1840 was Robert Schumann’s Liederjahr, his year of song. Working from May 24 to June 1, he wrote 20 songs in just nine days (aside from 148 others that year), setting poems from Heinrich Heine’s book of Lyrisches Intermezzo. Sixteen of these songs would make the cut to become the interconnected cycle Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love), which he revised and finally published in 1844. During the work’s genesis, he was pursuing a legal case against his former piano teacher, Friedrich Wieck, for the right to marry Wieck’s daughter, Clara. The couple’s love has often been connected with that of Dichterliebe, though the details are very different: Robert and Clara were both passionate for one another (the only obstacle was her father), and they enjoyed a happy resolution, marrying in September 1840. Not so for the titular poet.
“Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” (In the wondrously beautiful month of May) is a blissful love song, but the hazy piano introduction hints that this is a memory, and not the present. The first six songs continue in this frame, offering vignettes from the poet’s relationship with the unnamed girl, culminating in a grandiose comparison of her beauty to an image of Mary in the Cologne Cathedral.
The seventh song yanks back to the present, and the poet acknowledges his loss. He insists “Ich grolle nicht” (I bear no grudge), even if the music suggests otherwise. From there, he grieves, revealing some details of what transpired in “Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen” (There is fluting and fiddling) and “Ein Jüngling liebt ein Mädchen” (A boy loves a girl). The girl loved someone else, and then married a third man out of spite.
The next several songs enter the world of dreams, beginning with the sparse “Ich hab’ im Traum geweinet” (I wept in my dream) and ending in the fantastical “Aus alten Märchen winkt es” (From old fairytales it beckons). Finally the poet buries the past in “Die alien, bösen Lieder” (The old, angry songs), locking it away in a coffin. The piano offers a pensive coda, circling back to the atmosphere of the beginning.
Heine knowingly drew from the tritest Romantic clichés in his poetry, writing with a wink just short of parody. It’s less clear if Schumann also intended some level of irony in the music, or if his take is entirely earnest. Certainly the cycle is one-sided, and its central character comes across as callow and self-centered. But the music demands sympathy for his plight: just because his love and loss are overwrought doesn’t mean they didn’t feel real.