few poems at school in the context of German Romanticism, one of them being “Die Wanderatten” (The Roaming Rats). A prediction of growing of class differences, a tale of rich against poor, of proletarians against the bourgeoisie and the clergy, of the coming revolution. One might be tempted to call it a Communist manifesto avant la lettre. And I was much taken to Heine’s self-ironic penchant. “Ahnung” (Apprehension) is very different. A Romantic reflection of the hardships of daily life and the promise of salvation, in a space high above, brightly lit, warm and welcoming.

Fanny probably would have appreciated this poem, had she known it, but Heine had decided not to publish it during his lifetime. It may well illustrate her state of mind in the fall months of 1838, when she composed her Notturno in G minor (H-U 337). It was a time loaded with sorrow for the Mendelssohn family. The Menselssohns’ were deeply afflicted by the death of Fanny’s nephew from measles and the resulting nervous disorder of the boy’s mother, Fanny’s sister Rebecka.

The Notturno begins by alluding with barcarole-like melodies to Felix Mendelssohn’s “Venetian Gondolier’s Song” expands beyond her brother’s work. The Mendelssohn-biographer R. Larry Todd writes: “Fanny masterfully creates contrasting timbral effect, ranging from the darkened, murky depths of the piano to the radiant, translucent clarity of the high treble.” Now compare this to Schubert’s Notturno and it will sound very familiar, very close to Fanny’s composition as far its emotional content is concerned and related to it in its exploration of the wide tonal range of the piano. Later, during a trip to Venice with her husband, the painter Wilhelm Hensel, she would write her own song “Gondelfahrt” (Gondola Journey).

The barcarole has a singular, hynpotic effect: The repetitive listening puts my into a trance-like state of mind, it induces a sweet drowsiness, not awake anymore, not asleep yet, and it goes on and on…

The Notturno in G minor has been recorded by Heather Schmidt.

© Charles Thibo

1Above where the stars are glowing,
Must blossom our joys,
That are denied to us here below;
Only in the cold arms of death,
Life can warm up,
And the light of the night ends.

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de Chareli

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