About this work
Schumann first conceived the idea of writing a declamation, or melodrama, in 1845, according to an entry in his diary. He had been struck by the work of the poet Hebbel, and saw the melodrama as a new and largely unexplored artistic territory. (Schubert had written one, Abscheid von der Erde, in 1826, and there were still earlier precedents, both ballad-style and fashioned on Greek tragedy, and both to orchestral and piano accompaniment, but for all practical purposes, the spoken ballad to piano accompaniment could still be considered unexplored.)
During 1849, Schumann gave a good deal of his attention to vocal music of one kind and another: the cantata Advent Song, various choral works for mixed voices and for women's voices, the Spanisches Liederspiel for four voices, Three Hebrew Songs, the Requiem for Mignon, and Scenes from Goethe's Faust, to name just a few. In November, he wrote his Nightsong, based on Hebbel texts, and in December, he produced this, his first melodrama.
It begins with a march-like introduction, complete with fanfares, setting the martial and chivalric scene, and also providing a contrast for the wistful and elusive melodiousness of the music which introduces Hedwig. During her entrance and the questions which she answers, this music is diffident and yet still serene, but as she is made to confess her love, the music becomes steady and yet mournful, as if the listener is entering her mood rather than observing it, and feeling her almost funereal resolution to leave. However, the chords become much more solid and jubilant, changing into a wedding march as the story ends.
While this, and his subsequent Ballads, Opus 122, are largely forgotten, and Manfred, his Opus 115, written in 1848 and 1849, is his only melodrama-style work to survive into the standard repertoire, these still cast an interesting light on his sense of musical drama, though it is overall manifested more successfully in his other works.