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The Songs of Clara Schumann

November 16, 2019


CLARA IS MY MUSE, BY JOHN AXELROD


THE SONGS OF CLARA SCHUMANN:  200 YEARS LATER

Featuring baritone Wolfgang Holzmair


Volkslied (Folksong)

Sie Liebten sich Beide (Book 2, original version) 

Warum willst du and're fragen (Why do you ask others)

Mein Stern (My Star)

Die gute Nacht, die ich dir sage (The Goodnight I Bid You)



Everyone knows Brahms’ First Symphony begins with a C-Minor ostinato, creating tension with each note played in tenuto. The Volkslied, set to words by Heinrich Heine, from Clara Schumann’s second book of lieder, has the same adagio character. How intriguing an idea that the symphony, which took Brahms 14 years to complete, might have been inspired at its genesis in 1854 by the 1840 song Clara composed.  Had Brahms, already a member of the Schumann circle, heard these songs, and if so, might they have served as the seed of his first movement theme? The often used romantic idea of forbidden love and its inevitable ruin could be a deep emotion from which to draw emotional and musical inspiration. Love from afar, and instrumental passages of astounding beauty are common to both in the First Symphony and Volkslied. Given the romantic nature of Clara’s expression, and the animus, in the Jungian sense, heard in the lieder, I felt it was necessary to for the lieder via a baritone voice. Wolfgang Holzmair, the lieder specialist, is therefore an ideal partner.

Yet doubt remains a theme in the long relationship between Clara and Brahms. As written in Warum willst du and’re fragen, when Rückert writes: “Will lips silence your questions, or turn them against me? Whatever my lips may say, see my eyes; I love you!” The warm melody of the clarinet in the third movement, like a shepherd’s call, is so lovingly composed that it matches the hopelessly romantic quality of these words.

Mein Stern, a poem by Serre, emphasizes that distant love as a star: “You are a herald of loving greetings; O let your beams give me thirsty kisses in yearning night.” According to Psychology Today, men are more romantic than women. So, why should it be any surprise that Brahms makes his music a love letter, as when Brahms asks of Clara, heard in the piu andante section of the finale, when the horns and timpani introduce a tune that Brahms may have heard from an Alpine shepherd with the words, “High on the hill, deep in the dale, I send you a thousand greetings!”?  Clara’s song is an homage to that yearning for love. 

Die Gute Nacht presents then an idealized love, a spiritualized oneness of angelic bliss. And finally, Sie Liebten Sich Beide, which is also performed by Felicity Lott, acts as a duet of Clara, the Muse, and her male counterparts.   In the original version of the Heine poem, a tragic prophecy of an unconsummated relationship is understood: “They once loved each other, but none to the other confessed.....” This melancholy is central to understanding Clara Schumann’s lieder and these connections to both her husband Robert, whose bipolar nature ultimately took him to a sanitarium and early demise, and to Johannes, who considered himself the most “melancholic” of composers.  Melancholy might be consistent in romantic sentiment, but it needed the inspiration of Clara to find expression.