This week Manuel Aguila, author of the blog An die Musik (A la música), is guest blogging on mine. If you follow his blog or his Twitter account (@roagma1) you already know that if he was to be musically defined with just one word, that would be "Wagnerite" (although he's an omnivorous music lover); today he's talking about a Richard Wagner's Lieder, corresponding to his "French period"; the performers are Thomas Hampson and Geoffrey Parsons. Once you've read and listened to the post, you might want to go over the song that Robert Schumann composed upon the same poem, here you are. Thank you, Manuel!
Marshal Ney Supporting the Rear Guard During the Retreat from Moscow - A. Yvon
Wagner was a Lieder composer in his youth, he wrote, for instance, the Seven Pieces for Goethe's Faust
or Der Tannenbaum
. A few years later, during his first stay in Paris (1839-1842), Wagner composed a handful of songs in French, among which one excels, perhaps the best Wagner's Lieder, apart from, of course, the Wesendonck-Lieder
By those years, Wagner met one of the greatest glories ever of German literature, the poet Heinrich Heine. Heine's influence was crucial on the first really Wagnerian operas, The Flying Dutchman
. Heine is also the author of the text that Wagner was going to musicalize, we are referring to Die Grenadiere (The grenadiers), that is included in the wonderful compilation of poems entitled Buch der Lieder
(Book of Songs) which, as Art Song lovers know, became really important to Robert Schumann.
Wagner did not compose his song upon Heine's German original, but upon a French translation by François-Adolphe Loeve. Heine and Wagner tell us the story of two grenadiers of Napoleon's troops that go back home after years of being prisoners in Russia. When they arrive in Germany they learn the news, Napoleon has been defeated. Each one of their different reactions offer a very dramatic poem, very well developed by Wagner.
Les deux grenadiers
Longtemps captifs chez le Russe lointain,
Deux grenadiers retournaient vers la France;
Déjà leurs pieds touchent le sol germain;
Mais on leur dit: Pour vous plus d'espérance;
L'Europe a triomphé, vos braves ont vécu!
C'en est fait de la France, et de la grande armée!
Et rendant son épée,
l'Empereur est captif et vaincu!
Ils ont frémi; chacun d'eux sent tomber
des pleurs brülants sur sa mâle figure.
"Je suis bien mal" ... dit l'un, "je vois couler
des flots de sang de ma vieille blessure!"
"Tout est fini," dit l'autre, "ô, je voudrais mourir!
Mais au pays mes fils m'attendent, et leur mère,
qui mourrait de misère!
J'entends leur voix plaintive; il faut vivre et souffrir!"
"Femmes, enfants, que m'importe!
Mon coeur par un seul voeu tient encore à la terre.
Ils mendieront s'ils ont faim,
l'Empereur, il est captif, mon Empereur! ...
Ô frère, écoute-moi, ... je meurs! Aux rives que j'aimais,
rends du moins mon cadavre, et du fer de ta lance,
au soldat de la France
creuse un funèbre lit sous le soleil français!
Fixe à mon sein glacé par le trépas
la croix d'honneur que mon sang a gagnée;
dans le cerceuil couche-moi l'arme au bras,
mets sous ma main la garde d'une épée;
de là je prêterai l'oreille au moindre bruit,
jusqu'au jour, où, tonnant sur la terre ébranlée,
l'écho de la mêlée
m'appellera du fond de l'éternelle nuit!
Peut-être bien qu'en ce choc meurtrier,
sous la mitraille et les feux de la bombe,
mon Empereur poussera son coursier
vers le gazon qui couvrira ma tombe.
Alors je sortirai du cerceuil, tout armé;
et sous les plis sacrés du drapeau tricolore,
j'irai défendre encore
la France et l'Empereur, l'Empereur bien aimé."
Two grenadiers were returning to France,
From Russian captivity they came.
And as they crossed into German lands
They hung their heads in shame.
Both heard there the tale that they dreaded most,
That France had been conquered in war;
Defeated and shattered, that once proud host, --
And the Emperor, a free man no more.
The grenadiers both started to weep
At hearing so sad a review.
The first said, "My pain is too deep;
My old wound is burning anew!"
The other said, "The song is done;
Like you, I'd not stay alive;
But at home I have wife and son,
Who without me would not survive."
What matters son? What matters wife?
By nobler needs I set store;
Let them go beg to sustain their life!
My Emperor, a free man no more!
Promise me, brother, one request:
If at this time I should die,
Take my corpse to France for its final rest;
In France's dear earth let me lie.
The Cross of Valor, on its red band,
Over my heart you shall lay;
My musket place into my hand;
And my sword at my side display.
So shall I lie and hark in the ground,
A guardwatch, silently staying
Till once more I hear the cannon's pound
And the hoofbeats of horses neighing.
Then my Emperor'll be passing right over my grave;
Each clashing sword, a flashing reflector.
And I, fully armed, will rise up from that grave,
The Emperor's, the Emperor's protector!"
(translation from German by Walter Meyer)
Wagner begins his composition with a heavy tune; the grenadiers have been walking for a long time. They hear the news soon; Napoleon has been defeated and has been taken prisoner. The piano accompaniment is dramatic; it shows the chills that the grenadiers feel when they learn the news. For some measures, the voice keeps quiet and the piano tremolos describes their feelings, with a transition to a peaceful andante when they talk. Suddenly the music changes, the outcry "Femmes, enfants, que m'importe!" ("What matters son? What matters wife?") expresses that awkward moment, and it softens when the grenadier feels the proximity of death and asks his friend to take his body to France. The music changes again, with a march rhythm that begins when he asks his friend to put the Honour Cross on his chest. The warlike character of the end of the song starts. Gradually it intensifies, until the call from the eternal night arrives. Here Wagner turns to La Marseillaise, under its melody the grenadier will leave his grave to defend Napoleon.
The Lied’s skill is that Wagner takes it to his own ground, theatre, and achieves a direct work that catches the listener's interest since the beginning. He didn't catch, though, the Parisians' interest. They still felt recent the 1830 Revolution with those final bars of La Marseillaise.
Some months later, in 1840, Robert Schumann set to music the original German Heine's poem and also decided to finish with La Marseillaise. When Wagner knew it, he wrote to him these ironic lines: "I’ve heard that you composed Heine's Grenadiers, and used the Marseillaise at the end. Last winter I wrote it too and I also ended with La Marseillaise! This must mean something! I wrote my grenadiers from a French translation that I read to Heine to which he was satisfied. It has been sung here and there and I was awarded the Legion of Honour; besides, I was granted an annual pension of twenty thousand francs in charge of Louis Philippe’s private safe." We all know that Wagner left Paris without any money nor any artistic success. Wagner forgot the world of Lied, the opera took its place.