Comparison of Schumann's "Mondnacht" with Brahms's setting of the same poem

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2011 16 Pages



Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Robert Schumann
2.1 Schumann in the context of das Lied

3. Johannes Brahms
3.1 Brahms in the the context of das Lied

4. Mondnacht by Eichendorff

5. Schumann's setting of Mondnacht

6. Brahm's setting of Mondnacht compared to Schumann's

7. Conclusion

1. Introduction

To precede my comparison of Schumann's "Mondnacht" and Brahms's setting of the same poem I would like to begin with a brief introduction of the two composers. Their personal histories will be taken into account in order to show if any conclusions can be drawn on how their approaches to the compositions may have been influenced. I will also concentrate particularly on both composers’ roles in the context of the Lied of the 19th century. Within this context I will provide a short introduction to the poem Mondnacht and address its various different settings. In this approach will be considered both musical, as well as textual content. By the end of the paper I hope to provide a clearer understanding of how each of them composed their work and illuminate several differences and similarities. In order to not translate each quote taken from German sources and due to my German background I will be using the original quotes.

2. Robert Schumann

Born in Zwickau on the 8th of June 1810, Schumann enjoyed his upbringing in a rather well-off family. As much as he was trained and exposed to the piano from an early age on, he also came into contact with major literature such as Jean Paul's, whose works he tried to emulate. After graduating from high school Schumann first started studying law but was inspired by a performance by Niccolo Paganini in Frankfurt to pursue a career as a piano virtuoso. He heard about the great piano pedagogue Friedrich Wieck and decided to cancel his studies of law in Heidelberg to join Wieck's studio and even move into his house in Leipzig. However, he soon withdrew his career goal due to frustrations with his ring finger and mechanically overworking it. Just as Weber, Berlioz, Liszt, Wolf or Wagner were involved in some sort of writing, Schumann too, started to focus on a career as a musical journalist which would turn out to built him a much stronger reputation than he had ever had as a pianist.

Being sensible to the fact that music had become a more public affair he founded the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik with which he wanted to develop a new musical aesthetic centering around the vague ideal of the poetic/romantic of the time. The significance of Schumann's new journal was that it was independent of a publisher and only based on his artistic principles, which gave him artistic and idealist freedom as a writer.

In 1835 Schumann fell in love with Clara Wieck. Although her father was strictly opposed to any sort of romantic entanglement for his talented daughter Schumann persevered for five years until the couple finally won a law suit against her father and was able to get married in 1840. This was also Schumann's important Liederjahr in which he started to compose his Liederkreis nach Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff op.39. Schumanns most prolific years of composition began in 1840 and peaked in 1849. His works included symphonic music, chamber music, and oratorio. After reoccuring health problems and an attempted suicide from a bridge over the Rhein in Düsseldorf in 1854, Schumann was committed to a mental institution. He died shortly thereafter, in 1856.

2.1 Schumann in the context of das Lied

Although the gernre of 'Lieder' first originated simply as folk songs, the demands of new poetry at the turn of the 19th century demanded sophisticated style of musical accompaniment. Prior to Schumann, Schubert already begun to establish "a new aesthetic of the lied."[1] The major socio-political changes helped him to share his compositions with a stronger and broader middle class. He offered them songs in the form of "simple strophic lieder im Volkston"[2] that they could relate to but at the same time he used a progressive tonality that adapted fast enough to the changing needs and demands of the poetry and thus raised the bar of a new art form. "It was his project to elevate song to the rank of a major genre, and he did so with respect to every known category of song: folklike strophic song, extended through-composed songs (Gesänge), ballads, and the song cycle.[3] Starting in Schubert's time, composers "refined the musical means to express personal, subjective emotions and were fortunate enough to encounter the blossoming of a type of lyrics whose purpose it was to communicate subtlest shadings and nuances of feelings. In short, they found a type of poetry which suited their musical ambitions."[4]

Composers at the time were very careful with their choice of poems and "neben der sorgfältigen Gedichtauswahl mit der Tendenz zu anspruchsvoller Lyrik und der möglichst aus dem (emotionalen) Gehalt der Textvorlage abgeleiteten Liedmelodik [gehörte] v.a. eine kunstvoll ausgearbeitete Begleitung." The piano parts became more important and even helped to convey the different meanings of the text with the help of "Vor-, Zwischen- und Nachspiele..."[5] as well as very harmonically expressive passages in order to elevate the Lied as mentioned before. "But Schumann was the first to ask the pianist to supply definitely solo interpretation."[6]

The new literary movement and its aesthetics rediscovered and redefined the unity between "Wort, Gesang und Instrumentalmusik unter dem besonderen Vorzeichen einer neu definierten Sprachlichkeit der Musik"[7], which in return demanded a new approach by the composer. Schumann himself mentioned that this process was not possible prior to the new literary changes, because only these changes were able to influence the music making. He explains this, saying "Für das Lied hatte schon Franz Schubert vorgearbeitet, aber mehr in Beethovenscher Weise, dagegen in den Leistungen der Norddeutschen die Wirkung Bachschen Geistes sich kundgab. Die Entwickelung zu beschleunigen, entfaltete sich auch eine neue deutsche Dichterschule: Rückert und Eichendorff, obwohl schon früher blühend, wurden den Musikern vertrauter, am meisten Uhland und Heine komponiert. So entstand jene kunstvollere und tiefsinnigere Art des Liedes, von der natürlich die Früheren nichts wissen konnten, denn es war nur der neue Dichtergeist, der sich in der Musik widerspiegelte. (...) Und in Wirklichkeit ist vielleicht das Lied die einzige Gattung, in der seit Beethoven ein wirklich bedeutender Fortschritt geschehen."[8]

With the help of his unique backgound in music and literature Schumann puts das Lied on yet another level. "He was indeed the first to approach song-writing form the definitely literary side."[9] He had the "Fähigkeit, klavieristische Virtuosität mit einer unerhörten Sensibilität für das Wort zu verbinden [...] Seine Herangehensweise läßt das Lied teilhaben am "neuen Paradigma der absoluten Kunstmusik, in bezug auf beides: Deren Kunstcharakter sowie deren Bestimmung für die Öffentlichkeit des professionellen Konzertsaales. Diese Ortsbestimmung plaziert Schumanns Lieder in den Entfaltungsprozeß der europäischen Moderne.""[10] The mutual effect and the deep understanding of music and literature from this same perspective is what influenced many composers after Schumann (e.g. Wolf).

Schumann had written almost exclusively for piano prior to his Liederjahr in 1840. "It has always been recognized that Schumann was a piano composer turned to songwriting. A review of his songs in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, for example, noted that "Schumann's songs are...a continuation of his character pieces for piano... (...) if with Schubert the piano became equal to the voice, if still separate, with Schumann the voice and piano have become more integrated. The piano now sings as well... ."[11] The “abrupt” change was indeed not so abrupt after all as it also had to do with different external factors. One of them was his "constant source of inspiration"[12], Clara Schumann. Although this might be a vague source "one might still view Clara as a catalyst; she had been encouraging Robert to compose songs, for example, and he enjoyed hearing her sing."[13] Another factor was Schumann's financial situation. He "was deeply concerned that the public, and professional pianists (sometimes even Clara), did not appreciate his piano music, and that he needed to compose something to bring in more income and to satisfy Wieck. [14]

3. Johannes Brahms

Johannes Brahms was born in the ‘Hansestadt’ Hamburg in 1833. Like Schumann, Brahms enjoyed an early exposure to music. He first began earning money as a musician performing in bars as a pianist and soon after was able to put together his own little concerts.

In 1853 Brahms met Schumann in Düsseldorf. After meeting him, Schumann was inspired to write about his remarkable talent in his essay Neue Bahnen that was published in the NZfM. Although Brahms was intimidated by the sudden publicity and the pressure that would accompany it this article would be the first put his name on the map in the musical scene. He engaged on concert tour with Clara Schumann and even moved into the Schumanns’ residence after Robert's health problems and attempted suicide. Brahms would have loved to have a more intimate relationship with Clara, but as long as Robert Schumann was still alive he was compelled to respect the traditional boundaries. After Schumann died, Clara however, distanced herself from Brahms and their relationship remained platonic.

One year after Schumann’s death Brahms decided to move to Detmold. He composed several chamber music works and pieces for piano but after several disappointing performances and problems publishing his works, Brahms moved on to Hamburg. Despite his hopes that he might flourish at this new location he faced similarly disappointing results.

Vienna seemed to be a promising city at the time, so Brahms decided to move south in 1862. However, he was traveling more than before and it took him another seven years to finally get settled in 1869. In Vienna Brahms finally established himself quickly as a pianist and composer. He enlarged his circle of friends and began promoting and conducting his works on concert tours in Austria, Germany and eventually the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Poland or Hungary.

After working for only a short period of time for the Singakademie and the Musikgesellschaft in Vienna, Brahms decided to work solely as a freelance musician. Despite his comfortable financial situation by this time Brahms continued to lead a modest existance. One year after Clara Schumann death he grew very sick and died in Vienna in 1897.

3.1 Brahms in the context of das Lied

Although Brahms became famous renowned mainly for his large scale works such as Ein Deutsches Requiem and his four Symphonies he also made an important contribution to the developing genre of the 19th century Lied through numerous and largely well-received compositions. In his opinion, the composition of a smaller scale work was no less demanding than their large- scale counterparts. "Für ihn erhob das Lied trotz seiner Zugehörigkeit zu einer 'Kleinform' keinen geringeren kompositorischen Anspruch als die Gattungen der Instrumentalmusik (...)."

In contrast to Schumann's approach of composing many pieces simultaneously in only a short period of time, (as seen in his Liederfrühling), Brahms needed more time and described his process as following, "Wenn ich so den Anfang eines Liedes er- oder gefunden habe..., dann klappe ich meinetwegen das Buch zu, gehe spazieren oder nehme irgend etwas anderes vor und denke mitunter ein halbes Jahr dich daran. Es geht aber nichts verloren. Komme ich vielleicht nach langer Zeit wieder darauf, dann hat es unversehens schon Gestalt angenommen, ich kann nun anfangen, daran zu arbeiten."[15]

Including 20 duets and 60 quartets he composed 284 art, folk and children's songs in a period of 45 years, "(...) das früheste erhaltene Lied, Heimkehr op. 7 Nr. 6, stammt vom Mai 1851, die letzten Beiträge, die Vier ernsten Gesänge op. 121, vom Mai 1896 (...)"[16], which means that he invested more time into Lied compositions than any of his contemporaries. Most of them were published in a collection of opus numbers. Probably many more existed, however, he "destroyed his music when he believed it failed to meet his high standards"[17]


[1] Hallmark, German Lieder in the Nineteenth Century, p. 31

[2] Hallmark, p. 36

[3] Hallmark, p. 35

[4] Thym Jürgen. Solo Song Settings, p. 13

[5] Sandberger. Brahms Handbuch, p. 214

[6] Music and Letters. The songs of Schumann and Brahms, Some contacts and contrasts, p. 11

[7] Tadday. Schumann Handbuch, p. 400

[8] Tadday, p. 400

[9] Music and Letters, p.10

[10] Tadday, p. 401

[11] Hallmark, p. 87

[12] Hallmark, p. 78

[13] Hallmark, p. 78

[14] Hallmark, p. 78

[15] Jost. Brahms als Liedkomponist, p. 12

[16] Sandberger. Brahms Handbuch, p. 208

[17] Gorrell. The Nineteenth Century German Lied, p. 257


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University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music
Mondnacht Schumann Brahms das Lied




Title: Comparison of Schumann's "Mondnacht" with Brahms's setting of the same poem