Today, the wunderschönen Monat Mai begins; It's a good day to listen to Dichterliebe, at least from those first notes that are a balm for the soul until the seventh song, which is ours today. To talk in order about the songs in this cycle allows us to follow what happens to the poet. He talked to us about a love that begins in May, about tears that are offerings, about his beloved, more beautiful than the sun, about a kiss that cures all ills or about the memories of that kiss. He sent us some contradictory messages (he cries bitterly when she says "I love you"), but the last song we listened, Im Rhein, im heiligen Strome, doesn't indicate that something is going wrong. And, suddenly, Ich grolle nicht.
If Dichterliebe is the best-known cycle by Schumann and Ich grolle nicht the best-known Lied of Dichterliebe, then today I'm talking about Schumann's best-known Lied. I wouldn't go that far, but no doubt it's such a special song in a cycle where all songs are special; a friend told me many years ago that he became Lied lover thanks to Ich grolle nicht, and I'm sure he's not the only one. Maybe we love its ambiguity; or its force; or the hyperbolic images; or that irony that sometimes we hear and sometimes we don't; or the wide phrases of the singer; or the piano that sounds like a distant storm. I don't know it, but it's a great song.
This seventh song of Schumann's cycle corresponds to the nineteenth poem of Heine's Lyrisches Intermezzo; So far, the composer has chosen to build his story the first four, the seventh and the eleventh. The poet, concise, says what he needs to say in two stanzas of four verses each. The first two verses of the poem tell us about a love forever lost, a broken heart and, in spite of that, no resentment. The next two verses, the poet addresses directly his beloved and compares her gleam (let's think she's wearing her bridal ornaments) with the night of his heart. Well, it seems that actually there's resentment. In the second stanza he tells us that he already knew what was about to happen because he dreamt about it. The dream was clear: he sees a snake gnawing at her heart. And he also sees how wretched she is. Or how pitiful. Heine says “elend”, that has both senses (the following poem in Lyrisches Intermezzo, not set into music by Schumann, says again she's “elend” and I would say that the meaning tends to wretched).
Schumann modifies the poem to compose the song. Composers usually emphasize a sentence or a word of a poem by repeating it. Heine says "Ich grolle nicht" (I bear no grudge) twice, in the first and second verse. Schumann repeats it six times: three in the first stanza and three in the second one. The difference is significant. Schumann makes another important change to the poem: he moves the phrase "Das weiß ich längst" (I’ve known that long) from the beginning of the second stanza to the end of the first one. The poem sends contradictory messages (I bear no grudge but I insult you) and the song reinforces and increases them. Coldness, indignation, anger, tenderness, pain, sarcasm... they're elements that every singer uses according to his interpretation and offer very different performances.
Every song can be understood in different ways, but I would say this one has much room. The tempo, for instance, is indicated Nicht zu schell (Not too fast); if you listen to a few versions you will notice soon how ambiguous these words are: they can be really slow or really fast. From the first note we hear the poet's agitation, which can remain contained or turn into a violent storm, with low octaves in the left hand that sometimes sound like threats; and the end, so clear, while so many songs in Dichterliebe remain unclear. In fact, the piano has a lot to do with the bitterness we hear in the song.
With regard to the voice and the range of feelings that could convey, let me tell you my key points, just in case you need to find yours. The broken heart at the first verse, for example. Is it really broken? And at the second stanza? In both cases, pay attention to the chord that coincides with “Herz”, it also sounds like a “broken” chord. What do you hear in the sentence "Das weiß ich längst"? Pain? Or scorn? And in "Ich sah dich ja im Traume"? Pain? Tenderness? Anger?
Pay attention to consonants, too. Not many weeks ago we talked about the importance of consonants when singing Art Song and how singers can make use of their expressive possibilities. Ich grolle nicht is a perfect example. Heine uses at the end of the first four verses these four words: bricht, nicht, Pracht, Nacht. That is, he ends the verses with fricative phonemes followed by a plosive phoneme, a 't', that in German tends clearly to affricate. According to the singer's intention, those words could become really sharp.
And finally, the key phrases of the song: the crescendo, syllable to syllable, with the same note and the same duration, towards the dark and gnawed heart; one of the most famous high notes of the repertoire has many expressive options. Schumann also offers the singer an alternative, a lower line; It's not sung often but it's really interesting; It sounds to me as an admirable self-control exercise.
Time to listen to the song. A great Lied needs a great performace, and I chose that of Simon Keenlyside and Malcolm Martineau; listen to this song and listen to the whole cycle, it's a wonderful recording. And then choose other great recordings and listen to them, too; and then choose ten different Ich grolle nicht and listen to them one after another... We should celebrate the wunderschönen Monat Mai!
Ich grolle nicht, und wenn das Herz auch bricht,
Ewig verlor’nes Lieb! ich grolle nicht.
Wie du auch strahlst in Diamantenpracht,
Es fällt kein Strahl in deines Herzens Nacht.
Das weiss ich längst. Ich sah dich ja im Traume,
Und sah die Nacht in deines Herzens Raume,
Und sah die Schlang’, die dir am Herzen frisst,
Ich sah, mein Lieb, wie sehr du elend bist.
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