German Romantic poets tend to wear their heart on their sleeves. Sarcasm is alien to their calling. Then there’s Heinrich Heine (1797-1856), a true Romantic in style and choice of metaphor, but whose work is laced with irony. His poetry inspired Robert Schumann’s great song cycle Dichterliebe, Op.48, with its thematic mix of sentiment and self-derision, so close to modern sensibilities. Schumann (1810-1856) admired Heine immensely and he sought him out in 1828, when Heine was already a celebrity. The poet welcomed his admirer, then still a budding law student, and showed him around the city. But years later, when Schumann sent him some settings of his poetry, hoping to forge a closer relationship, Heine never replied. Schumann was insulted.

Facsimile of the first edition
Facsimile of the first edition


Dichterliebe (A Poet’s Love) was part of the creative surge of 1840, Schumann’s “year of song”, and the year he married Clara Wieck, during which he produced more than 130 Lieder. He completed it in a week. However, it wasn’t published until 1844, by C.F. Peters in Leipzig. By then, the original twenty songs had become sixteen. There are several differences in notation, tempo and dynamic markings between the original composition and the published first edition. Some of these seem to have been printing errors, but the rest were the composer’s revisions. Baritone Thomas Hampson and Wolfgang Sawallisch recorded the original, twenty-song version on their Schumann: Heine Lieder album.

The Dichterliebe poems come from a section called Lyrical Intermezzo in Heine’s successful Buch der Lieder, consisting of a verse prologue and 65 poems. In the prologue, a clumsy poet-knight visits a fantasy land with his fairy bride by night and suffers loneliness in his pokey room by day. The sixteen selections relate a story of love and betrayal. The fairyland of the prologue appears towards the end, as the narrator seeks to flee from his misery. In the course of the cycle, the poet lets us into his inner life. The world is seen exclusively through his perspective, and the only thing we learn about the woman is that she is a petite blonde. Schumann was the composer who put the Lieder accompanist on the same plane as the vocalist, and the pianist has much to say in Dichterliebe. The piano not only emphasises the text, but often comments on it. In the preludes and postludes it sometimes anticipates the words or counters them by introducing a new mood.

Fritz Wunderlich singing Im wunderschönen Monat Mai

In the first song, Im wunderschönen Monat Mai, the poet narrates how he fell in love in Spring. While he describes his feelings, the undecided tonality in the piano reflects the fragility of new love, even a certain apprehension. The two stanzas end in an ascending, yearning phrase. The first technical hurdle for the singer is to negotiate these two phrases seamlessly through a very likely register break. The poet’s love is returned, and he cries, overcome with joy, in songs numbers two and four. Between these two slow songs the sprightly Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, in which the loved one has become everything to him, demands agility from both singer and accompanist. The singer must deliver Heine’s alliterative text, rippling with liquid consonants, in a breathless, hyperexcited state.

Facsimilie of <i>Im wunderschönen Monat Mai</i>
Facsimilie of Im wunderschönen Monat Mai


Song number five, Ich will meine Seele tauchen, is the most sensuous. As the poet whispers his physical longing, the piano is all Sturm und Drang, ending in a passionate postlude. As if to juxtapose the physical and the spiritual, this outburst is followed by Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome. In it the loved one’s face is compare to a gilded painting of the Madonna in Cologne Cathedral. This unique song starts solemnly, the descending melody in the piano conjuring up the cathedral bells. The accompaniment gets lighter and higher as the poet zooms away from the reflection of the cathedral in the River Rhine and onto the painting, but the heavy mood returns in the postlude. It is impossible to hear these portentous chords without remembering that Schumann would throw himself in the Rhine in 1854, after which he would be committed to a mental asylum until his death. The song does not bode well for the poet either, because his sweetheart is about to leave him.

Baritone Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau capturing “that sinking feeling at your ex’s wedding” with dynamics and rubato in Das its ein Flöten und Geigen

“I don’t complain,” he repeats six times in Ich grolle nicht, while railing against his beloved’s snake-infested heart. The wide range of the vocal part reflects the extent of the poet’s suffering and the repetitive, short chords in the piano express his bitterness. “She has torn my heart to pieces,” he cries in the next song, wallowing in self-pity. A glutton for punishment, he watches while his ex gets married in Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen. The words mock the din of the wedding band, while the piano pounds out a whirling dance in 3/8 time. From song number seven, Ich grolle nicht, to song number eleven, Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen, a derisive view on relationship musical chairs, the poet alternates between sadness and sarcasm. Then, in the reflective Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen, he considers forgiving his betrayer, after which two songs about dreams follow. Whether the poet dreams that his beloved still loves him or that she has left him, he wakes up crying. In Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet, voice and piano do not sound simultaneously until the last stanza. The totally exposed vocal line underlines the poet’s loneliness. Allnächtlich im Traume is more philosophical in tone, but its theme is just as dispiriting. Based on these two songs in particular, one could see the protagonist as an artist abandoned by his muse instead of a sweetheart. At night, inspiration tantalises him in his dreams, only to disappear in the morning.

Ich hab' im Traum geweinet from mezzo Brigitte Fassbänder, with Aribert Reimann at the piano

The penultimate song, the lively Aus alten Märchen, also fits into the muse theory. The poet longs to escape to a utopic fairyland full of natural wonders, but this dream too melts away with the sun’s rays. Finally, in Die alten, bösen Lieder, at over four minutes the longest song, the poet puts his disillusions, and with them his love and pain, in an enormous coffin carried by a dozen giants. To the tune of a mock-serious, staccato march, he sinks them into the sea. Whether this exorcism works depends on who is singing. The song ends with a consolatory piano postlude marked Andante espressivo, in sharp contrast to what came before, during which the poet seems to make peace with his fate. But who knows – maybe this is just one of his transient moods.

Tenor Ian Bostridge with Julius Drake in a forgiving mood singing Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen, conjuring up the “sad, pale man” in the last line with a chiselled crescendo-diminuendo

There has been much debate about whether or not Schumann tried to mitigate Heine’s sarcasm, but, in performance, the degree of irony depends on the interpreters. Some singers and pianists emphasise the heartache, others the resentment, still others plumb the depths of loss and loneliness. Dichterliebe is most frequently performed by tenors and (bass)-baritones. Baritone Julius Stockhausen performed it first, with Brahms at the piano.  But sopranos, mezzos and even countertenors have taken it on.

Bass René Pape with pianist Camillo Radicke in Die alten, bösen Lieder, not really believing that drowning your sorrows in a big coffin is effective therapy

Schumann dedicated the cycle to the soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, creator of Wagnerian roles and, among the myriad recordings, two classics are soprano versions from the mid-20th century, by Suzanne Danco and Lotte Lehmann. The success of the interpretation depends on the singer’s sensitivity to the text, rather than their voice type. There are numerous outstanding, insightful recordings by leading interpreters. For sheer beauty of sound and immediacy of feeling tenor Fritz Wunderlich may have been equalled but not surpassed. Baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recorded it most often, five times with five different accompanists. Performances tend to last around 28 minutes. Fischer-Dieskau and Alfred Brendel take the faster songs very briskly and need only 26 minutes. Baritone Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber stretch the cycle out to 30 minutes in a convincing study of clinical depression. As long as there are Lieder interpreters, they will keep performing this marvellous song cycle, and the best of them will have something new to say about it.