Das verlassene Mägdlein, by Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949)

Hans Pfitzner must have been a rather confident fellow, for he chose to set several poems after his peers had already used them to create well known songs. In 1887, as a very young composer, he set Möricke's Das verlassene Mägdelein, though by that time over fifty musical settings of it already existed, including a version by Schumann. Later, even more boldly, he offered his version of Immer leise wird mein Schlummer  just a few years after Brahms's exquisite setting had been published.

It must have been disconcerting then, when someone had the audacity to give Pfitzner a taste of his own medicine, which happened when Hugo Wolf published his  version of Das verlassene Mägdelein  in 1889. As if refusing to be topped in this way, Pfitzner would eventually respond by composing yet another, second setting of the poem--this in 1922, long after Wolf had died and there was no danger he might respond in kind. Neither of Pfitzner's two settings is frequently performed. But as a recording of the 1887 version is now available--sung by the late Lucia Popp on her song recital CD titled Jugendstil Lieder--let's concern ourselves here with Pfitzner's second version, composed in 1922.

It has been said that concision is the mark of great poetry, and these stark lines by Eduard Möricke (1804-1875), certainly prove that point:


Früh, wann die Hähne krähn,
Eh' die Sternlein verschwinden,
Muß ich am Herde stehn,
Muß Feuer zünden.

Schön ist der Flammen Schein,
Es springen die Funken;
Ich schaue so drein,
In Leid versunken.

Plötzlich, da kommt es mir,
Treuloser Knabe,
Daß ich die Nacht von dir
Geträumet habe.

Träne auf Träne dann
Stürzet hernieder.
So kommt der Tag heran--
O ging' er wieder!

Early, when the cocks crow,
B'fore the stars fade out,
I have to tend the hearth,
Have to start the fire.

The firelight is beautiful,
The sparks all jumping;
I stare into 'em,
Sunk in sadness.

Suddenly, it comes to me,
Deceitful boy,
That all night long
I dreamt of you.

Then tear after tear
Trickles down.
So that's how the day starts--
Would it were over!

The attentive reader will have noted an inconsistency in the spelling of the song's title-- Mägdlein/Mägdelein. Möricke wrote Mägdlein, and those who compare his title and lines (above) with those Schumann, Wolf and the youthful Pfitzner used, will see that each composer employed various word changes, trying to polish up Möricke's purposefully unsophisticated style. I have tried to convey some of that colloquial manner in my English version. Pfitzner may be unique in his 1922 setting, in scrupulously using the words the poet wrote--warts and all.

The song's vocal gamut is modest, from treble low F-sharp up to the G-sharp above the staff, but--young singers be advised--the dramatic intensity it requires is considerable. To suggest the bleak, joyless scene and devastated state of the speaker, Pfitzner uses sustained inner-voice drones and, like Wolf, a repetitious accompaniment figure with harmonies rich in pungent major and minor seconds. The rhythmic vocabulary is varied and imaginative, using both three-against one and three-against-two patterns in the vocal line. The form is predictable, essentially a quatrain-wise AABA pattern, and harmonic density is the primary dramatic intensifier.

Surely the genius of this setting resides in the treatment Pfitzner has given the final line. Unlike his peers, he has not written it as a downcast, defeated sigh. Rather, he has taken his cue from Möricke's closing exclamation mark and made it a wounded outburst. It is a phrase that, well sung, should stick in the listener's memory and gnaw at it for a long time. Indeed, when a student recitalist of mine once programmed this song following the Schumann and Wolf settings, Pfitzner's heartrending final phrase proved to be an excellent capstone for the entire group.

The emotional situation of the jilted lover is of course gender blind--if the speaker was a blacksmith's apprentice rather than a scullery maid nothing would be different--but the poet has created such a Cinderella-like scene here, it is most appropriately delivered by a woman's voice .

Pfitzner's early setting, Das verlassene Mägdelein, is No. 5 in the set of Sechs Jugendlieder, published by the firm of Ries & Erler, in Berlin. His second setting, Das verlassene Mägdlein, is No. 2 in the set titled Vier Lieder, Opus 30, published by Boosey & Hawkes, London. Both songs are available as separate titles.


Return to the UNSUNG SONGS table of contents

Go to the WEBSITE index

Copyright 1999, John Koopman. All rights reserved. No part of these websites, designated A BRIEF HISTORY OF SINGING and UNSUNG SONGS, or their contents may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means--electronic, photocopying or otherwise--without the written permission of the copyright holder. For information about the use of this material please contact the author through the Conservatory of Music, Lawrence University, Appleton, WI , (U.S.A) 54912-0599. Fax 920 832 6633