The Wesendonk Lieder are a cycle of songs composed by Wagner in the course of the year 1857 to five poems written by Mathilde Wesendonk. The work is entitled Five Poems for the Female Voice and Piano (Fünf Gedichte für Frauenstimme und Klavier) although they are now usually performed with an orchestra. “I have done nothing better than these songs,” Wagner is reputed to have said. The composition was Wagner's Christmas present to Mathilde in December 1857. Der Engel (The Angel) is the first song in the series.
Mathilde Wesendonk in the 1850's
Wagner in the 1850's
[I dedicate this post to my late brother Alexander, who may very well be for me the Angel in the poem, and whom I always recall when I listen to this song.]
In the first song, Der Engel, Wagner uses themes from Das Rheingold. There is a suggestion of the womb-like atmosphere of the bottom of the Rhine in the first two introductory bars. The poem expresses a childlike anticipation of salvation from Heaven, in the form of an Angel who comes to Earth to soothe the anxiety of longing and to release the troubled soul from its suffering. The psychological origin of the longing is not identified, but the poem concludes by affirmatively stating that an angel has come down to the protagonist and carried her soul heavenwards.
To speculate that the Angel is Wagner is of course fruitless, but it is fair to speculate that he thought so when he set the music to this poem. The reference to childhood’s early days sets the tone for a return to a womb-like feeling which will release the tortured soul from all earthly commitments. It is the theme of Night and Death in Tristan. Although Wagner uses themes from Rheingold in his score to the poem, the philosophical underpinnings of his composition are a rehearsal for Tristan.
The mood of the music is consistent with the signification of the poems’ words. It slowly and softly builds up to the release at the end. The reference to the Angel, in both the first and the third stanza, is a climactic and sustained long note. A mild retraction next illustrates the anticipation that is heard in the music, which describes the lament of the anxious heart, and the ardent prayer for release, the troubled music illustrating the words ‘when an anxious heart in dread’ (wo bang ein Herz in Sorgen). The mood changes dramatically in the third line of the third stanza, (Da der Engel nieder schwebt) when the Angel comes down from Heaven, where again we hear the climactic long note, signifying the coming of the Angel, and thereafter a crescendo and culmination for the reference to the distancing of pain, and a modest ascent heavenwards, not as dramatic as the entrance of the gods in Walhalla, at the conclusion.
Ann Evans sings, at the 1994 Proms, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Tadaaki Otaka.
In der Kindheit frühen Tagen
Hört’ ich oft von Engeln sagen,
Die des Himmels hehre Wonne
Tauschten mit der Erden Sonne.
Dass, wo bang ein Herz in Sorgen
Schmachtet vor der Welt verborgen,
Dass, wo stilles will verbluten,
Und vergeh’n in Tränen fluten,
Dass, wo brünstig sein Gebet
Einzig um Erlösung fleht,
Da der Engel nieder schwebt,
Und es sanft’gen Himmel hebt.
Ja, es stieg auch mir ein Engel nieder,
Und auch leuchten dem Gefieder,
Führt er ferne je dem Schmerz,
Meinem Geist nun Himmelwärts!
(trans. Emily Ezust)
In childhood's early days,
I often heard them speak of angels,
Who would exchange Heaven's sublime bliss
For the Earth's sun.
So that, when an anxious heart in dread
Is full of longing, hidden from the world;
So that, when it wishes silently to bleed
And melt away in a trickle of tears,
So that, when its prayer ardently
Pleads only for release,
Then the angel floats down
And gently lifts it to Heaven.
Yes, an angel has come down to me,
And on glittering wings
It leads, far away from every pain,
My soul now heavenwards!