Matthias Goerne, at right, and Evgeny Kissin performing at Carnegie Hall on April 25, 2024

Fadi Kheir

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Schumann’s Most Jewish Songs

A definitive performance by Matthias Goerne and Evgeny Kissin at Carnegie Hall

David P. Goldman
May 16, 2024
Matthias Goerne, at right, and Evgeny Kissin performing at Carnegie Hall on April 25, 2024

Fadi Kheir

Matthias Goerne, the preeminent interpreter of German art songs, and Evgeny Kissin, one of the world’s great pianists, offered a breathtaking program of Schumann and Brahms songs at Carnegie Hall on April 25. Most of the music was set to texts by Heinrich Heine, a propitious choice for chol hamoed Pesach. The Song of Songs was read in synagogues on the following Shabbat, and no poet of the past 3,000 years has evoked love that is as harsh as death and as strong as the grave as uncannily as Heine. As the sages rightly forbade a secular reading of the book that R. Akiva called the “holy of holies,” I propose, rather, a religious reading of Heine.

One can’t help feeling lucky to be alive when Goerne, now 57, is in his prime. As a boy, I felt blessed to hear the likes of Victoria de los Angeles, Birgit Nilsson, or Joan Sutherland, or Lieder specialists like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Goerne’s teacher) or Hermann Prey. Goerne, though, has a unique combination of vocal mastery and musical intelligence. Unlike Fischer-Dieskau, a tenor singing in baritone range, Goerne’s lower register can summon Stygian darkness when required, while his high notes ring unforced and free. Not since Heinrich Schlusnus have we had an art song interpreter of such technical proficiency; however, the subtlety with which Goerne applies his technical facility is unique.

Alone among the great Lieder composers, Schumann included ample solo material for the piano in his songs; the piano is entrusted with some of the most telling poetic material. Kissin’s technique is gigantic, but what told most at this performance was his preternatural tone control.

The 16 Heine poems that Schumann set in the Dichterliebe Op. 48 (“Poet’s Love”) comprised the core of the program, along with four additional Heine settings that Schumann published separately. Love for Heine is paradoxical, a dialectic of impassioned attraction and anguished repulsion. One example, “Allnächtlich im Traume,” is especially poignant: I see you every night in my dreams, the poet writes to his beloved, and see you greet me affectionately; crying aloud I throw myself at your lovely feet. You look at me sadly and shake your blond head, and little pearl drops of tears slip from your eyes. Furtively, you tell me a soft word and give me a garland of cypress; I wake up, the garland’s gone, and I’ve forgotten what you told me. Cypress is the wood of the Temple (Kings 5:24) and a reflection of the divine (Hosea 14:9), and the “rafters of our house” in Song of Songs 1:17.

Poetry, of course, is what’s lost in translation; after years of reading translations of Heine and trying some myself, I don’t think Heine is translatable at all, because he combines high poetic elegance with impeccable comic timing. Thankfully, we have Robert Schumann to translate Heine into another medium that all of us can understand, namely music. As my teacher Carl Schachter emphasized in his analysis of German art songs, great composers do not ornament or illustrate the poems they set, but rather reproduce the content of the poem in musical terms. I first heard the Dichterliebe when I was 15, and it struck me like lightning; it is one of the reasons I learned German. But even without the language, the music guides us through the poet’s intent.

Schumann reproduces the poem’s sense of dislodgement with an offset rhythm. The song starts with a low B-natural in the piano’s deep bass, creating a rhythmic stress on what should be a weak beat. Most pianists barely touch the note to avoid the jarring effect (for example, Daniel Trifonov in an earlier collaboration with Goerne). Kissin brought it out prominently, as Schumann intended. The effect is to keep the entire song off balance, until the punchline acceleration into the closing cadence on “I’ve forgotten what you told me.” Again, most interpreters try to vitiate the rhythmic dislodgement by decelerating at the end; Goerne and Kissin kept to Schumann’s score, and delivered the punchline of the poem with aplomb.

Musical humor of this sort abounds in Schumann’s solo piano music, for example, the distinct meters in the treble and bass of the final segment of his Kreisleriana (compare Vladimir Horowitz at minute 24:00 to a less pronounced metrical divergence in Martha Argerich’s version at minute 30:00.) Schumann’s genial move in the Dichterliebe reproduces poetic irony with musical irony.

Heine doesn’t wallow in sentimentality or suppurate in disappointment; he displays a distinctly Jewish sense of humor about love’s ecstasy and anguish. In another song, “Es ist ein Flöten und Geigen,” the poet stands outside his beloved’s wedding to another man, listening to a distant waltz, commenting on the various instruments he hears, and adds: “Now and again you hear the dear angels sobbing and groaning.” This song was the one failure of an otherwise brilliant evening; Kissin took it too fast and lost control of the notes.

The poet longs for a fairy-tale land where he can hide from his sorrows, but what he describes is horrible: “Mist figures rise up from the earth and dance their airy reels in a weird chorus.” Fantasy is no refuge; it conceals its own horrors.

The Dichterliebe’s last song is a funeral march: The poet asks for a coffin bigger than Germany’s largest barrel and a bier the size of the longest Rhine bridge, and giants to carry it to the sea, so that he can drown his love and sorrow. But the piano epilogue quotes music from an earlier song in which rustling flowers tell the distraught poet, “Don’t be angry at our sister, you sad, sallowman.” In that song (no. 12), Goerne and Kissin took independent rhythmic liberties that meshed uncannily; this is artistry of the highest order, a union of personal freedom and collaborative discipline. One can quibble with their rendering of one song or another, but these are great musicians who take big risks, and keep the audience on the edges of their seats.

The remainder of the program offered Brahms’ settings of Heine as well as minor German poets. For all his compositional genius, Brahms lacked Schumann’s affinity for Heine’s eccentric humor. Kissin’s rendition of the August von Platen setting, “Wie raft ich mich auf in der Nacht,” was especially stunning. It is devoutly to be wished that Goerne and Kissin will release a recording of these songs.

The Carnegie Hall audience would have given the two musicians a standing ovation, but most of the concertgoers seemed too old to stand. The largely Jewish musical public that still fills Carnegie Hall for an evening of art songs is aging out. There are treasures for a younger generation of Jews to encounter, and there are profoundly Jewish reasons to encourage sponsorship of this kind of music.

A convert of convenience to Christianity in his youth, Heine made his own kind of teshuva during his last, lingering illness. “Yes, I have returned to God, like the prodigal son, after long years of herding swine among the Hegelians,” wrote Heinrich Heine in an afterword to the 1851 collection Romanzero. “Heavenly homesickness overcame me and drove me through groves and gulches, over the dizzying mountain paths of dialectic. On my way, I found the God of the Pantheists, but had no use for his. This poor, dreamy entity is enmeshed with the world, and at the same time immured in it, and yawns at you, bereft of will and impotent. To have a will, you have to be a person.” The 1851 book includes his “Hebrew Melodies” (a title borrowed from Byron), including the poem “Princess Sabbath” and a lengthy, unfinished paean to Yehuda Halevi.

Heine’s midlife encounter with Halevi redeemed his youthful poetry. This great minnesinger, Heine averred, had a beloved, but not the casuist of the laws of kissing that one finds in the love songs of Christian poets; she was a poor wan girl, the very image of destruction and her name was Jerusalem.

The Song of Songs is neither a lovers’ pastorale—God forbid--nor Rashi’s allegory of God’s love for Israel as presented in the Artscroll Pentateuch. Rather, it is a recreation of the terrible, paradoxical experience of all-consuming love—the kind of love that the religious have for God, and that men and women sometimes have for each other. The odd thing about Shir HaShirim, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik comments, is that the Lover and his Beloved cannot find each other. “A lover who yearns yet hides, a bride who conceals herself—what does this mean? As the last rays of the sunset and dimness of the twilight between the profane weekday and the sacred Sabbath approaches, both the reader of the Song of Songs and the listener are confused, asking, ‘This mischievous game of enamoredness and rejection, or gunning after and running away, of tension and disappointment, of searching of hiding, of disclosure and concealment—what does it mean?”

This paradoxical exegesis of Shir HaShirim informs Soloveitchik’s definitive statement on Judaism, From There You Shall Seek. Finite man cannot unite with the Infinite: “Man approaches God at a rapid pace, where all his being, beset by the torment of fiery longing, is tensed toward the encounter with his divine lover. He is swept away by the surge of yearning and carried aloft to the Infinite. … At the moment when only an infinitesimal step separates him from his goal, and in a single instant he will embrace his Creator, suddenly a repelling deterrent force springs forth and carries him in the opposite direction to unknown distances. … He retreats from God, for how can man attach himself to God and live?” Complete union with the Beloved dissolves man’s sense of I-ness.

By no coincidence, the first real love story in world literature—between Jacob and Rachel—appears in Genesis. The young Jacob, fleeing his brother’s wrath, alone on a bleak mountaintop, has a vision of angels ascending and descending from heaven, and a dream encounter with God. Directly afterwards he meets Rachel and falls in love with her; he is still mourning her in his last conversation with Joseph. One prominent lay Jewish writer has offered that Rachel “was not a fit wife for Jacob,” and aspects of their love are disorienting, even tragic: It sets in motion the favoritism that leads to the sale of Joseph into Egyptian slavery. But Jacob’s character is incomprehensible without it, and the link between awe of the divine and earthly love is a distinctly Jewish hiddush.

Heine evokes this link in the youthful poems that Schumann recreated so brilliantly in the Dichterliebe, and that Goerne and Kissin brought so vividly to life at Carnegie Hall. The mature Heine revisited the subject again in an idiosyncratically Jewish way, in his 1843 epic Atta Troll, which ridicules Karl Marx and his friends with the tale of a dancing bear who breaks his chains and summons the beasts to rebel against the oppression of humans. A dream sequence in the middle of the work evokes the Wild Hunt, an apparition of ghostly hunters rampaging through the night forest. Among these is the ghost of Herodias (who appears in some German sources due to a misspelling), playing with the head of John the Baptist.

The dreaming poet falls hopelessly in love with this preposterous spook, the only Jewish ghost in the ghastly pack. He tells her: “Lose the Dummkopf and his charger! I’m perfectly aware that you are not only dead, but also eternally damned, but I’m not prejudiced.” He promises to ride beside her on her nightly haunts and amuse her with witticisms. And during the day, the poet adds, he will prostrate himself on her grave in Jerusalem. Pious pilgrims, he adds, will think that he is weeping for the fallen Temple. 

In 1843, Heine could only laugh bitterly at his own weakness. His posthumously published deathbed poems evince a profound but highly personal faith, including the declaration: “Away with pagan musica! Let David’s pious harp strains accompany my singing of His praises. My song resounds, ‘Hallelujah.’” Heine’s late poems were a comfort to me in my own dark night of the soul and a staff for my own midlife teshuva.

Heine’s early apostasy and youthful atheism have made him anathema in the Orthodox world. But there is no poet who recreates love that is harsh as death and as strong as the grave as vividly as the author of the Dichterliebe. The magnificent rendering of the Heine-Schumann work by Goerne and Kissin may be a simun for this Pesach season, and a singular kind of homiletic for the Holy of Holies of Tanakh.

David P. Goldman, Tablet Magazine’s classical music critic, is the Spengler columnist for Asia Times Online, Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and the author of How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam Is Dying, Too) and the new book You Will Be Assimilated: China’s Plan to Sino-Form the World.