Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Siren Songs

You may already know and love Robert Schumann's dramatic song Waldesgespräch ('Conversation in the Woods') from the Eichendorff Liederkreis, Op.39, telling of a woodland encounter between a huntsman and a pale but beautiful woman. We hear from the huntsman first. A confident rhythm, a bright major key and horn-imitations in the piano part establish his presence. He offers to lead the lost bride home. Then the key suddenly changes to that of the mediant (the third note of the tonic scale) and the masculine rhythms in the piano part liquify into harp-like mystery. The woman is speaking, and she quietly warns the man to flee. The key and the music swing back and the man continues as before until, to suddenly declamatory phrases, the huntsman realises (in terror) who the beautiful woman is - the witch Loreley. The key stays the same (as we aren't in the age of Nielsen's 'extended tonality' yet!) but the harp-like music returns again and Loreley quietly tells the man he will never leaves the woods. (You can read Eichendorff's poem here).

Loreley was rather out of her usual habitat there. She is to be more usually found seated on a rock on the Rhine, combing her hair and singing, luring sailors to the deaths in the hope of gaining revenge on an unfaithful lover.

Such a scene inspired a famous poem by Heine which Robert's wife Clara was to set to music in Die Lorelei - a highly dramatic minor-key song with an agitated accompaniment that generates both tension and excitement as the inevitable denouement approaches. (The poem can be read here). It's a fine song which, intriguingly, sounds more like Schubert than it does her husband. You may be surprised to hear, given its quality, that Clara's songs was never heard until 1992. Much of her music lay buried in that way.

Robert Schumann was the sort of songwriter who set out to add lustre to already-lustrous poetry. Not always though. His other, hardly-ever-heard Loreley-based song, Loreley, Op.53/2, sets a poem by Wilhelmine Lorenz which most certainly isn't great poetry. (Please have a read of it yourself here). That said, I've long had a soft spot for this short, lyrical song with its gentle, watery accompaniment and tune of radiant simplicity. If you are unfamiliar with it I urge you to give it a try. (Just don't listen to it whilst sailing down the Rhine.)

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