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Der Nussbaum – Robert Schumann

By May 19, 2018March 25th, 2023No Comments

In this posting, I am returning to the idea of a comparison of singers against one piece.  I have decided to take a single Lied by Robert Schumann and present five Golden Age Opera singers singing it.  The Lied is “Der Nussbaum”, and the singers are:  Elisabeth Grümmer, Irmgard Seefried, Elisabeth Schumann, Lotte Lehmann, and Marian Anderson.  They are all magnificent renditions, but you will have to decide whom you prefer.  There is a bit about the Lied that follows, a bit about Schumann, and a small bit about the poet, Julius Mosen.  I have to admit that I really enjoyed doing this because I love the Lied, and I love all the singers.  Which is your favorite?

Golden Age Opera Singers

Der Nussbaum

Es grünet ein Nussbaum, vor dem Haus,
Breitet er blättrig die Blätter aus.

Viel liebliche Blüten stehen dran,
Kommen, sie herzlich zu umfahn.

Es flüstern je zwei zu zwei gepaart,
Zierlich zum Kusse die Häuptchen zart.

Sie flüstern von einem Mägdlein, das
Die Nächte
Und Tage lang, wusste ach! selber nicht was.

Sie flüstern—wer mag verstehen so gar
Flüstern von Bräut’gam und nächstem Jahr.

Das Mägdlien horchet, es rauscht im Baum;
Sinkt es lächelnd in Schlaf und Traum.

The Nut Tree

A nut tree blossoms outside the house,
It spreads its petaled boughs out.

Many lovely blossoms it bears,
Come to caress them tenderly.

Paired together, they whisper,
Gracefully their delicate heads to kiss.

They whisper of a maiden who
For nights
And days of, alas, she knew not what.

They whisper—who can understand
So softly
A song?
They whisper of a bridegroom and next year.

The maiden listens, the tree rustles;
She sinks smiling into sleep and dreams.

Robert Schumann’s “Der Nussbaum” (The Nut Tree) comes from the song cycle that he gave to his bride Clara on their wedding day. The song cycle was named after the traditional bridal finery, Myrthens (Myrtles). Schumann wrote Der Nussbaum in 1840, and it marked a radical turning point in his career, as shortly after this piece was composed, he seized upon poetry with a passion, producing more than half his solo songs that year. It is one of four flower-like songs contained in the cycle; others include “Die Lotusblume,” “Du bist wie eine Blume,” and “Aus den östlichen Rosen.” “Der Nussbaum” is a delicate setting of one of Mosen’s poems (see below), in which a meditative melody is shared between the piano and voice. The text tells of the whispers and caresses shared by two nut tree blossoms, revealing a certain maiden’s dreams of a bridegroom; nearby a girl listens, drifting gently into reverie.

Schumann applies the piano technique of descriptive figuration in “Der Nussbaum” to create the texture of its dreamy setting, by using rolling arpeggios that suggest the “gentle breezes” wafting through the nut tree’s rustling leaves. When this composition was complete, Schumann sent a copy to his fiancée, Clara Wieck, with a note that read, “Sing this quietly and simply, just as you are.” In the work, where occasional departures in text may look like transcription inaccuracies, Schumann has given himself the liberty to separate some of the verses, which impede the flow of the line, to allow the music’s dreamlike quality to emanate.

In general, in Lieder the traditional word/music synthesis needs to be expanded to include another highly important factor:  the instrumental relationship of the voice and the piano.  Major Lied composers adopt differing philosophies for finding solutions to these problems.  Der Nussbaum illustrates a Schumann solution:  subject the poem to musical enrichment by taking into account the inherent sonorities of the two instruments involved, bring together each of the four elements – poetry, musical construction, voice, and piano – into an amalgamated artistic whole.  In short, it is not chiefly the value of the poetry that dictates the merit of a Lied, but the accomplishment of its musical realization through the sensitive use of idiomatic vocal and keyboard sonorities.  Strikingly, Robert Schumann, the nineteenth-century composer with he deepest immersion in German literature, is the one who most emphatically decides that poetry is there for the musician to remold into new forms of artistic synthesis.

The piano improvises a melodious figure above a fragmentary folklike vocal line.  The broken-arpeggio figure provides an atmosphere of  dreamy contemplation.  He invents a musical duet between voice and piano.

Schumann Background

Robert Schumann (June 8, 1810 – July 29,1856) was a German composer and an influential music critic. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Romantic era. Schumann left the study of law, intending to pursue a career as a virtuoso pianist. He had been assured by his teacher Friedrich Wieck, a German pianist, that he could become the finest pianist in Europe, but a hand injury ended this dream. Schumann then focused his musical energies on composing.

Schumann’s published compositions were written exclusively for the piano until 1840; he later composed works for piano and orchestra; many Lieder; four symphonies; one opera; and other orchestral, choral, and chamber works. Works such as Carnaval, Symphonic Studies, Kinderszenen, Kreisleriana, and the Fantasie in C are among his most famous. His writings about music appeared mostly in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (New Journal for Music), a Leipzig-based publication which he jointly founded.

In 1840, Schumann married Friedrich Wieck’s daughter Clara, against the wishes of her father, following a long and acrimonious legal battle, which found in favor of Clara and Robert. Clara also composed music and had a considerable concert career as a pianist, the earnings from which, before her marriage, formed a substantial part of her father’s fortune.  It has been said that Clara Wieck Schumann was the greatest virtuosic pianist of her day.

Schumann suffered from a mental disorder, first manifesting itself in 1833 as a severe melancholic depressive episode, which recurred several times alternating with phases of ‘exaltation’ and increasingly also delusional ideas of being poisoned or threatened with metallic items.

Final illness and death

Schumann entered Dr. Franz Richarz’s sanatorium in Endenich, a quarter of Bonn, and remained there until he died on July 29, 1856 at the age of 46.

Given his reported symptoms, one modern view is that his death was a result of syphilis, which he may have contracted during his student days, and which would have remained latent during most of his marriage.  According to studies by the musicologist and literary scholar Eric Sams, Schumann’s symptoms during his terminal illness and death appear consistent with those of mercury poisoning, mercury at this time being a common treatment for syphilis and other conditions. He may also have had what we term today bipolar disorder.

Schumann had considerable influence in the nineteenth century and beyond, despite his adoption of more conservative modes of composition after his marriage. He left an array of acclaimed music in virtually all the forms then known. Partly through his protégé Brahms, Schumann’s ideals and musical vocabulary became widely disseminated. Composer Sir Edward Elgar called Schumann “my ideal.”

Myrthen, Opus 25

Published in October 1840, Myrthen, Opus 25, is dedicated to the composer’s wife, Clara Schumann. Myrthen, or myrtles, are European evergreen shrubs with white or rosy flowers that are often used to make bridal wreaths. The 26 poems included were presented to Clara on the occasion of their wedding.

Julius Mosen

Julius Mosen ( July 8,1803 – October10, 1867) was a German poet and author of Jewish descent, associated with the Young Germany movement, and now remembered principally for his patriotic poem the Andreas-Hofer-Lied.

As an active freemason in Dresden he encountered several important literary figures, including Ludwig Tieck, Ludwig Uhland, Georg Herwegh, Richard Wagner and Gottfried Semper, and was soon himself reckoned to be among the best-known German poets.
He also wrote the historical plays Heinrich der Fünfte (Leipzig, 1836), Cola Rienzi, Die Bräute von Florenz, Wendelin und Helene and Kaiser Otto III (the four last being published in his Theater 1842). His tragedies were very well received and were performed at the Dresden court theatre (Dresdner Hofbühne). For his services to German theatre the faculty of Philosophy at the University of Jena awarded him an honorary doctorate.

In 1844 the Grand Duke Paul Friedrich August von Oldenburg offered him the appointment of dramaturgist at the Court Theatre in Oldenburg, which he accepted, in the hope of putting into practice his vision of German national theatre. In the same year he had his family name changed from “Moses” to “Mosen” by Dresden ministerial decree. In 1846 he was stricken with paralysis as the result of a rheumatic illness, and after remaining bed-ridden for the rest of his life, died at Oldenburg on October 10, 1867.