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'Dass sie hier gewesen' D 775: Rückert and Schubert

Posted by Richard on  UTC 2019-01-16 15:29

With Friedrich Rückert's Kindertodtenlieder still fresh in our minds, let's look at one of the five Rückert poems that Schubert set to music: Dass sie hier gewesen, D 775.

This song is yet more evidence of the artistic heights which Schubert could attain when he had the shoulders of a fellow lyrical genius such as Rückert to stand on. Dass sie hier gewesen was published in 1823, the same year he stood on the shoulders of the lyrical genius Friedrich Stolberg to compose Lied auf dem Wasser zu singen, D 774.

In the approach to Dass sie hier gewesen, let's start with an opinion of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau's, who was not only a perceptive analyst but also a performer who delivered consistently good performances of a wide range of Lieder, not just those of Schubert. Someone, in other words, who knows in the most practical sense whereof he speaks.

The world of the sounds of his music is alien to nothing human, and already the first bars of DASS SIE HIER GEWESEN, for example, insubstantial wafting of air conjured up with pregnant Tristan tones, may have shocked the ears of contemporaries.

In June 1823 he created this song from a Rückert text. The beauty of this practically still neglected piece becomes manifest only to those who dig deep. The singer is required equally to avoid languishing as well dragging out the tempo, if the tender creation is to achieve its value.

Der Welt seiner Töne ist nichts Menschliches fremd, und schon die ersten Takte von DASS SIE HIER GEWESEN etwa, immateriell hauchende Lüfte mit tristanschwangeren Klängen zaubernd, mögen die Ohren der Zeitgenossen verschreckt haben.
Im Juni 1823 entstand dieses zauberhafte Lied nach Rückert. Nur dem Tieferdringenden enthüllt sich die Schönheit des praktisch immer noch vernachlässigten Stückes. Der Sänger ist gehalten, sich ebenso vor dem Schmachten wie vor dem Verschleppen der Tempi zu hüten, wenn das zarte Gebilde zur Geltung kommen soll.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Auf den Spuren der Schubert-Lieder, Brockhaus, Wiesbaden, 1971, p. 223f.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating: from Schubert's 600+ song compositions, 37 songs found their way into Fischer-Dieskau's 1990 Schubert-Lieder selection for EMI. All five of the Rückert songs were present in that collection. Whether the selection was made by Fischer-Dieskau or some nameless person in EMI doesn't really matter.

We don't need to add to the several musical analyses of the song, its Tristan chords and key resolution, but let's follow Fischer-Dieskau's advice and dig a little deeper into the text of Rückert's poem.

The text

Daß sie hier gewesen

Daß der Ostwind Düfte
Hauchet in die Lüfte,
Dadurch thut er kund,
Daß du hier gewesen.
By wafting perfumes in the air, the east wind announces that you have been here.
Daß hier Thränen rinnen,
Dadurch wirst du innen,
Wär's dir sonst nicht kund,
Daß ich hier gewesen.
From the tears that are flowing here it will be manifest to you, if you did not already know it, that I have been here.
Schönheit oder Liebe,
Ob versteckt sie bliebe?
Düfte thun es und Thränen kund,
Daß sie hier gewesen.
Beauty or Love, could each remain hidden? Perfumes and tears announce that they [Beauty and Love] have been here.

The text

Structural analysis

The metrics of the poem hold no surprises. Schubert's outstanding metrical sense has made his musical setting the complete definition of the metrical structure of the poem and so the reader will be happy to learn that no complex diagrams are needed. Nor are diagrams needed for the poem's rhyme scheme and repetitions: they are perfectly obvious to anyone with eyes and ears.

The source

The text used by Schubert comes from Rückert's 1822 collection of poetry, Oestliche Rosen, 'Eastern Roses'.

Schubert changed Rückert's text for this poem in one small respect. The first line of the second stanza of Rückert's original began Weil hier Thränen…. Schubert changed the Weil, 'because', to Daß, 'that', thus echoing the first line of the first stanza. The courageous emendation is indisputably an improvement and yet one more example of Schubert's poetic self-confidence – he was, without doubt, a first-class and sensitive reader of verse. A close reader, too, who mastered the detail of the texts he set to an extent that no normal reader would.

The translation

Many of the English translations of this text are inaccurate and misleading in one way or another. Rückert had a language brain that was capable of exploiting all the grammatical and syntactic possibilities of his beloved German language. Because of this the text is indeed a test of the translator's art.

In this poem we meet Rückert at his riddling best. Many translators have bitten on Rückert's hard nuts and come away with cracked teeth. All attempts to model Rückert's grammatical subtleties in an equivalent word-for-word English text end in incomprehensibility for the English reader. The only solution in our opinion is an idiomatic translation which presents the essential meaning of the text – the subtleties of the original we can now discuss here.

The last line

Nearly all translators stumble over the sie in the last line of the last stanza. On the surface this word seems to be ambiguous and is frequently rendered by careless translators as 'she', thus completely wrecking the logic of the poem.

In fact, the meaning of the word is quite clear and anything but ambiguous. Firstly and most obviously, it cannot mean 'you', because that would require it to be the capitalised polite form, Sie. Since the beloved was addressed as du in the first stanza, there would be no reason now to address her as Sie.

Secondly, it cannot mean sie, 'her', if only because that is inconsistent with the points of view in the poem: in the first stanza we have du, the intimate 'you'; in the second stanza we have ich, 'I'; the third stanza cannot now speak of 'she' – that would sabotage the narrative logic: after 'you' and then 'I', the point of view cannot now swivel to 'she'. Rückert would never get a modern degree in creative writing after making such an elementary POV mistake.

Unambiguously, sie means 'they', which refers to Schönheit oder Liebe, 'Beauty or Love'. It does not refer to that other pair here, Düfte… und Thränen, 'perfumes and tears', because they are the things that are announcing the presence of Beauty or Love.

The title

When the song was first published in September 1826 by Sauer and Leidesdorf, just like Rückert's poem, it had no title. Unfortunately, to the version reissued by Diabelli in 1830 someone added the title Dass sie hier gewesen – that extremely subtle last line of Rückert's poem that is so misunderstood and mistranslated. Moderns will see in that act the ineluctable operation of Murphy's Law.

Every song needs a title – but why, oh why, did it have to be that one? It seems clear that the someone who added the title didn't understand Rückert's poem, because in taking the line out of its context the superficial reading of sie as 'she' obliterates Rückert's subtlety. Any native German speaker will read that title and reach that interpretation. Once the brain has been preprogrammed in this way, the final line, when it comes, will always be misunderstood. In English the title of the song has established itself as the completely mangled 'That she has been here'.

The unreal third person

The sie in the second line of the last stanza is another Rückert speciality: Ob versteckt sie bliebe? Here bliebe is the third person second (unreal) conditional of the strong verb bleiben. The sie cannot be plural.

The fact that it is the third person means that the usual lazy translation as 'they' is inadmissible: the grammar is er/sie/es bliebe, 'he/she/it remain' (using the English subjunctive of 'remain') not sie blieben, 'they remain'. But what is the subject of the singular third person bliebe? It is Schönheit ODER Liebe, not Schönheit UND Liebe. In which case, Rückert's logician's mind is quite correct: Schönheit bliebe versteckt OR Liebe bliebe versteckt, which we have translated with 'it'.

The reader has to get up early in the morning to keep up with Rückert's use of German. And read slowly and carefully, just as he or she should do for the work of all master poets; read what is there and not what you think is there.

If you are not partial to our explanation of this point you should perhaps consider Rückert's separate use of the individual elements in Düfte thun es und Thränen kund, 'Perfumes [announce] and tears announce', a construction which (we think quite deliberately) reflects the OR relationship of the immaterial Platonic ideals Schönheit ODER Liebe which stand behind their physical manifestations, Düfte ODER Thränen.

Rückert's model

Rückert's Oestliche Rosen contained many 'translations' from medieval Persian authors, principally the writer using the pen-name Hafez (1315?-1390?). We can argue whether Rückert's poems in this collection are more Rückert than Hafez, or even whether they are translations at all in the commonly understood meaning of that word. That is far outside our scope for the moment.

We merely quote the opinion of the orientalist Omar Pound, who shied away from attempting the translation of anything by Hafez in his own anthology:

Hafiz seems to me to be untranslatable, the music vanishes and the gossamer left behind soon evaporates.

Pound, Omar. Arabic and Persian Poems, Fulcrum Press, London, 1970, p. 24.

Probably the most accurate statement is that Rückert transposed the Persian into an equivalently delicate and elusive German. Daß der Ostwind Düfte is a good example of that technique.

Your author, aided by his foxed and dog-eared vade mecum, Farsi for Dummies, has scoured the works of Hafez (and Rumi and one or two others) for a direct source for this poem. There is none. The poem is a reconstruction in fine Rückert style of the spirit of Persian poetry and particularly the 'gossamer' of Hafez – almost a sort of seance with these poets. If someone reading this knows of a direct Persian source for the poem, then speak!

Text analysis

Our analysis of the text of the poem is therefore not going to be an assessment of a translation from a Persian original, but an analysis of a piece of German poetry inspired by medieval Persian diction. Let's look at these influences first.

The east wind

Rückert does not shape his verse out of poetic expediency: generally speaking, everything in his poems is there for a reason, redundancy is absent and the structure of a poem is carefully conceived and punctiliously worked out – the position of an element in a poem has also its justification. Thus, Rückert fans will read the first three words of the present poem and realise that a major theme has been announced: the east wind.

It is unfortunate that in the European tradition the east wind is hardly considered to be a soft romantic thing – east winds are cold and fierce, bringers of misfortune. Most modern readers of this poem will have to clear their heads of unpleasant associations.

Rückert has acquired this theme from Hafez, in whose poetry it plays an important role. In reality, certainly in Hafez' home region of Shiraz, the saba is a wind or gentle breeze that blows around dawn from the east. Greek scholars will think of the Greek east wind, Apeliotes, which, too, was a gentle wind, born from the rising sun.

Thus in Hafez we can meet the saba in various language variants as the east wind or the morning breeze.

For the Persian mystics, Hafez amongst them, the east is considered to be a spiritual source and the saba not simply a wind but a communication channel which carries symbolic messages.


The messages are usually in the form of announcements – in this sense the wind serves as a herald or harbinger and can have a revelatory function. The message is contained in a symbolic, material wrapper, such as a scent or a sound, as a letter in an envelope.

The very first line of the first stanza has stated this theme of the east wind and the remainder of the poem will elucidate the messages the east wind has brought. Once we realise that this poem is in large measure a poem about the announcements brought by the east wind, we begin to understand the nuances of the German language that Rückert has used in the rest of the poem.

For example, Rückert writes Dadurch thut er kund, that is, using the verb kundtun, to 'announce', 'broadcast', 'make known', 'express' etc. Sensitive native speakers will puzzle over the use of this word in a poem of delicate passion, of fragrances and tears, a word which modern German dictionaries classify variously as 'elevated', 'literary' or simply 'obsolete'. To such people it probably now sounds like an Amtshandlung, a bureaucratic act, or the sort of Bekanntmachung poster that films of World War II show being nailed onto barn doors.

But Rückert, the great philologist and translator, is being quite specific in representing to us the precise function of the east wind in Persian poetry: an announcer, a herald, a reporter. The works of Hafez are not only full of east winds, they are full of east winds conveying fragrances. They are the vectors, if you will, of these symbolic messages.

Reading the wind

It is therefore no surprise that, when Ostwind is the third word of the first line of the poem, then Düfte, 'fragrances', 'perfumes' is the fourth. In Hafez, the east or morning wind and the fragrances it carries are frequently associated with the blown hair of the beloved.

The theme of announcement introduced in the first stanza by kundtun is picked up in the second stanza through the use of a construction with innewerden, 'to be conscious of', 'to become aware of', 'to grasp', 'to internalise', ultimately 'to understand' – which is, in effect, the reciprocal act of kundtun. Kundtun demands innewerden for its completion.

The term innewerden in the second line of the second stanza is then reflected into the third line, Wär's dir sonst nicht kund, 'if you did not already know it'. (The German word kund is descended from an old participial version of können, 'can'. English speakers might think of old dialect forms such as 'ken', e.g. 'if ye didna ken already'.) German speakers should reflect that Rückert has moved from kund tun, via innewerden, to kund sein.

Behind the first two stanzas, therefore, lies the mystic act of Deutung, 'interpretation', the hermeneutic reading of auguries and runes, in this case the 'announcements' brought by the morning wind, which we are required to 'interpret' so that we 'grasp' them.

In this interplay of announcement and reception, once again, Rückert's wording is extremely precise. We are in the presence of a master of language.

In the final stanza we are asked to ponder whether Beauty or Love can remain versteckt, 'hidden' in these announcements – that is, hidden away from interpretation and thus hermetic to all but the sage.

In the poem, versteckt is an important word that states the alternative to the correct interpretation of the announcements. The question is: can the two abstractions, Beauty or Love, be detected in the material messages? The answer to the question comes in the third line of the last stanza, in which the two material messengers, Düfte thun es und Thränen kund, 'Perfumes and tears announce', that is, 'reveal' that each of them was there. 'Perfumes' and 'tears' being the symbolic material vectors which contain their immaterial messages.


We should never underestimate the depth of Schubert's lyrical understanding. It is true that he flattered his friends, Mayrhofer in particular, by applying his genius to their third-rate poetical tosh. That the wonderful settings of the Rückert poems and Stolberg's Lied auf dem Wasser zu singen were composed in the horror year of Schubert's syphilis, 1823, might make us think that the absence at that time of many of his 'helpful' friends left him more space to exercise his formidable discrimination.

Until at least the middle of that year, when Schober left for his acting career in Breslau, Schubert would still have had access to Schober's library, which is where he presumably found Rückert's book. For completeness we note that it was during this time, too, that August von Platen, an amateur orientalist who also knew Rückert, was nibbling around the Schubert circles through the intermediary of Franz von Bruchmann. It seems unlikely, though, that Platen, who was busy boosting his own works, led Schubert to Rückert's Oestliche Rosen.

At some point Schubert stuck his finger into the 365 poems in Rückert's Oestliche Rosen and pulled out the wonderful, mystic, Persian rose of Daß der Ostwind Düfte, along with another four fragrant masterpieces – one lyrical genius standing on another's shoulders.