In 1876 Edvard Grieg’s name was widely acclaimed, not least because of his A minor Concerto and his music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Although his professional life was thriving, Grieg’s private life was in a less positive period: both of his parents had recently died, and his marriage with Nina was in a critical phase.
Not surprisingly Grieg turned to Henrik Ibsen for inspiration, and the texts to the six songs in opus 25 reflect to a great extent Grieg’s own mood at the time. One example is the song in which the musician meets a water nymph who gives him a special ability to express his art – but must pay for this by renouncing his own happiness.
We meet Grieg again at the end of the 1880s at a time when he is touring in Europe as a pianist and composing very little. The six songs of opus 48 are one of few exceptions, and on this occasion Grieg composed tunes to German lyrics.
The great majority of Grieg’s songs were written with Nina in mind. She was an established concert singer, and Grieg considered her the optimal interpreter of his lieder. Opus 48, a collection from 1889, was nevertheless equally suited to the Swedo-Norwegian Wagnerian soprano Ellen Nordgren Gulbranson, who sang Brünnhilde in Bayreuth and was a good friend of the Griegs.
Robert Schumann and Heinrich Heine share the fate of having been pushed by their families into studying law, but nevertheless eventually chose artistic careers as composer and poet respectively.
Schumann fell in love at the age of 27 with Clara Wieck, who was pursuing a career as one of Germany’s foremost pianists. Her father opposed their marriage, which he believed was a sacrifice of her brilliant career for a composer without prospects. To start with the young couple could only meet in secret, often for a few fleeting minutes at a time, and they exchanged copious love letters. For the young Schumann the struggle to win Clara as his wife involved a prolonged court case against her father and a sandstorm of artistic creativity.
Schumann approached the German lied with enthusiasm, and in the year he finally married Clara, 1840, he composed over 130 songs, more than a third of all the songs he wrote.
Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) is a cycle of sixteen songs to poems by Heinrich Heine – part of Schumann’s almost manic lied production in 1840. The poetry comes from Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo, which consists of a prologue and 65 poems about the sad knight poet, sitting alone in his house waiting for nightfall, when he is visited by his beautiful fairy bride, who dances with him until morning light.
In the daytime however the poet is alone and forlorn. He eventually decides to bury all his old sad songs in a huge coffin, to be cast into the sea by twelve giants. The casket must be particularly large, according to the poet, to make room for all of his pain and sorrow as well as the songs.
Even though the narrator in Dichterliebe is patently a man, the cycle is dedicated to one of the greatest female operatic singers of the time, the soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, who three years later sang Senta at the premiere of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman in Dresden.
Text: Henrik Engelbrecht
English version: Roger Martin