What better example than Schumann, son of a bookseller publisher, who was passionate about literature and poetry from a very young age to show these unbreakable links? He, who had long hesitated between his two vocations, poet and musician, forged inseparable links between them throughout his life and work.
The project links two of the composer’s works: the Dichterliebe (Love of the Poet) opus 48 and the Märchenbilder (Pictures of fairy tales) opus 113. These pieces have different and complementary relationships with literature, revealing by their juxtaposition a second level of reading, where the difference between vocal and instrumental work, or between love story and fairy tale, is not as clear as one might suppose.
Benjamin chose to work with the Dichterliebe rather than another song cycle for several reasons. This cycle has strong links with Schubert’s Winterreise, and his first transcription idea of a lone traveller being a reciter is easily transposed into the situation of the poet. It also allows him to stay as close as possible to the original music: the sound quality and texture of the viola perfectly reflect the voice of a young man.
The song cycle of the Dichterliebe is a magnificent ensemble, of a beauty that seems accomplished and requires no correction. However, if this cycle is considered as a work, it is not immutable: factors of the utmost importance, such as the public’s perception of the work, its interpretation or the acoustic conditions during its performance, will never cease to evolve.
So when can one pretend to play a work in its original context? Should we ban Bach or Mozart from the piano, no longer let baritones and soprani sing the Winterreise, or deconstruct cathedrals to conform them to the plans of their original architect? In 1929, Giraudoux wrote the 38th version of Amphitryon. Should we play Plautus’, Molière’s or his? All of them, without a doubt: a work of art is alive, it grows and matures, changes its face over time.
The Dichterliebe, like all masterpieces, is destined to evolve in the same way. For reasons similar to those used in his Winterreise transcription, Benjamin chose to transcribe this cycle of lieder for viola, harp and reciter.
Several violists have already recorded Lieder transcriptions for viola and piano in an instrumental version only. In those cases, nothing compensates the loss of the poetic text, outside perhaps the interpretation itself. This aesthetic bias to transform Lieder into pure music is justifiable, but it is not satisfying for Benjamin.
“I believe that the poetry and the text is essential to the music and the composer’s original idea. That is why in my version, a reciter declares the text before each transcribed song. This allows me to keep the dramaturgy, emphasizes theatricality and, I think, brings a new perspective to the work. Music, more than an underline of the words, becomes a musical enunciation that sublimates the expressiveness of words.”
The viola and harp can, through phrasing, intonation, register, colour and timbre, virtually place the recited text again on the music. The created ensemble is coherent and homogeneous: the reciter becomes the poet, the viola his musical Doppelgänger, and the harp their confidant.
The separation of text and music allows the audience to understand the poems through their translation into their language. The work becomes easier to access and more attractive: the spectator can let himself be charmed and feed his reflection more easily.
As written earlier, the links between music and literature are omnipresent in Schumann’s music. The title of the Märchenbilder already refers explicitly to the tale.
The oral origin of the Märchen leaves differently perceivable traces in the music. These appear in the discourse, in the imitations of sounds, and also in some structural characteristics such as repetitions and parallelism. Music is combined with the act of telling.
The Märchen is, beyond a literary genre, an illustration of the romantic vision of the world in which accessing the truth can only be acheived by being torn away from reality and common sense. The Märchen itself is an invitation to music: it is the language of the unspeakable.
The construction of these nostalgic pieces, both simple and elusive, recalls the ambiguous relationship that the Märchen have with reality and the imagination. Music, once again, transcends words to go beyond them, but not only: it uses them as poets have always dreamed of being able to do, by becoming polysemic or by simultaneously stating several proposals. Schumann writes instrumental Märchen as a fusion of poetry and music, free from the limits and constraints of speech, a carrier of narrative and drama.
Associating a transcription of the Dichterliebe with the Märchenbilder enlightens their complementary relationships with literature, as well as the inevitable transversality between the love story and the fairy tale, first in the Schumann universe, and by extension in absolute.
Heine’s poems pre-exists the Dichterliebe; the literary world is at the origin of the musical world, the later adding more meaning to the words, transforming and enriching the discourse and turning the poetic work into a complete world.
On the other side, the relationship of the Märchenbilder to literature stems from musical thought: the story takes place in musical pictures, as if they were chapters, and the suggestive power of music projects us into the dreamlike world of tales. There is no longer any need for words to imagine princesses and bewitched forests….
Love stories and fairy tales are not compartmentalized genres. The Dichterliebe have a very big part of imaginary and irrational, not to mention fantasized: the poet’s dreams and madness certainly reflect Schumann’s many unspoken fears. They have a certain initiatory character where the morality could seem to whisper that love stories are always supposed to end badly… The Märchen, on the other hand, take root in the reality: doesn’t the adagio ending the Märchenbilder sound like the farewell song Schumann would sing to his loved one? Dichterliebe and Märchenbilder seem to describe both sides of a fantastic mirror about Schumann’s life. “The more I look at it, the less I notice differences between the sides, and the more I wonder: which side is the reflection on?”
Are you listening to a love story and fairy tales, or to fairy stories and love tales?