Heine and the Composers

By Albright, Daniel | Parnassus : Poetry in Review, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Heine and the Composers


Albright, Daniel, Parnassus : Poetry in Review


1. Self-scrutiny I

We're in a cozy salon, soft in focus, lit with warm red, full of upholstered leather furniture in the best modern taste. The soprano, sober in a fur-collared jacket, gazes at us as the pianist plays the gende prelude. There's something odd about the windows: The left one shows a somewhat jittery scene, as if a minor earthquake were taking place unnoticed; the right, an eye and part of the mouth of the soprano's huge face.

2. Self-scrutiny II

Heinrich Heine and Franz Schubert were born in the same year, 1797. If Heine had died when Schubert died, in 1828, it would have been an enormous loss to German letters and German music alike for one thing, Wagner might never have written The Flying Dutchman, based on a brief satirical episode in one of Heine's novels. But the history of the German Lied might not have been drastically changed, because most of the lyric poems that inflamed the imagination of countless composers, not just in Germany, had already been published - many of them in the "Lyrisches Intermezzo" section (first published 1823) of the Buch der Lieder (1827).

Schubert had only a litde time to take note of Heine's work, but six of the fourteen songs in Schwanengesang (a song cycle compiled, not without skill, by a publisher after Schubert's death) are to texts by Heine. One of these songs is "Der Doppelgänger":

Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen,

In diesem Hause wohnte mein Schatz;

Sie hat schon längst die Stadt verlassen,

Doch steht noch das Haus auf demselben Platz.

Da steht auch ein Mensch und starrt in die Höhe

Und ringt die Hände vor Schmerzensgewalt;

Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Anditz sehe

Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt.

Du Doppelgänger, du bleicher Geselle!

Was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid,

Das mich gequält auf dieser Stelle

So manche Nacht, in alter Zeit?

The night is quiet, the small streets still,

Here, in this house, a girl lived once.

She left the city long ago,

But the house still stands, just as it was.

And a man stands there, and cranes his neck,

His knuckles white, mouth agape,

I shudder as I come to look:

The moon shows me my own shape.

My double - pale companion-ghost!

Why do you ape my inner pain,

The torture of the love I lost,

The hurt I need to feel again?

This poem succinctly states Heine's whole lyric agon. The poet is drawn to revisit some scene of havoc and desolation, to relive rejection, loss, pain, vain yearning. But he stands aloof from his own feeling, takes a restrained delight in cultivating a persona of ruin. Yeats once said diat the traditional masks of the lyric poet are those of "lover or saint, sage or sensualist, or mere mocker of all life." Heine evolved a new and compelling mask, that of lover as ironist, at once rendered immune by his ironic distance and excoriated by his inability to take full part in his own feeling. (Heine described his art as "malicious-sentimental.") In "Der Doppelgänger" it's far from clear which is the ghost and which the real man: The poet himself may be the revenant haunting the place where he once felt authentic emotion, where some fragment of an authentic being still lingers to feel it.

Schubert's setting is based on a four-note figure: scale-degrees l-#73-2 in B minor, in slow, steady dotted-half-notes: B-A#-D-C#. This is the sort of figure less common in songs than in instrumental music, where it might be the head of a fugue or the basis of a passacaglia. Leopold Godowsky wrote a passacaglia on a striking, somewhat similar figure from Schubert's unfinished symphony (speaking of B minor!); Beethoven's piano sonata Op. 110 isolates a four-note figure only slightly different in shape from that of "Der Doppelgänger"; and the famous B-A-C-H figure (in English note-spelling, Bb-A-C-B), which haunts compositions by Schumann, Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, and many others, is not far away either. …

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