Songs of Love & the Sea

Peter W. Shea


Program Text

Heine and Die Nordsee Heinrich Heine (originally named Harry) was born on December 13, 1797 in Düsseldorf, Germany, of Jewish parents. Though his family preferred that he become a businessman, Heine eventually took a degree in law. In 1825, in order to make possible a civil service career, he resentfully converted to Protestantism, but was still was never able to find employment in Germany. Heine’s literary reputation had grown steadily with the publication of his poems throughout the early 1820’s. Most of these were collected in 1827 into the Buch der Lieder (Book of songs), which has always been his most widely read collection, and the most popular with composers, with over 5000 musical settings made of its 245 poems. It may have been inspired by his youthful, unrequited infatuation with one, or possibly two, of his rich uncle Salomon’s daughters. Most of these poems are a concentrated combination of lyrical perfection, over-the-top Romantic imagery, wry humor and bitter irony. Their seeming sentimental folk-song-like simplicity has been widely imitated, but seldom with any success.

Heine spent several holidays in northern Germany, on the North Sea shore. His sojourn on the island of Norderney in August and September of 1825, just after his “conversion” to Christianity, was a gift of his uncle’s upon the successful completion of his law examinations. The sea’s bleak beauty haunted him the rest of his life, and he wrote of another visit the following summer:

"I stayed at Norderney until the middle of September; from the beginning of the month until my departure I was virtually the only remaining bathing-visitor. I hired a wherry and two boatmen and spent whole days rowing about the North Sea. The Sea was my only companion, and I have never had a better. Nights by the sea--magnificent, grand!”

While at Norderney he was inspired to write sea poems that were something new in German poetry, both in their free verse form and subject matter. They are now considered among the finest sea poems in the German language. Heine combined rich descriptions of the natural scene with fanciful and ironic mock-epic depictions of gods, goddesses and heroes that reflected his conflicted moods and ambivalent attitudes toward himself, his art and his society. Most of these poems were collected into the two cycles of Die Nordsee, the final section of Buch der Lieder. Nachts in der Kajüte (Night in the cabin) was probably the first poem to be written in this collection, although it became the seventh and centerpiece poem of the first cycle. In its six brief sections, and in Meeresstille one can see the progression from his earlier style of short, lyric, metric stanzas to the longer free-verse form of the other Nordsee poems.

Heine was supposedly reading Homer during his vacation, but the Greco-Roman gods are haphazardly mixed in with Norse and even Judeo-Christian deities, all of them serving as convenient sources of mythological ornament. This was of course seen as blasphemous by many critics, which was probably intentional on Heine’s part. On closer examination, the “seascapes” of Die Nordsee reveal themselves more truly as “mindscapes” in which various aspects of the poet’s contradictory and difficult personality find rich expression. Although they are ostensibly free verse odes, Heine himself admitted they had more the aspect of “colossal epigrams,” a paradox worthy of this most elusive of poets.

In 1831 Heine moved to Paris, where his political and social concerns found outlet in his prolific critical and satirical prose writings. He became acquainted with many prominent figures of the age, including Karl Marx. Heine’s pro-revolutionary views were unacceptable to the German governments, and by 1835 his voluntary exile in France became an imposed one, and his works were banned throughout Germany. He continued to write poetry as well, much of it with satirical elements of social and literary commentary. After 1844 Heine suffered financial reversals and painful physical deterioration from what may have been syphilis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or some other neuropathy. He spent the last several years of his life in his “mattress-grave” in a Paris apartment, although his poetic and observational powers never left him. He died in Paris on February 17, 1856.

Other than the works by Martin Shaw and Robert Franz, which I have performed before, all of the music on today’s program is almost certainly receiving either its regional or world premiere performance. Although Heine’s poetry has probably been set to music more than any other poet, except perhaps King David, his Die Nordsee poems have generally not been very popular with song composers, especially as compared with the earlier parts of Buch der Lieder. This is easily explained by the greater length of the Nordsee poems, and their use of free and blank verse. The only exception is the first part of Nachts in der Kajüte, “Das Meer hat seine Perlen”, which has been set to music over 100 times, chiefly due to its translation into English by the popular nineteenth-century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

When I first conceived the idea of doing a concert performance of musical settings of all of the poems in the first cycle of Nordsee, I immediately realized I would have to do some serious digging. Even so, for some poems I was unable to find copies of any of the few settings I knew about, most of them by extremely obscure nineteenth-century European composers. And when I was able to find music, I sometimes found that it was incomplete, that the composer had not set all of the lines in Heine’s poem. This led me to begin asking composer friends of mine, and other composers with whom I came into contact, if they would like to try their hands at writing a Heine setting. I am deeply gratified and honored to have found five gifted composers who have written some wonderful music for me in the past year.