It is a strange thing to see how history can collect around a few names, and then to see how one’s sense of time, space, and sequence can be distorted by these accidental or convenient constellations of names and rhymes. For example, seeing Liebst du um Schönheit on a concert program brings with it an assumption that one will be hearing from the Rückert-Lieder of Gustav Mahler. And along with that, one may draw a shaky assumption that ‘Rückert’ must have been somehow part of the early-Modern Viennese Jugendstil — some droopy author or character pursuing self-immolation before art. But then the song turns out to be from Clara Schumann, Rückert turns out to have been a poem-writing philologist, and one just has to start over.
Friedrich Rückert’s Liebesfrühling was published in 1821, when Clara Schumann was two years old. Her settings of his work were published as part of Robert Schumann’s Zwölf Gedichte aus Liebesfrühling in 1841 (one has to look twice to see who wrote the songs Liebst du um Schönheit and Er ist gekommen). Clara’s compositional style is close enough to Robert’s (and his to hers), that one can half-hear what they might have discussed along the way. To look closer into the history and sources of either Schumann’s songs is to see that there is a rich network of associations between texts, authors, composers, performers, husbands, and wives lying behind the musical pursuits. A surprising amount of Romantic art history does indeed touch directly upon the works and lives of Clara and Robert Schumann, but there was also a lot of chance, context, and real life.
Rückert was older than the Schumanns, but not by so much. He was by all accounts an extraordinary linguist, who spoke and read dozens of languages, specializing in those of Asia. His Liebesfrühling would have had a natural place on the Schumann shelf, as would his Die Weisheit des Brahmanen, or perhaps even his translation of the Quran. And for Clara and Robert Schumann, his poem Er ist gekommen, with its intimations of impassioned meeting and confused identities, must have read like a description (or vindication) of their own entangled emotional and musical biography. Liebst du um Schönheit must surely have also entranced the aesthetically entwined Schumann couple, on similar thematic grounds.
Emanuel von Geibel, author of Liebeszauber, was also a philologist, but with an interest in Classical languages. He would become one of the leading lyric poets in Germany, but still must have been something of a find for the literary-minded Schumanns in the 1840s. He brings a rather different voice and perspective for Clara Schumann. Suddenly she is not so intertwined, so overcome with love — she is a seeker, an imitator, a maker of echoes. Sadder, perhaps; but not so bound.
Perhaps the most curious element of all this philological meandering is how the idea of what’s ‘classical’ seems to lurk behind it, on the German bookcases. To find ur-sources in the East, or in Greece, or in the distant past is a strange dream. Everyone’s Rückert-Lieder hark back not only to Rückert, but to his harkening back. We hope it will work, we hope it will mean something, all this Classicism. But perhaps it is not history after all, perhaps only echoes and reflections as well… and echoes and reflections are, at the least, something left to sing about, when the hurly-burly’s done.