Poet’s Love: Schumann’s Dichterliebe

Poet’s Love: Schumann’s Dichterliebe

Written by Anne E. Johnson

Completed in 1840, Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love), Op. 48, sets 16 poems by Heinrich Heine for solo voice and piano. Today it is considered one of the great examples of German art song and a challenge required of any tenor or baritone hoping to make his mark in the genre. A few recent recordings show a range of approaches to this masterwork.

30-year-old German baritone Samuel Hasselhorn is among those with a new Dichterliebe (GWK Records). He is accompanied by Boris Kusnezow in a beautiful and intense recording.

“Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome” (“In the Rhine, in the Holy River”) is Heine’s description of a painting of the Virgin Mary in the Cologne Cathedral, likening her face to that of his love. Hasselhorn does a wonderful job of expressing the worshipful quality of this text.


“Ich grolle nicht” (“I Bear No Grudge”) has a much different mood, evoking someone wronged by a lover’s cruelty. There’s a kind of triumph in Hasselhorn’s rendering, as if he’s willed himself to move beyond the terrible pain of heartbreak. He also demonstrates a spectacular upper range, a gift that should be prized in a baritone.


Keep an eye out for Hasselhorn’s new Schumann disc, this time with pianist Joseph Middleton, coming out from Harmonia Mundi in September.

Another attempt at Dichterliebe came out recently from Öberg Recordings, featuring Swedish baritone Karl-Magnus Fredriksson, accompanied by Stefan Klingele. In a bizarre error, the company labeled the song cycle as Op. 40 instead of 48 on each individual track and every sales platform. Fortunately, that lack of professionalism is not reflected in the performance, which is lush and spirited.

Fredriksson shows his stylistic range, from jaunty to tragic. The first can be found in the tiny song “Die Rose, die Lilie, die Taube, die Sonne” (“Rose, Lily, Dove, Sun”), a mere six lines of poetry extolling a woman’s virtues beyond those natural phenomena in the title.


On the other hand, in “Am leuchtenden Sommermorgen” (“On a Shining Summer Morning”), Fredricksson sighs his way through heartache. His husky voice might not match Hasselhorn’s bell-like shimmer, but it brings a believable weight to these texts.


As was normal for German art song, Schumann did not specify a vocal range for Dichterliebe, and both tenor and baritone versions have long been available. The first performance, in 1844, was by a baritone, but many a great tenor has mastered the work, for example Fritz Wunderlich’s recording with Hubert Giesen in the 1960s. Wunderlich’s delicate, supple voice set the standard for every tenor who followed.

Daniel Kim may not be Fritz Wunderlich, but this experienced lyric tenor, who’s been performing on major world stages for 20 years, has a gentle, expressive voice that suits Heine’s poetic style. He is accompanied by Hugo Kim on this release from Seoul-based Audioguy Records that also includes Schumann’s Liederkreis, Op. 39.

Even in the very short “Aus meinen Tränen spriessen” (“From My Tears Spring”), you can hear the patient, clear phrasing. Kim’s voice occasionally suffers from worn edges, but his sensitive musicianship is the more important factor. Some of the credit for the recording’s sonic success goes to the Audioguy team, led by engineer and founder Jung-Hoon Choi, who created a naturalistic sound appropriate to this repertoire meant to be performed acoustically in the parlors of private homes.


Over the past couple of decades, there’s been a trend in classical music to rethink the whole business, blurring the lines between classical and other genres and pushing for greater accessibility and popularization. It’s also partly about shaking the dust and cobwebs off a body of work that’s moldering in sameness and giving it a new breath of life. Some of these experiments in revitalization are dreadful and some are revelatory, but I believe they’re all important if this music is going to survive into many future generations. Not surprisingly, a piece as canonic as Dichterliebe has earned the attention of such projects.

One group that has experimented with Schumann is the Erlkings, named after the Goethe poem “Erlkönig,” famously set as an art song by Schubert, Beethoven, and others. The Erlkings, to quote their own PR, strive to rediscover great art song “through the lens of a modern musical vocabulary.” This includes English translations and an unusual instrumentation: voice, guitar, cello, tuba, and drums. Their recording of Dichterliebe on Rhythmic Dog Records deserves a listen. Purists, steel yourselves!

Right. So, they’ve turned the suggestive “Ich will meine Seele tauchen” (“Let Me Dip My Soul”) into a samba. I urge you to push through the natural horror you feel as your brain adjusts, and then just listen to this as a whole new piece. The Erlkings haven’t changed a note of Schumann’s melody or harmony, but only shifted the meter, instrumentation, and style. If you take it on its own merits, it’s an effective Latin jazz tune.


On the other hand, their version of “Die alten, bösen Lieder” (“The Old, Evil Songs”) has a cabaret-style drollery flavored with a touch of syncopation. The arrangement is clever, if a misfire. My objection is not so much the deconstruction of Schumann as the discombobulation of Heine, whose poem is part of a centuries-old tradition of expressing a jilted lover’s longing for death. I guess the Erlkings are trying to find irony in this, or play up the song’s melodrama, but I think it loses more than it gains.


A related 21st-century phenomenon is the melding of cultures outside of Western Europe with the Classical canon, as composer/conductor Christian Jost and the Horenstein Ensemble have done with Dichterliebe in their new recording on Deutsche Grammophon. Tenor Peter Lodahl and pianist Daniel Heide are merely the guest artists in this rethinking inspired by everything from East Asian timbres to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Here is Jost’s conception of perhaps the best-known of the Dichterliebe songs, “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” (“In the Wonderful Month of May”):


Does Schumann need to be rewritten? Strictly speaking, no. But if nobody ever rewrote the classics, then West Side Story would not exist because Laurents, Bernstein, and Sondheim would have left Shakespeare alone.

Just to recalibrate back to the Schumann we know, let’s end with a moment of the great Fritz Wunderlich:


Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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