About this work
During the late 1840s and early 1850s, when he served as a chorus director in Dusseldorf, Schumann also devoted much of his time to oratorio, including his Requiem for Mignon, Nachtlied, Vom Pagen und der Konigstochter, and The Pilgrimage of the Rose.
Like many Romantics, Schumann was attracted to stories about bards and harpers (the harper is focal in his Songs from Wilhelm Meister), as they were not only drawn from the medieval tales that were so popular, but also could be used as symbols of the artist in society. In this story, one musician is killed by the king, in an act of enmity to youth, freedom, and love as well as art, but is avenged by the curse of another, and the king's name is obliterated from human memory, in an Ozymandias-like reminder of the ephemerality of power. The dramatic story, for which Pohl, the librettist, added material from other poems to Uhland's original, also provides scope for a wide variety of writing for voice, orchestra, and chorus, and the result is one of Schumann's most effective musical dramas, combining his mastery of choral, solo vocal, and orchestral music.
The work opens with a tense orchestral introduction, followed by a solo for the alto narrator, which further sets the atmosphere and hints at the coming tragedy and destruction of beauty; even while the singer describes the beauty of the castle in melodious lines, the orchestra broods underneath with the same uneasy tone. The sense of impending tragedy is furthered by the duet for the harper and youth, in which the music of the youth's agitation comes to dominate the harper's sturdier lines. After the brief scene in which the queen and king are introduced, the mood is temporarily lifted by the graceful, lilting Provencal song, which is given a folk-like simplicity. Tension returns with the dark mood of the second song, with its declamatory description of the murder, punctuated by brief outbursts from the brass. The calls for a song of freedom and the subsequent song have a sturdy, clarion tone reminiscent of Schumann's Opus 62 of patriotic songs for men's chorus, as well as the choruses from Wagner's Lohengrin, premiered two years earlier. (If there is a debt to Wagner in this, the borrowing was mutual, as the "Fanget an" scene in Wagner's Meistersinger shows a potential influence from the king's "beginnt nun" and "fangt an" commands.) The mournful scene in which the harper takes the youth's body away is tenderly poignant, and his subsequent bitter curse is all the more strikingly powerful by the contrast. The hushed concluding chorus is a vivid depiction of the desolation left in the castle and the oblivion that punished the king.
Schumann and Pohl intermittently attempted to create an oratorio on the life of Martin Luther, whom Schumann greatly admired as a lover of music and as a "man of the people." However, he and Pohl had greatly differing ideas about the ideal scope for such a work (Pohl dreamt of a trilogy, Schumann wanted something much briefer) and Schumann's habit of agreeing to every idea and then later rejecting them, as well as his declining mental and physical health, left the project unfinished.