About this work
Robert Schumann once decreed that a composer of song must "re-create in a subtle musical realization the most delicate affects of the poem." And while his own songs sometimes forgo vivid detail in order to engage with larger philosophical issues that a given poem might contain, Schumann often displays a sense for poetic nuance that draws upon Schubert's example and sometimes even recalls the pictorial subtleties of the sixteenth-century madrigalists. In many of his settings of Heinrich Heine from 1840 (the busy year that produced Dichterliebe, Liederkreis, and nearly a hundred other songs) Schumann grapples with Heine's irony, sometimes tempering it and sometimes exaggerating it, but generally aiming to capture a poetic atmosphere rather than to follow the minutiae of the text. In Belsazar, however, Schumann is found with musical paintbrush in hand, rendering the poem with a careful ear for word-by-word inflections and shadings.
The piece, composed in a single day, so pleased its composer that he submitted it to his publisher as an independent opus (numbered 57). The song sets Heine's retelling of the story of Belshazzar's feast, beginning near midnight in the quiet streets of Babylon, then moving to the rowdy chambers where the king is found making merry with his court. The dancing of the lords and clashes of the goblets find musical representation in Schumann's busy, boisterous figuration. Finally, the king utters outright blasphemies against Jehovah, creating an uncomfortable stillness in the room. It becomes apparent that Schumann's setting has been rendering the sonic environment of the room, for as the hush falls over the court, the music becomes unnervingly sparse. As the divine hand appears and scrawls cryptic and holy pronouncements against the king, the bass line moves through a creepy chromatic descent. Finally Schumann's silences become his most effective pictorial device, foretelling Belshazzar's imminent death.