Clara Schumann, ‘Lore-Ley’

4 min readNov 9, 2020


The third episode of ‘Liederspiel’ was premiered on our youtube channel on Saturday 21 November, 7pm British time

We looked at Clara Schumann’s setting of Heinrich Heine’s poem ‘Loreley’ Schumann, K. 5 (12), June 1843

In the last blogpost, we discussed Robert Schumann’s Orientalist amulet which, designed to herald the prophetic union of marriage to Clara Wieck, was gifted to his beloved on 12th September 1840. Musical gift-giving was rife between the two composers. For example, not unimportantly, Robert’s four-hand piano work, Bilder aus Osten(1848), inspired by Rückert’s translation of the Makamen des Hariri, was intended as a gift Clara at the end of the 1840s. Lieder, too, were often presented to mark important events, such as birthdays, festivities or more benignly as expression of intimacy.

In 1843, it was Clara’s turn to offer something musical to Robert. Alongside two settings of her op.13, ‘Ich hab’ in deinem Auge’ and ‘Oh Weh des Scheidens’, both tellingly after settings of Friedrich Rückert, Clara presented Robert with a truly virtuosic setting of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Lorelei’ with a cover page inscribed with ‘An meinen Lieben Mann’, no doubt playing on Robert’s public dedication to his beloved in Myrthen.[1]

Perhaps Clara’s ‘Loreley’ was intended as a response or counterpart to Robert’s setting of the ‘Loreley’ legend, which came in the form of Eichendorff’s ‘Waldesgespräch’ and was published subsequently in 1840 as number 12 from his Liederkreis, op.39. The two settings, after all, exist at affective extremes. Clara’s setting is vigorous and dramatically charged, filled with hammering triplets not too dissimilar to Erlkönig’s Balladenton. Robert’s, on the other hand, frames the Loreley with a reverberant horn calls and tertiary modulations in apparent preference of sensuousness over brute force. We might say that Clara chooses to represent the physicality of the waves, whilst Robert prefers the dulcet tones of the creature ‘in [der] Höh’.

Heinrich Heine’s poem ‘Loreley’ in the spelling of the autograph by Clara Schumann and with a new English translation by Henrike Lähnemann and Anhad Arora

Lorelei is a song about the power of song. And whilst this gloss can apply to almost all works of Romantic art, which seem to be invested with a certain level of self-consciousness (even if only through its denial), Heine’s Lorelei is even more pronounced. The titular protagonist, the supernatural being, Lorelei, a cross between Circe and a siren (a favourite topic for musical representation; take Schubert/Goethe’s Fischermädchen as an example), sings a beautiful song, in Heine’s words: a song that has a “marvellous, mighty melody”, that inadvertently drives entranced sailors looking up to catch a glimpse of the delightful noise to their death on the Rhenish rocks below. The first lines introduce this as a far-away story from olden times, in the same way in which epic poetry is introduced: “Ik gehorta that seggen” (I heard it said) as the Hildebrandslied starts or more closely: “Uns ist in alten maeren wunders vil geseit” (Many marvels have been told to us in old stories) — only this is not a “maere” (story) but its diminuitive relative, the “Märchen”, a term made popular by the fairy-tale collections of the Brother Grimm.

Opening of the ‘Nibelungenlied’ in the version C (manuscript Karlsruhe, Cod. Donaueschingen 63, fol. 11r) with the stanza about the ‘old stories’ (and with the mock medieval coat of arms of the 19th century owner Joseph von Laßberg)

What makes Heine’s Lied (not Lorelei’s) so powerful — and so prominent in the German-speaking consciousness — is the transformation of the original, lengthy into a Volkslied with an eminently repeatable, simple, ABAB stanzaic structure, whilst alluding to the legend ‘aus alten Zeiten’ and, thereby, the genre of Romantic fairy tale made famous by the Brothers Grimm. Heine’s Lied, catchy and melodious, becomes Lorelei’s song. And reaffirming the self-reflexive power of poetry to comment on its own medium (as well as its subject matter), Lorelei’s song is tragically perpetuated by Heine’s Lied. Another reason for its lasting success is that Heine sheds the glitz of the Medieval knight to privilege the itinerant sailor. The bright, sparkling colours of Medievalism make way for a more a humanised — one might say allegorised — subject, an Everyman/Everywoman. The subtle change renders the lyric appropriate to a raft of contexts and, as we mentioned in our first episode, to the concerns of the composer — from the tuneful bedtime Volkslied of Friedrich Silcher to the internal drama of Clara Schumann’s Kunstlied. But the masterstroke in Heine’s Lied — and its most tragic note — is that both parties, the sailor and Lorelei, are hapless to shape their fate. Seemingly unaware of the destruction below, Heine’s Lorelei continues singing, guiding sailor after sailor to their death. And looking up towards the cliff-edge, the sailor cannot ascertain the source of the entrancing sound. The sailor’s final sonic image is one of extreme beauty, but one unknown and unknowable.

Programmatically, it is clear to see why a generation of composers, including Clara Schumann, were drawn to Lorelei’s song. Her presence high on the rocks above, singing the death of a sailors while blithely combing her hair, makes not only for a gripping tale, but also offers an apt allegory for the sense-robbing power of music. She is as absorbed by the act of singing as the sailors are absorbed by the sound of her voice and her tuneful melody. An appropriate present for Robert, indeed!

Moritz von Schwind: Loreley (1857)

[1] Nancy B. Reich, Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, revised edition, 2001), 306–307.




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