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Robert Schumann (1810-1856)
Nachtlied, Op 108
Schumann composed his Nachtlied (Night Song), for chorus and orchestra in just a week in November 1849. He conducted the first performance in Düsseldorf on 13 March 1851.
The text is by a poet Schumann greatly admired, Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863). Hebbel’s version of the Genoveva legend was one of the sources Schumann had drawn on when compiling the libretto for his opera of the same name, and he asked for Hebbel’s advice as he worked in shaping it. Hebbel, though, was not able to respond to Schumann on a similar level. His understanding of music seems to have been much more limited than Schumann’s understanding of literature; on the one occasion they met he found Schumann awkwardly withdrawn and introverted; and his reaction to the completed opera was entirely negative. However, Schumann dedicated Nachtlied to Hebbel and sent him a copy of the score on his birthday in 1853, writing that he would preferred to have “enclosed an orchestra with winds blowing and strings bowing, along with a chorus” so that he could “lull the poet into lovely dreams with his own song”. Hebbel replied by dedicating to Schumann his play Michael Angelo.
Although the plays without a break, Schumann follows the three-verse structure of the poem by opening in sombre quiet. The music becomes faster and more vigorous as Hebbel’s describes of the heart constrained by the vagaries of life. As the image of sleep takes over in the last verse it turns calm again. Schumann emphasises the word ‘Schlaf’ (Sleep) in a magical dialogue between the tenors and the other voices, repeated a little later as an exchange between the lower and upper voices. The orchestra alone draws the work to its gentle conclusion, with a brief, tenderly expressive clarinet solo having the last word.
A few days before his tragic death in an asylum, he was able to recall Nachtlied with affection: “I was always especially partial to this piece.”
Quellende, schwellende Nacht,
Voll von Lichtern und Sternen:
In den ewigen Fernen,
Sage, was ist da erwacht?
Herz in der Brust wird beengt;
Steigendes, neigendes Leben,
Riesenhaft fühle ich’s weben,
Welches das meine verdrängt.
Schlaf, da nahst du dich leis’,
Wie dem Kinde die Amme,
Und um die dürftige Flamme
Ziehst du den schützenden Kreis.
Christian Friedrich Hebbel (1813-1863)
Night – welling up, swelling,
Full of lights and stars:
In the endless distance,
Tell me, what has awoken there?
The human heart is constrained in the breast;
Life’s ups and downs
Feel to me like a gigantic weaving,
Which represses mine.
Sleep, you approach gently,
Like a nurse with a child,
And around the weak flame
You draw a protecting circle.
Note and translations © Mike Wheeler