A tortured musical genius, on the verge of complete mental breakdown, struggling desperately to set the poetry a hapless queen wrote to commemorate the most intense moments of her tragic existence. It sounds like a fantasy concocted by some overwrought Hollywood scriptwriter, doesn't it? Yet this is a reasonable description of the creation of Robert Schumann's Opus 135, five songs on poems by Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587).
Further extending the unhappy story of this work--the unlikely artistic conjunction of two of the most tragically fated people of their respective times--is that the fruit of Schumann's anguished struggle has gone unappreciated; these songs may truly be considered unsung. Recording artists have ignored Opus 135, and it is hardly mentioned by such important studies as Thilo Rheinhard's, The Singer's Schumann.
In his book, The Songs of Schumann, Eric Sams at least acknowledges the existence of the work and goes to the trouble of translating its poems. But he appears to do so from a sense of completeness and closure, rather than because of the material itself. He finds nothing to say about Schumann's music and dismisses the set as a dismal close to Schumann's compositional career. Now it is true these songs are far from Schumann's best, but where is it written a composer's last songs must represent the apex of his career?
Perhaps my perspective is different because I had the advantage of hearing the songs before I knew the situation attending their creation. It was a student searching for songs with poems written by women who brought them to me. I noted that, just as in one of Schumann's better known cycles, the poems address the most poignant moments in the life of a woman. Yet as the student and I went through Schumann's solemn music it became clear this was not to be a second Frauenliebe und Leben. Still, we found the joyless poems moving and the music expressive.
Schumann set the queen's poems in the German translations of one Gisbert Freiherrn Vincke. They are titled: Abschied von Frankreich (Farewell to France), Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes (On the Birth of her Son), An die Königin Elisabeth (To Queen Elizabeth), Abschied von der Welt (Farewell to the World), Gebet (Prayer). The opening song is probably the best:
FAREWELL TO FRANCE
Ich zieh' dahin, dahin!
Ade, mein fröhlich Frankenland,
wo ich die liebste Heimath fand,
du meiner Kindheit Pflegerin!
Ade, du Land, du schöne Zeit
mich trennt das Boot vom Glück so weit!
Doch trägt's die Hälfte nur von mir
ein Theil für immer bleibet dein,
mein fröhlich Land, der sage dir,
des andern eingedenk zu sein!
I am going away, away!
Farewell, my happy France,
Where I found a most loving home.
You, the nurturer of my childhood!
Farewell, dear land and joyous time.
The ship takes me far from that happiness!
Yet only half of me departs.
A part of me remains with you evermore,
My happy land, to serve
As a remembrance of me!
Schumann pictures the wistful queen aboard the departing ship. The gentle rocking of the waves is a constant presence in the accompaniment--interrupted only briefly, at the most intense moments of the poem. The vocal line stretches only a ninth--from D-sharp below the staff up to E -and shapes the text into well-formed phrases. The Schumann characteristic of assigning the essential musical functions to the piano part is absent in this opus--there are no extended preludes or postludes here, and the important melodic peaks are proclaimed by the voice. The five songs, I should mention, run a cumulative vocal gamut from B below the staff up to top-line F.
Perhaps the true problem of the opus is that it is so emotionally monochromatic--a problem that stems from the poetry. A single solemn song can be very satisfying, but five of them in a row presents a real problem, as there are no contrasting moods, no variety of emotions for a composer--no matter how able or stable--to develop into a well structured and satisfying whole.
I do not recommend singing these songs as a set, then. But used separately, several of them could fit nicely into some very interesting recital themes: royalty, unusual artistic partners or songs of farewell.
Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart, Opus 135, can be found in the complete edition of Schumann's works, published by Breitkopf & Härtel.
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