Monday, March 3, 2014

A Great Poet as a Music Critic

Heinrich Heine’s Relation to the Great Masters of Music

By Tod Buchanan Galloway

IN THAT MOST INTERESTING book, “That Man Heine” by Rabbi Browne, there is nothing finer or more dramatic than his closing words in which he graphically depicts the agonizing death scene of the unfortunate writer.  He says, “Frightful convulsions set in and his thin white face was distorted with the agony of the last moment.  Then the rigidity passed and his face became calm once more.  The fires died down in his eyes; the bloodless lips no longer curled.  The smile of Mephisto was gone and only the sweet benignity of the Nazarene suffused the face of the poet.  For at last Heinrich Heine was at rest.  ‘Olav La-Shalon,’ his brethren in Israel could now say of him:  ‘Peace is upon him!’  For his exile was ended, he was at home at last—he belonged.”
                It is not generally known that the name of this widely gifted, most unhappy man was not Heinrich but Harry, as he was named for an English merchant, a Mr. Harry with whom his parents did business.  It was not until he apostatized from Judaism and accepted the Christian religion that he emerged as Heinrich Heine, by which name he became known, and by which name he will be famous through the ages.
                A poor, miserable, unhappy genius, who “completed the circle of faith through Judaism, Catholicism, Paganism, Protestantism, Atheism and Saint Simonism, he returned at last to is starting point, that battered, despised by (for the Jew) apparently inevitable religion called Judaism.”
                Heine once wrote to his brother Max, “All the troubles of my life have not come through any fault of mine but as a necessity of my social position and my mental gifts.”  Abuse and neglect from which he suffered all his life, poisoned him spiritually and broke him physically.  At times his nerves were so raw from incessant vexation and his body so poisoned with disease that he really did not know what he was doing.

The Jew Despised

IT IS ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE for those of us who live in the present age to appreciate the unhappy—almost barbaric—indignities under which the Jew lived in Germany during the lifetime of Heine, no matter what may have been his genius and abilities.  To appreciate the conditions against which such a man labored and contended makes it more possible to know and understand the bitterness and rancor which affected his whole life.
                As one has said, he was one of those hapless creatures to be fated—inexorably fated—never to enjoy rest and quiet; one for whom no place had been reserved at “the festal board of life.”  Partially the fault of his own temperament, but largely the fault of the world.  As an example of the intolerance and blindness of the German Confederacy at this time, in 1835 it passed what Browne characterizes as one of the most preposterous legislative enactments in all modern history.  It was a blanket proscription of all books which ever had been written by any member of what was known as the young Germany group, and also of all books any member might write in the future.  Of this group the most brilliant member by far was Heine.
                Heine was essentially a modern poet.  He revolted against all imitations of classical poetry; so he became the founder of a new school of poetry, not only for Germany but also for the whole world.  He was not only a lyrical poet but also a poet of the sea, a writer of ballads and romance and the poet of liberty.  Had he not been preeminent as a lyric poet, his ballads and romances alone, like Die beiden Grenadiere and Die Wallfahrt nach Kevlaar,  would have made his name famous.  No other German poet, with the exception of Goethe, ever made his verse so completely the verbal embodiment of music.

 Enjoy Robert Schumann's composition with text from Heinrich Heine's Die beiden Grenadier performed here by Bryn Terfel, baritone and Malcolm Martineau, piano:

                George Brandes characterized him as “the thistle in the garden of literature.”  Not only because he pricked most people who came near him but also because he too was the product of neglect.  This was the man whom Brandes said was “the greatest lyric poet who ever had lived in Germany—the greatest who had ever lived.”
                George Eliot said of him, “His greatest power as a poet lies in his simple pathos, in ever varied but natural expression he has given to the tender emotions.”  DieLotusblume, Ich Grolle Nicht, EinFichtenbaum Steht Einsam, Vergiftelsind neine Lieder, were set to everlasting song by the leading composers in the world, Schumann, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Wagner; and the whole world has sung them.

The Poet Musical

THE INTERESTING STORY of Heine’s life—sad as it is—is not, however, the purpose of this article for The Etude but rather as to how he came in touch with music and his abilities as a musical critic.
                When finally, in 1831, Heine had been hounded out of Germany for his political and literary efforts, he took refuge in Paris where he was much happier than in his native land.  Here he found the French much more liberal in their treatment of the Jewish people; and his position, socially and artistically, was much happier.  As he wrote, “Ah! the sweet scent of Parisian politeness.  How it refreshes my soul, after all the tobacco smoke, sauerkraut smell and rudeness it swallowed in Germany.”
                All the pangs of leave taking from the Fatherland—and they had not been slight—were forgotten in the ecstasy of his first sight of the holy soil of the boulevards.  Here his parched soul found a freedom, a gayety and a politeness such as he had never known before.  Here he  became acquainted with such literary lights as Gautier, Dumas, George Sand, de Musset and Bergner.  He also came to know Rossini, Berlioz, Liszt and Chopin.
                He had made an arrangement with his friend, Baron Colta [sic], to furnish the Allgemeine Zeitung with regular letters from Paris.  These at first were almost wholly art articles.  Heine had no real knowledge of art, but such was his versatility—he was a born journalist—that he could make any subject entertaining and amusing.  These articles were afterwards gathered and published as “The Salon,” and it is in them that we find most of his criticisms on music and musicians.  Stephen Heller, the composer, wrote, “Heine understood nothing about music, theoretically or practically; and yet, because of his imaginative and penetrating mind, he divined more in music than many so-called musical people. . . .  I do not believe that it ever occurred to ask me to play for him.  It did not interest him greatly, although he wrote some clever and cultured as well as very humorous things about it.”
                Among the first of his writings on musical subjects was a whimsical account of the popularity of the “Der Freischutz” of von Weber, on its production in Berlin, and of the persecution he suffered from hearing from morning to night the Jungfrau Kranz sung in all directions.
                He writes:
                “In however good a temper I get up in the morning, the cheerfulness is immediately driven out of me, for even at this hour the schoolboys pass my window whistling the Jungfrau Kranz.  An hour does not pass before I hear that the daughter of my hostess is up with her Jungfrau Kranz.  I hear my barber then singing to himself upstairs to the tune of the Jungfrau Kranz.  The washerwoman’s little girl then comes humming Lavendel, Myrt, and Thymian.  So it goes on.  My head swims.  I cannot endure it.  I rush out of the house and throw myself with disgust into a hackney coach, happy that I can hear no singing while the wheels are rattling.  I get out at Miss __________’s, and ask if she is at home.  The servant runs to see.  Yes.  The door opens; the sweet creature sits at the pianoforte, and receives me with the words—
                ‘Wo bleibt der schmucke Freirsmann, Ich kann ihn kaum erwarten.’
                “’You sing like an angel!’ I cry, in a spasmodic way.  ‘I will begin again from the beginning,’ lisps the good creature; and she twists me again her Jungfrau Kranz, and twists, and twists, until I twist myself like a worm with unspeakable pangs, and cry out in anguish of soul, ‘Help, help!’  After which the accursed song never quits me all day.  My most pleasant moments are embittered—even as I sit at midday at dinner, the singer Heinsius trolls it out at dessert.  The whole afternoon I am strangled with Veilchen blauer Seide.  There the Jungfrau Kranz is played off on the organ by a cripple.  Here it is fiddled off by a blind man.  In the evening the whole horror is let loose.  Then is there a piping, a howling, a falsettoing, a gurgling, and always the same tune.  The song of Kaspar or the Huntsman’s Chorus may be howled in from time to time, by an illuminated student or ensign, for a change; but the Jungfrau Kranz is permanent:  when one has ended it, another begins it.  Out of every house it springs upon me; everybody sings it with his own variation; yea, I almost fancy the dogs in the street howl it. . . .  However, do not imagine that the melody is really bad; on the contrary, it has reached its popularity through excellence.  Mais toujours perdrix!  You understand me:  the whole of ‘Der Freischutz’ is excellent and surely deserves the consideration given to it by all German.”
                It was when painting and sculpturing for a time declined, in 1841, that Heine wrote, “Only the younger sister, Music, lifts herself up with original individual power.  Will she keep her place or will she again fall down?  These are questions which only a later generation can answer.”
                He goes on to explain that the music season terrifies more than it delights him; that people are simply being drowned in music, and that in Paris there is not a single house wherein one can take refuge as in an ark against the deluge of sound.  “The noble tone-science,” he says, “is overflowing our whole existence.  This is for me a very critical sign and brings upon me sometimes  a fit of ill humor which degenerates into the most morose injustice against our great maestri and dillettanti.”  That he was at least an honest critic and not above self-criticism seems apparent from this; and undoubtedly some allowance should be made for the delicacy of the nerves of a man who, when he was staying with a friend, was obliged to ask to have the clock stopped in the next room to the one in which he passed the night, in order that he might go to sleep.
                Of the pianoforte, of which he speaks as “the instrument of martyrdom, whereby the present elegant world is racked and tortured for all its affectations,” he seems sometimes to have had a special horror.  However, that Heine was able to do honor to really great artists on the piano is seen by his critiques of Liszt, Thalberg, and Chopin, with each of whom he was intimately acquainted.
                Of Liszt he writes:
                “He is indisputably the artist in Paris who awakes the most unlimited enthusiasm, as well as the most zealous opponents.  It is a characteristic sign that no one speaks of him with indifference.  Without power no one can excite in this world either favorable or hostile passions.  One must possess fire, to excite men to hatred as well as to love.  That which testifies especially for Liszt is the complete esteem with which even his enemies speak of his personal worth.  He is a man of whimsical but noble character, unselfish, and without deceit.  Especially remarkable are his spiritual proclivities; he has great taste for speculative ideas; and he takes even more interest in the essays of the various schools which occupy themselves with the solution of the great problems of heaven and earth than in his art itself.  It is, however, praiseworthy, this indefatigable yearning after light and divinity; it is a proof of his taste for the holy, for the religious.”
                Notwithstanding his liking for Liszt, personally, Heine confesses that his music which on one occasion he likens to a scene from the Apocalypse, did not impress him agreeable.  On the occasion of a subsequent visit of Liszt to Paris, he seems to have become more reconciled to his playing.
                He then writes:
                “Yes, Franz Liszt, the pianist of genius, whose playing often appears to me as a the melodious agony of a spectral world, is again here, and giving concerts which exercise a charm which borders on the fabulous.  By his side all piano players, with the exception of Chopin, the Raphael of the pianoforte, are as nothing.  In fact, with the exception of this last named artist alone, all the other piano players, whom we hear this year in countless concerts, are only piano players—their only merit is the dexterity with which they handle the machine of wood and wire.  With Liszt, on the contrary, people think no more about the ‘difficulty overcome’; the piano disappears, and music is revealed.  In this respect has Liszt, since we last heard him, made the most astonishing progress.  With this advantage he combines now a repose of manner which we failed to perceive in him formerly.  If, for example, he played a storm on the pianoforte, we saw the lightning flicker about his features, his limbs fluttered as with the blast of a storm, and his long locks of hair dripped as with real showers of rain.  Now, when he plays the most violent storm, he still seems exalted above it, like the traveler who stands on the summit of an Alp while the tempest rages in the valley.  The clouds lie deep below him, the lightning curls like snakes at his feet, but his head is uplifted smilingly into the pure ether.”
                Heine furnishes us with sketches of the famous composers of his time like Spontini, Rossini, Meyerbeer and Berlioz.  The following description of the rugged, German Berlioz gives us a good example of the poet’s idea in the interpretations of his genius.
                “To each man all honor.  We begin today with Berlioz, whose first concert commenced the musical season, and was regarded, in fact, as its overture.  Those pieces—more or less new—which were set before the public found due applause; and even the most sluggish spirits were borne along by the might of his genius, which reveals itself in all the creations of the great master.  Here was a sweep of aerie which betrayed no ordinary singing-bird.  There was a colossal nightingale, a philomel of the size of an eagle, such as there may have been in the primeval world.  Yes, the music of Berlioz has, in my opinion, a smack of the primeval, if not antediluvian world; and it reminds me of races of beasts which have become extinct; of fabulous kingdoms and their impieties; of impossibilities towered up heaven-high; of Babylon; of the handing gardens of Semiramis; of Nineveh; of the miraculous works of Mizraim, as we see them in the pictures of Martin the Englishman.  Indeed, if we look around for an analogy in the art of painting, we find the most sympathetic similarity between Berlioz and the wild Briton—the same excuse for the monstrous, the gigantic—for material immensity.  With the one the sharpest effects of light and shade, with the other the most crushing instrumentation; with the one little melody, with the other little sense of color; with both little beauty, and no gentleness of humor.  Their works are neither classic nor romantic; they remind us neither of Greece nor of the Catholic Middle Ages; but they transplant us far deeper back—to the Assyrian, Babylonian and Egyptian period of architecture, to the passion for massiveness, of which it was the expression.”               
                He gives us an amusing story of the vanity of Spontini and his jealousy of Meyerbeer in Spontini’s declining days.  Heine says that Spontini was one day at the Louvre before an Egyptian mummy whom he thus apostrophized:
                “Unhappy Pharoah!  thou art the author of my misfortune.  Hadst thou refused to permit the children of Israel to go forth from the land of Egypt, or hadst thou had them all drowned in the Nile, then had I not been driven out of Berlin by Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn, and I had even remained director of the great opera and of the court concert.  Unhappy Pharoah! weak king of the crocodiles!  through thy half-measures has it happened that I now am in the main a ruined man, and that Moses, and Halevy, and Mendelssohn, and Meyerbeer have been victorious!”
                Heine’s essay on the comparative merits of Rossini and Meyerbeer goes too far into the matter to allow of the reproduction of its substance here.  It must suffice to state that he gave the preference to Rossini.
                He had the power of painting a picture in a few words; and we quote some of the thumb-nail sketches scattered through his works referring to musicians.
                He praises Donizetti’s genius but declares that its most astonishing quality is its fecundity, in which it yields precedence in the scheme of nature only to rabbits.
                Speaking of Rossini sulking in his tent like Achilles, he says that he had heard of a similar attitude on Donizetti’s part.  This, he is sure, is nonsense, which even on the part of a windmill would not be more laughable.  “Either there is wind and the sails go round, or else there is no wind the sails stand still.”  Rossini he likens to Vesuvius pouring forth beautiful flowers.  Meyerbeer, whose contract in Berlin had been modified to allow him to spend six months in Paris and six months in Berlin, is the Modern Proserpina who, however, must expect Hades and its troubles in both places.  Chopin is the one musician about whom he wrote no unkind word.
                “That is, indeed, a man of the greatest distinction.  Born in Poland of French parents, a considerable part of his education was gained in Germany.  And the influence of the three races shows itself in his remarkable personality.  He has indeed assimilated the best which these nationalities had to offer.  Poland gave him his chivalrous feeling and the sense of pain which her history gives all her sons; France bestowed on him the easy, elegant grace which so distinguishes him; Germany imbued him with his deep romanticism.  And in addition nature gave him a neat, slender, delicate frame, the noblest of hearts, and genius.  Yes, Chopin must be called a genius in the truest sense of the word.  He is not a virtuoso only, he is a poet; and nothing can equal the pleasure he gives when he sits at the piano improvising.  Then he is neither Pole, French, nor German; he claims a far higher origin, for he comes from the land of Mozart, of Raphael, of Goethe, and his true Fatherland is the dreamland of Poetry.”
                He hears it said that there are not enough melodies in “Les Huguenots” and at once decides, with characteristic energy, that “the only difficulty consists in not seeing the woods for the trees.”
                He talks in one passage of Rossini, the “Swan of Pesaro,” surrounded by the gabbling of geese.  In another passage he pities the poor “Swan of Pesaro,” who is in danger of being torn asunder between the German eagle and the Gallic cock—figures only important as showing the spontaneity of such thoughts and the light touch which enabled him so successfully to present the same idea from different points of view without spoiling it or making himself ridiculous.
                Heine’s hates, like his loves, were very strong and unreasoning, and the result is shown in lamentable prejudices which seriously detract from the value of his criticisms and conclusions.  But the bias is easily seen, and the savage invective which he hurls against individuals, races, and causes, regarding them apparently as personal enemies of his own, warns the reader against accepting either his statements or conclusions.
                An English writer has said, “Heine merely describes performances and performers, and records the effect which a work or an artist seems to have made upon the audience.  Such ‘critics’ exercise an important function for the passing generation.  But the lapse of a very few years show s how sadly they are lacking in the gift of perspective.  In old files of newspapers we read warm praise of long forgotten works and artists, and much indignation about matters of no moment to us, along with unfulfilled and falsified prophecies.  The real critic, whose opinion can be trusted to stand the test of time, is very rare, and fortunately his services are not much required.  For all the practical purposes of a later generation, a chatty reporter is best.  He seems to bring us into personal contact with the composer and the artist; and we would rather read Kelly’s description of the first performance of “The Marriage of Figaro” in Prague, than all the critical estimates, the scientific analyses and most carefully considered prophecies which the files of the Prague daily papers could offer.”
                A trial has been made to show that Heine attempted to blackmail both Liszt and Meyerbeer, when he was almost at the point of starvation in Paris.  Liszt refused to aid him, but Meyerbeer did help Heine on many occasions, as it appears that all composers were not like Liszt averse to “buying recognition on the market.”
                Even after Meyerbeer had been obliged to decline to satisfy Heine’s request for aid, as his purse could no longer satisfy his demands, we find that he sent Heine through a friend a thousand francs, crying, “What, the greatest poet of Germany in such need!” and added a humble request to be permitted to call on the sick man the next day.
                Forgetting this blot on Heine’s escutcheon, we would prefer to remember the “Buch der Leider” or the “Romancers” for their enduring worth and merit.
                Of Thalberg, Heine wrote:
                “As in his life so in his art he shows such inborn tact.  His playing is so gentlemanlylike, so well to do, so respectable.  There is only one whom I place above him, that is Chopin, who, however, is more of a composer than a virtuoso.  With Chopin I forget his mastery of technic in the sweet depths of his music, in the almost painful pleasure of creation, as deep as they are tender.”
                The reader will know how far to trust our critic when he goes on to call Chopin “the great tone-poet who can be placed beside only Mozart, Beethoven, or Rossini.”
                Although Heine seems not to have been fond of singers, and seldom speaks of them with much patience, the more striking is his testimony to the charm of “that wonderful pair of nightingales, Mario and Grisi, who made the very spring blossom with their voices.”
                In all his unjustifiable and bitter  attacks, there are none more so than his allusions to Jenny Lind, “The Swedish Nightingale,” who after her first and futile visit to Paris in 1842 positively declined to sing there again, although she created a furore in every other musical center in Europe.  We fancy that it was not so much this resolution on her part as the fact that his dearest foes were the English, who went quite mad of the Swedish singer.
                Heine hated the English—did not approve of anything they said or did—and yet, with the irony of fate, there is no country in which Heine’s poetry has had a greater vogue.
                Although it was in Heine’s writings that Richard Wagner found the idea of the Flying Dutchman’s salvation through a woman’s love; yet, after his failure in Paris, Heine’s judgment upon Wagner’s aims, methods and music, was that of many prejudiced and ignorant critics of his time.
                The various glimpses of musical life, of musicians, performances, criticisms, and tendencies, which make these articles so interesting to the amateur and student of musical history, have no intrinsic value as contributions to musical history.  We are transported to the actual period, like the worthy citizen in Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy talewho wore the magic slippers; but, although the musical world of Paris, in the period between 1831 and 1844, moves vividly and distinctly before our eyes, we see everything through spectacles which discolor, distort, and exaggerate too many details.  It is remarkable that the most thoroughly appreciative passages, those which are of any service to musical history, are those which deal with four Italians—Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Paganini.  His remarks about the first are more or less built on hearsay, however cleverly put; the second comes in for some good humored, but very pointed, persiflage; but his account of poor Bellini in his last years of affliction forms a real contribution to the personal history of great musicians; and his description of a Paganini concert—even with all its exaggerations—gives us one of the best portraits we have of that wonderful executive artist.
                As an introduction to an interesting appreciation of Rossini’s “Stabat Mater,” he describes a church fete in Italy, where he saw groups of children take part in a kind of Passion play.  A little boy was dressed to represent the Saviour, wearing a crown of thorns, and with drops of blood painted in glaring color on his forehead, as were the wounds in his hands and naked feet.  The Mater Dolorosa was a small girl clothed in black, bearing several swords with gilded hilts on her breast.  Other children represented apostles—one as Judas with a purse in his hand; a few were dressed as cupids; and some in the costume of French stage shepherds, hat and staff bedizened with ribbons.  “How could one believe that the sight of such a spectacle could stir the depths of one’s being!  But true Christianity in art does not consist in barrenness of ornament or leanness in figure;” and Heine finds Rossini’s “Stabat Mater” more truly Christian than Mendelssohn’s “St. Paul”—as, indeed, one might have expected from a bitter, prejudiced, perverted Jew.
 Enjoy Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano, with Antonio Pappano conducting, at the 2007 BBC Proms "Fac ut portem" from Rossini's Stabat Mater:

Enjoy Kimberly Marshall's performance of the Overture from Felix Mendelssohn's St. Paul

                Heine recognized that of all composers Liszt found Beethoven most in accordance with his taste.  Of the Titan among master musicians he wrote:
                “Beethoven, especially, has advanced the spiritualism of art to that tuneful agony of the world of vision—to that annihilation of nature which fills us with a terror which I cannot conceal, although my friends shake their heads over it.  It seems to me a characteristic circumstance that Beethoven was deaf at the end of his days, so that not even the invisible tone-world had any reality in sound for him.  His tones were but reminiscences of a tone—the ghost of sounds which had died away, and his last productions bore on their brow the ghostly hand of dissolution.”
                While Heine may have lacked the practical musical training necessary for the best fulfillment of the duties of a musical critic, it cannot be denied but that his intuitive genius and unusual perceptive powers enabled him to reproduce the musical atmosphere of his day.