National Poetry Month: Poems About Music, Day 24 of 30

Heine and Lieder
German classical song (known as lieder) contains a lot of musical glories to poems that might be charitably termed duds. Schubert wrote hundreds of songs, and his other 19th century peers, Schumann, Wolf, Brahms, were no slouches either.

If you are lover of the repertory, as I am, you do have to get past the “rather soggy poetry” as musical comedienne Anna Russell put it, to appreciate the work. (Although there are lot of songs from any style and era that have less that stellar lyrics on their own.) A few fine poets do show up, and one is Heinrich Heine.

Like many poets, he mined myth, folklore and legends for themes, and here is his setting of the legend of the beautiful maiden who lures sailors to their doom. (A story at least as old as The Odyssey.)

Screen Shot 2013-04-23 at 9.27.13 AM
Albert Pinkham Ryder’s painting of the fatal spot on the Rhine.

The Lorelei

What is it that fills me with sadness
And weighs down my spirits like lead?
An old story that drives me to madness
For I can’t get it out of my head.

Through the gorge, a deep river is flowing;
The air cools, soon day will be done;
Westwards, the cliff-tops are glowing
In the rays of the setting sun.

And then, if you lift your eyes higher.
You can pick out a figure up there:
Her jewels are shining like fire,
And she’s combing her long golden hair.

Her combing is slow and erotic,
And so is the flow of her song:
The melody’s strangely hypnotic,
And her voice is compellingly strong.

The man at the helm gives a shiver
As fear strikes his heart like a stone.
He’s now blind to the rocks in the river;
She transfixes his eyes with her own.

That then is the story’s sad ending.
And the helmsman’s as well, I’d surmise;
And if anyone’s case needs defending
It is the Lorelei’s.

Wikipedia has info (of course) on the legend and the location where this particular siren enthralled her prey. Among the many who have set this text, I’m particularly fond of Liszt’s version, particularly as beautifully sung by Diana Damrau which dramatizes the story. (We seem to be on a run of Liszt these days here. Revenge on me for considering him a mere showman when I was a callow youth.)

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