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Thursday, November 11, 2010

WAGNER, Wesendonk Lieder No. 4: Schmerzen

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 the orchestra. “I have done nothing better than these songs,” Wagner is reputed to have said. The composition was Wagner's Christmas gift to Mathilde in December 1857. Schmerzen (Anguish) is the fourth song in the cycle.

Mädchen. 1904

In the fourth song, Schmerzern – Anguish or Pain - the music is reminiscent of that of Act II of Tristan. Once again the Schopenhaurian theme of release from the will, and of all purposive life, is present in Mathilde’s words. From Death and Night, through Love, arises Life and Daylight. The sun drowns in its tears every evening in the ocean, or presumably over Lake Zürich, only to resurrect the following day in glorious splendor. It is the music of the great love duet of Act II of Tristan, when the lovers triumphantly sing of love fulfilled, in the night-time, while King Marke is out hunting in the forest. Here, Mathilde’s poem is addressed to the sun, and the protagonist, in the two last stanzas, and in a somewhat more subdued mood, asks the sun why she should lament about its setting when death gives rise only to life. The protagonist is thankful for the feeling of anguish and pain that she feels upon this realization of the eternal recurrence of the same.

The music initially reflects the down-going of the sun, a passage that is reiterated by the protagonist’s lament over the teary-eyed sun drowning in the first stanza. From these depths arises then a triumphant crescendo indicating the expectation of the sun’s rise into life the following morning. There is an emphatic long high note that accompanies the celebration for the glory of the sun, ‘Glory of the gloomy world’ (Glorie der düstren Welt). Then the line ‘like a proud, victorious hero’ (Wie ein stolzer Sieges held!) in reference to the sun triumphant in the morning, is sung to the accompaniment of the triumphant Siegfried’s call, a rehearsal of the music for the opera Siegfried.

The subsequent two stanzas are a repetition of the music of the first two stanzas, but the music follows the words in a more subdued mood, which now reflect an acceptance of destiny and an embracing of the pain of death, - of the self-abandonment and surrender for the sake of Love and Life, which is reflected in the fact that the high note for the glory of the sun in the first stanza, is repeated to the words ‘O, how thankful I am’ (O, wie dank ich) for the pain.

There is a long conclusion, a coda which emphasizes the surrender of the soul in the ocean of love, but concluding with an ascending salvo at the very end, which is once again the triumphant music of the victorious Siegfried’s call: the triumph of Life in Death.

Ann Evans sings, at the 1994 Proms, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Tadaaki Otaka.


Sonne, weinest jeden Abend,
Dir die schönen Augen rot,
Wenn in Meeresspiegel badend
Dich erreicht der frühe Tod;

Doch er stehst in alter Pracht,
Glorie der düstren Welt,
Du am Morgen neu erwacht,
Wie ein stolzer Sieges held!

Ach, wie sollte ich da klagen,
Wie, mein Herz, so schwer dich sehen,
Muss die Sonne selbst verzagen?
Muss die Sonne untergehen?

Und gebieret Tod nur Leben,
Geben Schmerzen Wonnen nur:
O, wie dank ich, dass gegeben
Solche Schmerzen mir Natur!

(trans. Emily Ezust)

Sun, each evening you weep
Your pretty eyes red,
When, bathing in the mirror of the sea
You are seized by early death.

Yet you rise in all your splendor,
Glory of the gloomy world,
Newly awakening in the morning
Like a proud, victorious hero!

Ah, why should I then lament,
Why, my heart, are you so heavy,
If the sun itself must despair,
If the sun must set?

And if Death gives rise only to Life,
And pain gives way only to bliss,
O how thankful I am, that
Nature gives me such anguish!

Beardsley, The Wagnerites

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