Schumann's Dichterliebe

Robert Schumann (1810 - 1856), Dichterliebe, Op 48

Heinrich Heine was still a young university law student (and, until his conversion from Judaism two years later, still named Harry Heine) when, in 1823, he completed his second collection of poems, Lyric Intermezzo. The prologue introduces a knight-poet, crushed by the weight of the world, withdrawn from society, who in the small hours is transported to near-bliss by a radiant nymph. He tries desperately to hold onto this vision, only to awaken yet again to the dark loneliness of his room. The subsequent poems are vignettes of love unfulfilled - either unrequited by the poet’s object of desire, or fated to failure by the poet’s own incapacities.

Schumann first met Heine in 1828, shortly after publication of Lyric Intermezzo. But the composer wrote few songs until his “Liederjahr” - 1840 - when he wrote well over one hundred, a significant portion of his lifetime output. The Dichterliebe cycle, initially containing 20 songs, was written in fewer than 10 days. Schumann wrote to a publisher: “How successful these songs may be in public, I cannot really say. I can say, however, that I have never before written anything with such love as when I was composing this group.”

The cycle was not accepted for publication until 1844, by which time Schumann had cut four songs.

In contrast to the poet of the text, Schumann’s life in 1840 was anything but dark. After years of battle with his former piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck, for the right to marry Wieck’s daughter, Clara, a court decision finally enabled the lovers to wed. They spent their early months of marriage studying Bach fugues and composing lieder together. Schumann’s period of dark loneliness was to come later.