Hölderlin Gesänge, by Wilhelm Weismann (1900-1980)

Friedrich Hölderlin (1770-1843) was a poet very far ahead of his time. His contemporaries failed to appreciate his profound, avidly Hellenistic poems and probably viewed the poet's early decline into insanity, in 1802, as a confirmation of their evaluation. Though Hölderlin's collected works were published as early as 1826, his poems remained relatively unappreciated and neglected. Neither Schubert or Schumann ever composed a Hölderlin song, and had not the poetically aware Peter Cornelius set Sonnenuntergang  in 1862 (or Brahms his choral Schicksalslied ) the entire nineteenth century would have passed without a musical acknowledgment of Hölderlin's poetry. It was well into this century before composers like Sauguet, Fortner, Reutter, Hindemith and Britten would discover the treasure-trove of Hölderlin's expressive verse, and use it to create some of the finest songs of our time.

It is tragic that Wilhelm Weismann's remarkable Hölderlin songs were created and published in East Germany, at the very peak of the Cold War. Their chance of becoming known outside the Iron Curtain countries was minimal, and the world has had little opportunity to hear and appreciate them.

Weismann's musical style places him somewhere between Strauss and Korngold, and those who admire either of these composers should certainly explore this music. Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians  carries an entry on the composer that includes a tantalizing- if incomplete--list of his works. The problem is that precious few copies of any of this music are extant and locating them may require a very determined search.

For his Hölderlin Gesänge, Weismann selected three excellent poems, An die Parzen  (To the Fates), Abschied  (Farewell) and Abbitte  (Apology), ordered them as a set and wrote them for baritone and piano.

The first song is typical. It is addressed to the mythic deities who control man's destiny and the length of his life:


Nur einen Sommer gönnt, ihr Gewaltigen!
Und einen Herbst zu reifem Gesange mir,
Daß williger mein Herz vom süßen
Spiele gesätiget, dann mir sterbe.

Die Seele, der im Leben ihr göttlich Recht
Nicht ward, sie ruht auch drunten im Orcus nicht;
Doch ist mir einst das Heilge, das am
Herzen mir liegt, das Gedicht gelungen,

Willkommen dann, o Stille der Schattenwelt!
Zufrieden bin ich, wenn auch mein Saitenspiel
Mich nicht hinab geleitet; Einmal
Lebt ich, wie Götter, und mehr bedarfs nicht.

Give me but one more summer, you Mighty Ones!
And an autumn to perfect my song,
So that, surfeited with sweet music,
My heart may then die, content.

The soul denied its god-given right in life
Will not find rest down in Orcus either.
But when I have accomplished my great task,
Perfected the poem on which my heart is set,

Then be welcome, silence of the shadow world!
I'll be content, though I must leave my lyre behind
And descend without a song; knowing that once
I lived like the gods, and nothing more is needed

A particularly artful English translation of this poem, which maintains the ancient Greek meter (Alcaic) in which Hölderlin cast his German lines, is available in Friedrich Hölderlin, Poems and Fragments, Translated by Michael Hamburger, published by The University of Michigan Press, in 1967. There is also an intriguing analysis of this poem in the book The Poem Itself, edited by Stanley Burnshaw and published by Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1960. It discusses the structure, scansion and meaning of Hölderlin's poem in such detail, the reader will probably end up knowing more about it than did any of the notable composers who set it.

In his through-composed setting, Weismann, alternates easily between lush lyricism and recitative, defining each style with the piano accompaniment. The vocal line remains remarkably conjunct throughout--only occasionally punctuated by the descriptive use of fifths or octaves. The genius of the composer is revealed in the gorgeous phrase leading to the peak of the song, at ...das Gedicht gelungen: The listener is aware of only the warmly pulsating broken chord figure, the exquisite harmonies and the contrary motion of the bass line against the climactic rise of the voice. Yet in support of poetic requirements, Weismann has subtly moved this phrase through four time signatures in as many measures.

The modest (E flat) top note of An die Parzen  allows it to be sung by either a baritone or bass. Likewise, the gentle and stately third song of the set, Abbitte, though it requires several E naturals. But alas, the second song, Abschied, rises to two climactic high G-flats that simply cannot be fudged, precluding it from consideration by most basses.

Weismann's set would serve as an impressive section in any song or Lieder  recital. William Fortner and Hermann Reutter also cast their settings of An die Parzen  for low voice, so a group made up of comparative settings is possible but it would probably be very heavy going for most audiences. Hindemith's 1965 setting of the poem was written for tenor.

Weismann's Hölderlin Gesänge, Drei Gesänge nach Worten von Friedrich Hölderlin, was published by Edition Peters, in Leipzig, in 1960.


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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