In the lovely Month of May – Three times seven Songs after Schumann and Schubert
In 1984 the Schönberg Ensemble under Reinbert de Leeuw first performed Arnold Schönberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" with the actress Barbara Sukowa, and it created a sensation. Out of the long-term collaboration between conductor and soloist came a mutual desire to mount a similar production around one of their special loves – German Romantic song, in particular that of Franz Schubert and Robert Schumann.
Composed in 1912 for an actress, "Pierrot Lunaire" has a close affinity with the music-theatre genre that was prevalent in Germany at the time: expressive and highly charged, as much acting as singing, and certainly not for the highly trained vocal chords demanded by concert hall Lieder. Schönberg's piece of 'three times seven poems by Albert Giraud' is, in that respect, more at home on the stage than on the concert platform.
Now De Leeuw has created a similarly structured pendant to this cycle, entitled »Im wunderschönen Monat Mai« or 'three times seven songs after Schumann and Schubert'. It is his own arrangement of well-known songs for voice and piano, which he has made into a music-theatre piece for ensemble and female voice that veers between parlando-like singing to Schönberg's 'Sprechgesang': a drastic reworking that transforms the lyrical into the dramatic, and embraces choice and performing order (in collaboration with the singer), instrumentation, cuts, links and other transformative interventions, but above all brings with it the structure and dramatization of a romantic story in words and music. The binding narrative thrust is provided by Schumann's "Dichterliebe" (1840), itself a choice or 'suite' of poems by Heinrich Heine and the archetypal romantic song-cycle, which begins with a May song of tender love, speaks of hope and desire, of torment and doubt, and ends with the image of a limitlessly vast coffin in which the 'alten, bösen Lieder' (bad old songs) along with all the poet's love and pain, are committed to the bottomless grave of the sea. A journey through life and love, encompassing every possible emotion. "Dichterliebe hat eignes Unglück stets betroffen" ('A poet's love is only a reflection of his own unhappiness'), wrote the poet Friedrich Rückert, and Schumann seized upon it for the title of his cycle.
The Romantics have a penchant for grand emotions. They talk of 'restless love', 'burning hot' bosom, of 'dying' in an embrace, the working of 'fate', a 'holy sentiment'. In disappointment the heart is immediately 'deeply wounded' or 'torn apart', the rejected one, 'wretched and sick' and 'pitiful', bursts out in 'floods of tears'. With such violent emotions, too great for mere mortals, death is never far from the surface – sometimes as a metaphor, often as a deliverance from abandonment: 'Im Dunkeln wird mir wohler sein' ('In darkness I will find solace'). At every turn the Romantics lean towards 'Nachtseite' (the dark side), the morbid, the disturbing, the fantastical, as personified by the ashen 'Doppelgänger' – towards the 'Unheimliche', as Freud called his study of the period.
In the song texts, the emotions are kept in check through the use of verse form, metre and rhythm, but also by social constraints that often force the poet to be implicit and innocent. Goethe's 'Heidenröslein' appears to depict an idyllic landscape with a boy and a rose, until one questions the meaning of all that 'breaking' and 'stabbing'. And the music is often more understated than the passions evoked: something that is marked 'wild and passionate' can sound extremely civilized, serene even: the charge is greater than the discharge.
For twentieth-century ears, more accustomed to harsher words and harsher sounds, De Leeuw has given the songs of Schumann and Schubert a sharper focus, made them more succinct, direct, earthy, pushing both composers beyond their boundaries, as it were. Gentle passages and repetitions are sometimes omitted, the bizarre, extreme and obsessive are emphasized, stillness is even stiller, fff (in chamber music!) is an overwhelming fortissimo. Where the 'I' of the text so passionately wants to 'küssen' (kiss), so fervently wants to go 'dahin' (there), those words stick in the singer's throat; at other times the melody has a swing to it that is at once modern and appropriate. In the Romantic spirit snatches of other works make brief appearances like echoes or 'Nebelbilder' (chimera), images in poetry, dreams or (musical) reminiscences. As in a dream, figures both enigmatic and utterly normal weave in and out, the Erlkönig, or a fragment from Schubert's String Quintet, intangible, but powerfully present. Romantic irony – usually self-deprecatory – is gratefully seized upon. In a nutshell, the expressive imagination is sent spinning in all directions.
This is not an adaptation imposed on the material from the outside, but rather a recomposition from within, from the work's core, in every sense inspired and led by the music itself, its potential and temperament. The genius of those 'musical poets' Schumann and Schubert, turned in on itself, boldly set free of period artistic rules and the veneer of social acceptability, can emerge fresh and unconventionally new-minted: the heightened artistic sensibility which -whether in the white heat of passion or in the depths of despair- is always a fount of beauty, of 'Holde Kunst'.
– Jacques Kruithof (Translated by Nicoline Gatehouse)