Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Wistful Lied, Kommen und Scheiden

The Wistful Lied

“Kommen und Scheiden” is a short poem by the under-rated German Romantic poet Nikolaus Lenau, friend of Wilhelm Hensel, and thus of Fanny Hensel and the Mendelssohn family. Lenau, like his contemporary Heinrich Heine, had suffered from an unhappy love affair, and often wrote poems of unrequited love. As Fanny Hensel grew older, she moved away from the bitter poetry of her long time acquaintance Heinrich Heine, and began instead to set the poems of her friend Nikolaus Lenau.

“Kommen und Scheiden” is only six lines long, but in six lines Lenau expresses the goodness of the presence of the speaker’s beloved, the meaningfulness of her speech, and his deep sense of loss at her departure.

Kommen und Scheiden

So oft sie kamm, erschien mir die Gestalt
So lieblich wie der erste Grün im Wald,

Und was sie sprach drang mir zum Herzen ein,
So lieblich wie der Frühlings erstes Lied ins Hein,

Und, als Lebwoll, sie winkte mit der Hand
War’s ob der letzte Jugendtraum mir Schwand.

Gestalt is a word which has no true equivalent in contemporary English. It means presence, not body and soul, but perhaps body-soul. It is the woman’s entire presence (not simply her outward appearance) which is as lovely as the first green in the wood. This suggests that the woman was a particularly lovely person. The second couplet furthers this idea by saying that whatever she spoke struck the speaker’s heart as being as lovely as the first song of spring in the meadow. This calls to mind a woman of great heart and intellect. It is only in the third couplet that the speaker tells us what went wrong. The woman waved Lebwoll (the German greeting given to a person whom you wish well, but whom you will probably never see again) with her hand. She did not betray him. The wave of the hand (as the Lied compiler John Glenn Patton noted) suggests that she was unaware of how much her presence had meant to the speaker. The speaker does not blame her, nor is he disillusioned by her, but with her departs, or rather disappears, his last dream of youth disappears as well.

When Fanny set this poem to music, she did so in a manner as subtle and unassuming and yet as poignant as the poem itself. The first couplet is set in a bright, sweet major key, and the melody, which is then echoed in the piano line, sways like the trees in a spring woodland. It brings to mind the joy that the woman’s presence gave to the singer.

The second couplet is still in the major key, but there are changes in the harmony and the melody (better explained by a music theorist, rather than by me) which make it poignant, like the words of the woman, and sweet, like the song in the meadow.

In the third couplet, Fanny changes the Lied to a minor key that expresses the extreme sense of loss which the singer undergoes at the departure of this remarkable woman. Lebwoll is flatted to underscore the singer’s sadness.

Fanny’s Lied paints a world filled with goodness, breaths life into the character of the woman filled with goodness, and mourns with the singer when he has lost the woman filled with goodness. Fanny, like her brother Felix and all of the Mendelssohn family, believed in the goodness of God’s creation and in the presence of God in His creation. Perhaps it was her belief in goodness that enabled her to grieve with the singer of this poem when he lost someone who was good.

At this point, Fanny is technically finished with Lenau’s poem, and a piano postlude is what the listener would expect, but instead of a piano postlude, Fanny repeats the last phrase of the poem, not in the sad sounding minor key, but in the original, bright happy major key, with the addition of a poignant sounding chord which Fanny imported from a different key.

The result is a wistful memory of the first, joyful part of the Lied. Fanny thus shed light upon something which was probably present in Lenau’s poem, but which could only be brought out by her subtle, sweet music: the fact that the joyful time was still good, even though it was past. Its goodness could not be undone by the passage of time.

Then in the very last measure, on the word schwand the piano line and the vocal line end at the exact same moment. On one last wistful note the entire Lied vanishes.