Most of Fanny Hensel’s songs are not directly connected to events in her own life, but this one perhaps is. When Fanny (at that time Fanny Mendelssohn) was fifteen years old, she and Felix went to see an art exhibit of paintings by a promising young painter, Wilhelm Hensel. During the following year, Wilhelm Hensel became very close to the Mendelssohn family, and particularly close to Fanny. Probably not realizing how young she was, because she was very well educated and mature for her age, he asked for her hand in marriage when she was only sixteen. Her terrified parents sent him away to Italy, where he had a several year painting scholarship, with the understanding that if he came back after his studies were complete and still loved Fanny, and if Fanny still loved him, then they could be married. Wilhelm Hensel was at ease in society, and could have married any number of young ladies, but he loved only Fanny, and when he returned to Berlin, the Mendelssohns adopted him into their family, he and Fanny were married, and her parents gave them the Gartenhaus, a small house on their property, for them to live in, and they had a very strong and happy marriage.
The Tempest was Fanny's mother's favorite Shakespeare play, and in a way Fanny seems to have been Lea and Abraham Mendelssohn's Miranda. They taught her everything she wished to learn, just because they thought she should learn, and they tested her suitor to make sure he was worthy of her, and when he proved that he was, they took him lovingly into their family. But during the years of Fanny and Wilhelm's separation prior to their marriage, they only communicated with one another by letters, which were overseen by Fanny’s mother, Lea Mendelssohn. That may seem harsh, but it helped the entire Mendelssohn family to come to trust the young man who was going to be Fanny's husband.
It is not surprising that Fanny should have been drawn to a poem about a woman whose beloved is far away. Nähe des Geliebten is a work of juvenalia for Fanny, but it points towards the greatness which her future Lieder would attain, and the more you sing it, the more you come to love the melody.
During this time both Fanny and Felix were continuing to study composition under the Bach scholar and friend of the family, Carl Friedrich Zelter. The Mendelssohns had also become friends with Goethe, who was a frequent guest at their home. Fanny may be the only great Lieder composer who was actually good friends with the great poet. I cannot be certain of this, but it is within the realm of the possible that Fanny might have performed this Lied for Goethe, probably with her sister Rebecka as the vocalist.
Goethe had a peculiarity, which was that, for whatever reason, he always wanted his poems to be put to music in strophic form. He wanted the melody line to be exactly the same in each verse. Fanny preferred to compose modified strophic songs, in which the melody line is altered in each verse to fit the meaning of the text, or durchkomponeirt (“through-composed”) Lieder, in which there is one melody which continues from the beginning of the piece to the end. Out of respect for the poet, however, Fanny limited herself to a strict strophic form for Nähe des Geliebten. This posed a great challenge for her. She had to find a way to bring out the meaning of the words in each verse, while keeping the melody exactly the same for all four verses.
Nähe des Geliebten
Ich denke dein, wenn mir der Sonne Schimmer
Vom Meere strahlt;
Ich denke dein, wenn sich des Mondes Flimmer
Im Quellen malt.
Ich sehe dich, wenn auf dem fernen Wege
Der Staub sich hebt;
In tiefer Nacht, wenn auf dem schmalen Stege
Der Wandrer hebt.
Ich höre dich, wenn auf dem dumpfen Raushen
Die Welle steigt;
Im stillen Haine geh’ ich oft zu lauschen,
Wenn alles schweigt.
Ich bin bei dir, du seist auch noch so ferne,
Du bist mir nah!
Die Sonne sinkt, bald leuchten mir die Sterne.
O, wärst du da!
~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The ich of this poem is not Goethe himself. The speaker of the poem is a woman, longing for the presence of her beloved (des Geliebten is a male form). Nähe is a difficult word to translate. It means not only presence, which could be abstract, but also near-ness. The woman does not say, I think of him, but rather Ich denke dein (I think of you). She is addressing him, perhaps in a letter, or perhaps only in her own thoughts. Throughout the poem she tells him that she thinks of him in all the sights and sounds of Creation. She also tells him that she thinks of him when she sees dust on a pathway, or when she sees a wanderer on a narrow bridge at night. This suggests that he is on a journey, one that seems to be causing her to worry about him.
In the last verse, she tells him that she is with him. This suggests that he is also longing for her. It is as though she is consoling him, as well as telling him how much she longs for him. The structure of the German language allowed Goethe to put the modifying phrase, du seist auch noch so ferne (even though you are also so far away), between the two statements, Ich bin bei dir (I am with you) and du bist mir nah! (you are near to me). Their love is reciprocal.
Only in the last line are we given the time of the poem. The sun is setting, and the stars begin to twinkle, and the woman says, “If only you were there!” It is the end of the day, and she is finishing her letter, or her thoughts, to her husband perhaps, or perhaps to a man she is engaged to, we are not given an explanation of who her beloved is, or why he is separated from her.
Fanny composed a highly chromatic and yet very delicate melody for this Lied. The chords in the accompaniment are also chromatic yet delicate. The accompaniment is simple (for Fanny), like that of her much later Lied Kommen und Scheiden. Her melody gives the woman’s words a contemplative tone.
Fanny’s melody begins simply, Ich denke dein (I think of you), Ich sehe dich (I see you), Ich höre dich (I hear you), Ich bin bei dir (I am with you), and something about the simplicity of the first melodic phrase unites the four ideas of thinking of the beloved, seeing him, hearing him, and being near to him.
A long phrase of eighth and sixteenth notes follows, with, in the first verse, a melodic arch over Sonne and a little run of descending sixteenth notes over Schimmer, depicting the bright sunlight shimmering on the lake. A rest follows, as though the singer is thinking, but the piano accompaniment does not stop. The next phrase, in verse one on Ich denke dein, is simple, but very short. A long, chromatic phrase follows, with a wavering series of notes, F natural, E, C#, D, bB, over Mondes, and another wavering series, A, G#, A, F#, G natural, over Flimmer, depicting the flickering of the moonlight in the spring, and then there is a long, simpler phrase which takes the melody back up to the tonic D.
Fanny placed an intricate chromatic procession in the piano accompaniment under the end and beginning of each verse, thus making it so that, although there is a clear beginning and end of each verse in the vocal line, there is no beginning or end of each verse in the piano part.
In the second verse, in which the singer depicts her beloved as traveling, the melodic arch is above ferne, the little run of descending eighth notes is above Wege, and, very ingeniously, the wavering chromatic lines are tied to the image of the traveler shivering on a narrow bridge. Fanny’s melodic lines that so beautifully depicted the play of light on the water in the first verse, now hauntingly depict a traveler in the distance, and the entire song seems to meander, reminiscing to my ear of a Hebrew melody, as if the entire Lied is become a journey, or is mirroring the journey of the beloved.
Then Fanny’s accompaniment moves us to the third verse, in which the same melodic phrases depict equally well the sound of rushing waves and the stillness of the meadow, where the singer goes to think.
When Fanny takes us into the final verse, the simplicity of the first phrase gives a consoling tone to the words Ich bin bei dir, then the little run of eighth notes is on the word ferne, which seems shortened, rather than emphasized, as though the distance between the singer and her beloved is not quite so important, and the melodic phrase somehow instead emphasizes the end of the line, du bist mir nah! Then, with the setting sun, the meandering or journeying image is recalled, not with the text, but with the beautiful chromatic line, which also now depicts the twinkling stars appearing to the woman, as she sings O Wärst du da!
I do not know of any recording of this Lied, but the sheet music appears in Sixteen Songs by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, compiled by John Glenn Patton.