Crucial to a full understanding of this great poet is a statement Heinrich Heine made in Geständisse (Confessions), written in 1854 on what he called his "Matratzengruft" (Mattress grave) two years before his death: "Trotz meiner exterminatorischen Feldzüge gegen die Romantik, blieb ich doch selbst immer ein Romantiker, und ich war es in einem höheren Grade, als ich es selbst ahnte." (Despite my exterminatory campaigns against Romanticism, I always remained a Romantic, and to a greater extent than I ever thought.). Schumann’s Dichterliebe and the Liederkreis, Op.24 are shot through with this ambivalent approach to romanticism: Heine’s poems are both romantic and anti-romantic, sentimental and cynical. And he was virtually incapable of writing a truly happy and requited love poem, just as Goethe, except within the framework of fiction, seemed constitutionally unable to write a poem of unrequited love – exceptions such as Wonne der Wehmut and An die Entfernte merely prove the rule.

Heinrich Heine, 1831 © Moritz Daniel Oppenheim
Heinrich Heine, 1831
© Moritz Daniel Oppenheim

Most of these unrequited love poems were probably inspired by his passion for cousin Amalie (Molly), whose rejection of Heine is clearly chronicled in the letters he wrote to his school friend Christian Sethe. On 6 July 1816, shortly before his arrival in Hamburg, where he was to begin a business career under the sponsorship of wealthy Uncle Solomon, Heine wrote to Sethe that he was looking forward to seeing Molly again for the first time in two years. Their meeting took place a month later. Heine was eighteen and a half, Amalie two years younger. Less than four months after this letter, Heine wrote again to Sethe, on 27 October 1816. Something shattering must have occurred, for the letter scorns all preliminary niceties and plunges straight into his grief:

"Sie liebt micht nicht – Mußt, lieber Christian, dieses letzte Wörtchen ganz leise, leise aussprechen.  In dem ersten Wörtchen liegt der ewig lebendige Himmel, aber auch in dem letzten liegt die ewig lebende Hölle."
(She loves me not – Dear Christian, you must utter this last little word quietly, very quietly. Eternal Heaven dwells in the first word, just as eternal damnation dwells in the last.)

The letter, which goes on to describe how Molly had scoffed at the "schöne Lieder" he had written especially for her, also criticises the philistine atmosphere of Hamburg, and states bitterly that the poems of a Jew would not be received kindly by the Christian community.

Heine’s increasing fears of isolation and anti-semitism were only too well founded. In December 1820 he was expelled from the Göttingen Burschenschaft (student fraternity): at a secret meeting on 28 September 1820 in Dresden, the Burschenschaft had decided not to accept any more Jews, since they had "kein Vaterland und für unseres kein Interesse haben können" (no fatherland, and could not be interested in ours). That the rampant anti-semitism was threatening not only his confidence but his very sense of identity, is clear from an extraordinary letter to Sethe, dated 14 April 1822:

"Alles, was deutsch ist, ist mir zuwider; und Du bist leider 
ein Deutscher.  Alles Deutsche wirkt auf mich wie ein 
Brechpulver.  Die deutsche Sprache zerreißt meine Ohren.  
Die eigenen Gedichte ekeln mich zuweilen an, wenn ich sehe, 
daß sie auf deutsch geschrieben sind.  [...] Des Tags verfolgt 
mich ein ewiges Mißtrauen.  Überall höre ich meinen 
Namen und hintendrein ein höhnisches Gelächter."
(All that is German repulses me; and you, unfortunately, are 
German. Everything German acts on me like an emetic. The 
German language shrills in my ears. There are times when 
my own poems disgust me, when I see that they are written 
in German [...] An eternal mistrust pursues me each day, I 
hear my name uttered everywhere, followed by mocking 
laughter.)  


The theme of unrequited love that runs through the early poetry is also a metaphor for Heine’s rejection by society and his increasing fear of isolation.  

Such poems seem a strange choice for Dichterliebe, since Schumann, when he wrote these wonderful songs, was adored by his fiancée, Clara Wieck, and soon to marry her. The poems that Schumann chose from Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo, however, also tell the story of Schumann’s own estrangement from Clara, caused by the cruel intervention of her litigious father. The Dichterliebe music expands the narrow emotional range of Heine’s verse and often lingers lovingly, particularly in the postludes, on past moments of shared happiness. The original version of Dichterliebe contained twenty songs, but Schumann, having had them refused by both Bote & Bock and Breitkopf & Härtel, decided to reduce the number to sixteen, when the work was eventually published by Peters in 1844. The discarded songs appeared much later: Dein Angesicht and Es leuchtet meine Liebe in 1854 as Op.127, nos.2 and 3; Lehn’ deine Wang’ and Mein Wagen rollet langsam posthumously in 1858 as Op.142, nos.2 and 4. Schumann named his work after a line from Rückert’s Liebesfrühling, about the unhappiness of a poet’s love.


Not one of Heine’s poems is a straightforward expression of requited love. He might profess adoration in the first poem of the cycle, Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, but there is no suggestion of requitement – Schumann fittingly ends the song in a minor key and an unresolved dominant seventh. The next song, Aus meinen Tränen sprießen, already speaks of sighs and tears; Die Rose, die Lilie, superficially an ecstatic love poem, is unnaturally frenzied, and the proliferation of the e and ei assonance suggests that Heine is striving to convince himself of the uniqueness of his love. The first seven lines of Wenn ich in deine Augen seh are a crescendo of ecstasy, but the final line, instead of providing the climax, points to the poet’s bitterness: her confession of love was a lie. The key word to Ich will meine Seele tauchen – "einst" (once) – reminds him that the bliss they shared is a thing of the past. The eleven remaining songs of the cycle are unequivocally bitter, self-pitying, or both.


Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome represents an attempt to banish his torment by depicting the grandeur of nature, and he is successful till stanza two, when the description of the picture in Cologne Cathedral introduces the personal pronoun he had sought to suppress. The final verse seeks to restore this lost objectivity, but the jingly rhyme supplied by the sardonic diminutive "Wänglein" (little cheeks) reasserts the bitter mood. Ich grolle nicht speaks of stoicism, but the masculine rhymes – all ending in t – spit out the poet’s true feelings. The pathetic fallacies of the next song fool no one; the solutions to his grief grow ever more fatuous, the conditionals (a favourite tense of Heine’s in this vein) proliferate and remind us that there can be no cure. The final indicative rubs in the unbearable truth. Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen is unremitting self-torture, as the jilted man looks on at his beloved’s wedding. The "einst" of the fifth song surfaces again in Hör’ ich das Liedchen klingen, reminding him of the irrevocable break, while the poet’s distraught mind is eloquently conveyed by the jarring half-rhyme that ends the poem. Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen counters the self-pity of the preceding poem, Hör ich das Liedchen klingen, by adopting a bluff objective tone and a horribly forced jollity; the mask is maintained throughout until the sober, disinterested mood falters at the word "doch" (but), and the full force of his grief breaks surface to explode in the final screaming half-rhyme. Schumann’s vacuous tune perfectly captures the feigned insouciance.


The self-pitying tone of Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen yields in Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet to nightmare, while Allnächtlich im Traume mocks the poet’s grief through jingly assonance ("süßen Füßen" – sweet feet) and clumsy, deflating diminutives. The penultimate song, Aus alten Märchen winkt es, illustrates the typical Heine dichotomy: a vision is conjured up in the first six stanzas, and with the proliferation of detail and no fewer than thirteen indicative verbs, we vividly glimpse the imagined utopia. But one single conditional dashes the dream – "Ach, könnt’ ich..." The final poem, Die alten, bösen Lieder, though risking the vulnerable first person singular, seeks to minimise the unbearable burden by depicting in bluff hyperbole the poet’s grief. The humour, though, is forced and heavy, the hyperbole vanishes and the mask slips to reveal a hurt soul, whose sorrow overflows in the simple enjambements of the final stanza and Schumann’s aching postlude.

Heine recovered from his Amalie trauma, and in 1831 emigrated to Paris; Schumann married Clara on 12 September, some three months after the completion of Dichterliebe, in the village church of Schönefeld near Leipzig.


Richard Stokes is Professor of Lieder at the Royal Academy of Music, London, with dozens of publications – most notably The Book of Lieder, a collection of some 1,200 Lieder, chosen, translated and introduced by Richard Stokes, with a foreword by Ian Bostridge (Faber and Faber, 2005) – as well as lectures and masterclasses throughout the UK and Europe. Richard’s The Complete Songs of Hugo Wolf will be published by Faber in the autumn of next year and launched at Wigmore Hall on 2 October 2021.