“On Wings of Song” is one of the most famous songs of all time – so much for the notion that Mendelssohn was “eclipsed”. Yet it’s very different from the Lieder of Schubert, Schumann and Wolf. Romantic Lieder stresses the word painting, using music to extend text. This stems from the Romantic concept of the individual, where personal, subjective truths mattered. The Romantic Age didn’t use the terminology of modern psychology, but explored inner emotions and the unconscious. Mendelssohn’s songs aren’t “classical” or Mozartean” in any sense, but represent an alternative approach to art song.
First, here is the poem as Mendelssohn might have heard it in his mind. Heine is writing about lotus blooms and exotic settings, but he knows full well that his poems will be read by people who know nothing about fabled “Hindustan” (no way this is real India). It’s important to listen to the poem being read aloud, to appreciate the cadences and expressiveness that bring the words to life.
Auf Flügeln des Gesanges,
Herzliebchen, trag ich dich fort,
Fort nach den Fluren des Ganges,
Dort weiß ich den schönsten Ort;
Dort liegt ein rotblühender Garten
Im stillen Mondenschein,
Die Lotosblumen erwarten
Ihr trautes Schwesterlein.
Die Veilchen kichern und kosen,
Und schaun nach den Sternen empor,
Heimlich erzählen die Rosen
Sich duftende Märchen ins Ohr.
Es hüpfen herbei und lauschen
Die frommen, klugen Gazelln,
Und in der Ferne rauschen
Des heil’gen Stromes Well'n.
Dort wollen wir niedersinken
Unter dem Palmenbaum,
Und Liebe und Ruhe trinken,
Und träumen seligen Traum.
For a translation see Emily Erzust’s formidably useful site
http://www.recmusic.org/lieder listed on the right.
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Next, the version for solo piano, played by Vladimir Horowitz no less. The video is by Spadecaller. Then close your eyes and absorb the music in the abstract. Listen to how Mendelssohn expresses the spirit of the poem without using any obvious images. No lotus blooms, no violets. This is perfume in music, abstract, but none the less potent for being elusive. For the poem is elusive, operating on an unspoken level “behind” the words.
Only now come to the piano/song version, and listen holding the memory of poem and piano transcription in mind. This is Lotte Lehmann singing for US radio in 1941. Hear how she puts feeling and emphasis into the words, expressing text and music seamlessly. Mendelssohn’s songs were written to be sung in salons, intimate settings. Perhaps the singer was wooing the pianist, or someone listening, silently, in the room. Intent is there, but veiled in secrecy. “On the wings of song”, sings the lover, “I’ll carry you away, where I know a beautiful place”. The banks of this Ganges exist only in dreams. Like Heine’s poem, Mendelssohn’s song operates on different levels.