Franz Schubert and Ludwig Rellstab

Posted by Richard on  UTC 2019-09-09 14:27

In his twenties Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860) began to scribble. He kept scribbling until, sixty-one years old, the pen fell from his dead hand.

His bread and butter scribbling took the form of music, concert and theatre reviews – his metier, essentially, was criticising creative artists. If we were to assign him just one job description, that would be 'theatre critic'.

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Ludwig Rellstab (1799-1860) by C. Diedrich, Berlin. Date unknown. Image: Bibliothèque nationale de France.

He travelled around Germany and even reached Vienna in 1825. The list of his contacts swelled more with each journey: anybody who was anybody had met or had something to do with Rellstab – with the exception of course of little Franz Schubert, who, as we never tire of pointing out, was a nobody.

Unfortunately for posterity, Rellstab was a scribbler of heroic dimensions. When he wasn't travelling or scribbling his criticism, he was scribbling his own literary works and composing his own music. What remained of him after the pen fell from his hand is contained in his Gesammelte Schriften, 'Collected Writings', which finally reached 24 volumes, plus a couple of volumes of autobiographical sketches, plus a mountain of manuscripts archived in various institutions. Scribble, scribble…

It didn't take long after his death for his modest fame to evaporate, as though he had never been.

Reviews are anyway in their nature evanescent, no matter how good the reviewer. The odd scholar might turn to the reviews of this or that work to find out what contemporaries thought of it, but when, for example, people think of Mendelssohn and think of the ever popular Overture to Fingal's Cave, they fortunately know nothing of the very grumpy review that Rellstab wrote of it: 'dull' he called it.

Ironically, we have no Rellstab reviews of Schubert's music, because Rellstab had no idea that Schubert even existed. He was oblivious to the existence of the man who would go on to give him a little piece of immortality. Rellstab scribbled for forty years to no lasting effect; Schubert spent a few days setting seven of his poems to music and got him at least to the foothills of Parnassus.

As a critic, some found him estimable, others a 'pedant' [ADB]. Robert Schumann thought him a 'philistine'. Once written and printed, Rellstab's reviews decomposed into insignificance within the space of a few days. An act of egotism such as reprinting them all in book form does not make them any more relevant to posterity.

Rellstab's novels and short stories are today unread and unreadable. Rellstab's poetry is drivel and is deservedly unread and unknown – except for the seven poems foolishly set to music by Schubert.

Your author is too cruel? Perhaps, but some payback for the torture of dutifully reading his collected poetry in search of at least one spark is fully justified. If your author's opinion seems harsh to you, Rellstab's would-be defenders should a), also waste several hours of their rapidly disappearing lives reading through this drivel and b), consider the fact that no Germanist – none at all, as far as I know – has wasted a single line writing about Rellstab the poet: his poetry is simply beneath consideration, such drivel it is.

It is drivel because Rellstab's poetic technique consists in shuffling around phrases and images faded by use, mostly the dregs of the worst of the Romantics, finally to come up with some impressionist blur.

But in this impressionist blur there is no intellectual content that makes the poem worth the read – just writing of babbling brooks and jolly flowers is not sufficient. No one reads a Rellstab poem and afterwards thinks: 'how interesting – I'd never thought of that'. This defect will become all too clear when we look in detail at the Rellstab poems that Schubert set and which are now considered part of the posthumous Schwanengesang collection (D 957).

The irony is, though, that the same manuscript folder in which Schubert wrote out his fair copy of his settings of the seven Rellstab poems also contains his six settings of poems by Heinrich Heine.

The contrast between the two poets, here wrapped together in one album, could not be more striking: Rellstab – faded, fustian, ordinary and brainless; Heine – new, refreshing, thoughtful, intellectual and edgy. Rellstab's poetry was anodyne and inoffensive – no censor would object; Heine's work was anything but anodyne and would make the Austrian censors reach for their smelling salts. Rellstab represents a world that is fading, Heine a new world still to come. Schubert's album is the stela to Terminus which stands at one of the great cultural crossroads of 19th century Europe.

It is also ironic that Rellstab was touting his verses for a setting by Beethoven. The motive for doing this is clear: the market for poetry was (and is still) quite tiny, but set it to music and you have a much, much greater audience. Joseph von Eichendorff's career and fame were not built on his printed poems but upon the countless musical settings they were given. How many people would have heard of Bob Dylan's 'Hey, Mr Tambourine Man' if he had left it merely as a written poem? Today, the market for poetry books is minute; the market for songs gigantic.

That Rellstab should turn up in Vienna in 1825 and completely ignore Schubert is just another of the many ironies of the composer's life, the composer whom the Austrians liked to call, once he was safely dead, the Liederfürst, the 'Prince of Song'. That irony is just one more indication of what a musical nonentity Schubert was to his European contemporaries. All that tinkling and singing away in Schubertiaden did nothing for him in terms of his career. The story was much the same when Rochlitz visited Vienna in 1822, hoping to meet Beethoven.

Rellstab got some of his poetry in Beethoven's in-tray, which stayed there until Beethoven's death. At that point the poems seem to have been handed on to Schubert.

Perhaps Schubert hoped to break away from the Viennese music publishing logjam and get his work published and noticed in the much greater market in the states of northern Germany. We proposed this as his motive for setting six of Heine's poems from Die Heimkehr. We can only attribute Schubert's failure of taste in setting the seven Rellstab poems to professional desperation: sell music, or starve. Perhaps, too, the fact that these poems were found among the effects of the revered Beethoven may have coloured his judgment.

Your author has hardly any musical knowledge or talent at all, but likes to imagine hearing traces of embarrassment and musical desperation in Schubert's settings. Regular readers of this website will already know how much we respect and admire Schubert, not particularly for his musical genius (which is beyond our scope), but for his heroic life in the pursuit of that genius during unforgiving times. We have often pointed out his sensitivity and discrimination to written German, which was capable of improving a poet's work whenever necessary. But we have to be honest: Schubert was a genius, but not an infallible one.

The musical convolutions of Schubert's settings of Rellstab's poems suggest – only 'suggest', for how can we prove this? – that Schubert was not really enjoying the task. This was a marketing opportunity, just as the Heine poems were, not a work of love.

Schubert's Rellstab settings

Let's look more closely at the Rellstab poems in this collection. The understanding of what Schubert did with them musically we have to leave to the musical people to decide. But we as text analysts will have to consider most of Rellstab's texts stanza by stanza, so numerous and egregious their defects are. Places where Schubert's text departs from Rellstab's are marked and display a note in the tooltip.

A word about the translations in this article. No translator likes translating rubbish. When the primary task is to transfer meaning from one language to another, an original that is meaningless rubbish is a challenge that forces the translator also to write rubbish. But some translators are so keen to produce something readable that they ignore all the deficiencies of the original and improve it. This is the sort of 'poetry' that only works if the reader ignores grammar and syntax and just responds to single words and phrases. The translations here aim to be accurate as possible, even when that makes the English a painful read.

Liebesbotschaft / Message of love

Rauschendes Bächlein,
So silbern und hell,
Eilst zur Geliebten
So munter und schnell?
Ach trautes Bächlein
Mein Bote sey Du;
Bringe die Grüße
Des Fernen ihr zu.
Whispering brooklet so silver and pale, are you hurrying to the beloved so cheerfully and quickly? Oh, trusty brooklet you are my messenger; bring the greetings from the distant one to her.

The reader is going to encounter many 'whispering', 'murmuring' and 'babbling' streams in this collection – it is a formula that Rellstab uses to prop up his verse when he is at a loss for anything else to write or which he uses as a kind of mantra to get his poems going. Where would Rellstab be without the 'pathetic fallacy' of conversations with inanimate objects which so infests the work of the Romantics? In trouble.

This first stanza also gives us a good example of Rellstab's sloppiness with language: the stream which is 'hurrying'… 'quickly'. As any stream will tell you, it is difficult to 'hurry' without going 'quickly'. Still, Rellstab needed a rhyme for hell, so schnell it is.

Rellstab's careless use of der Ferne, 'the distant [man]' also throws some sticks in the reader's path to understanding. The basic meaning of fern is 'distant'; the reader will thus be puzzled when it turns out that the stream is still a stream and not a river when it flows past or through the beloved's garden. So 'distant', so far apart, therefore, they cannot be. A more inventive mind might have used the transformation of stream to river as an indicator of distance and separation with advantage – not Rellstab, though.

Worse, though, is Rellstab's jarring change of point of view: the narrator describes himself oddly as 'the distant one', when in fact at this moment the beloved is the distant one. After a bit of headscratching we might guess that 'the greetings of the distant one' is intended to reflect the phrase the messenger stream would speak to the beloved. This may be what Rellstab intended, but it is not what he has written: by following the 'message' with ihr zu, 'to her', he only intensifies the jerk of the changed point of view. Clear? Absolutely!

All' ihre Blumen
Im Garten gepflegt,
Die sie so lieblich
Am Busen trägt,
Und ihre Rosen
In purpurner Gluth,
Bächlein, erquicke
Mit kühlender Fluth.
Refresh with cooling water, brooklet, all her flowers tended in the garden, which she so sweetly bears on her bosom, and her roses in purple glow.

The first stanza was just warm-up example of how to write language that makes no sense. In the second stanza, the nonsense pedal is decisively floored.

The reader has to work out whether the flowers or the garden (or both) is/are gepflegt, 'tended' or 'cared for'. Worse is to come, for in the next couple of lines we learn that the lady carries 'them' on her bosom, 'them' in this case being 'all her flowers', thus projecting a risible image into the minds of careful readers. Tough stuff, syntax – try and cut it at your peril.

Readers will notice that in the translation we have had to turn the sentence around to free ourselves from Rellstab's crackpot syntax.

Even worse, we now have 'her roses' just added in with 'and', leaving us to wonder why these do not belong with 'all' the other flowers in the garden. These roses, we are told, are in purpurner Gluth, which presents the translator with many problems.

Gluth implies the hot intensity of a glowing coal – Goethe, the immeasurably better poet, wrote of the Todesgluth of the fish out of water. We can all get our heads around that image, but the image of the 'purple glow' is a mystery. Is this merely a hamfisted way of indicating that the time is around sunset? Who knows? Certainly not the reader. Whatever. The roses, currently 'glowing hot' will be cooled by the waters of the stream.

Wenn sie am Ufer,
In Träume versenkt,
Meiner gedenkend
Das Köpfchen hängt;
Tröste die Süße
Mit freundlichem Blick,
Denn der Geliebte
Kehrt bald zurück.
If she is on the bank, submerged in dreams, thinking of me, the little head hanging; comfort the sweet one with friendly glance, for the loved one will return soon.

The image of the beloved standing(?) with bowed head on the bank of the stream forms, as it were, the slice of plain white bread at the base of this sandwich. On top of that Rellstab spreads a dollop of strawberry jam ('immersed in dreams') and then on top of that a dollop of peanut butter ('thinking of me'). One might work but not both: Eew! The proximity of the 'bank of a stream' and 'submerged' would worry most other poets, not Rellstab, however.

After strawberry jam and peanut butter, the narrator refers to the woman as 'the sweet one'. The pathetic fallacy is once more stretched to its limits by the narrator's request for the brook to look at her with a 'friendly glance'.

Whereas in the first stanza the narrator confused the reader by referring to himself as 'the distant one', here, where the term would in fact have been correct, he terms himself 'the loved one'.

Neigt sich die Sonne
Mit röthlichem Schein,
Wiege das Liebchen
In Schlummer ein.
Rausche sie murmelnd
In süße Ruh,
Flüstre ihr Träume
Der Liebe zu.
When the sun inclines with a red light, rock the beloved to sleep. Mesmerise her murmuringly into sweet rest, whisper dreams of love to her.

The translator is tempted to help out Rellstab's German by using 'sets' where the poet mysteriously simply uses 'inclines'. The whole phrase is a clumsy poetism for 'sunset'. The 'purple glow' of the preceding stanza, which we thought might hint at sunset, has now become a 'red light'.

Still talking to the stream, the narrator asks it to 'rock the beloved to sleep'. We left her on the bank with bowed head: the logistical problems faced by the stream in now rocking her to sleep seem insuperable.

We can only assume that rauschen is here meant as 'mesmerise', 'bewitch'. We had an extensive discussion of the meaning of this many-faceted word in the context of Goethe's poem Der Fischer. Whereas Goethe's handling of the ambiguities of rauschen was masterful, Rellstab ruins the effect and loses all these subtleties by adding the gratuitous half-duplicate, murmelnd.

Finally, anyone who wants to see what a master poet makes of a poem of separation and longing only needs to consider Goethe's immensely skilful Nähe des Geliebten.

Liebesbotschaft from Schwanengesang, D 957. Lotte Schöne, soprano; unknown pianist. Recorded 16 September 1927 (Odeon). Online.

Kriegers Ahnung / Warrior's foreboding

In tiefer Ruh liegt um mich her
Der Waffenbrüder Kreis;
Mir ist das Herz so bang und schwer,
Von Sehnsucht mir so heiß.
In deep repose my brothers in arms lie around me; my heart seems so anxious and heavy, [my heart] seems hot with longing.

In competent poetic hands the subject of this poem would have potential; in Rellstab's incompetent hands we get his characteristic muddle.

One of his most fundamental failings as a poet is that he cannot leave feelings implicit in situations – or, turning it around, he cannot let emotions arise out of situations. This is T.S. Eliot's famous poetic doctrine of the 'objective correlative', which, although first formulated in these terms by Eliot in the 20th century, has been understood intuitively by good poets down the ages.

A good author might write 'she fluttered a brief wave at me, turned quickly and walked away', that is, would describe a scene or event and let the reader derive the related emotions. A good movie director would do just the same in images.

The incompetent author, in contrast, cannot bear to let the situation speak for itself, with all its potential ambiguities, but has to render emotions in words: 'I looked on, horrified, as she fluttered a brief, bitter wave at me, turned on her heel and walked off with sad but determined steps, her heart aching'. The utterly incompetent author – and Rellstab is in this category – brings in the feelings of a few inanimate objects, just in case we don't get it. He would stir a 'threatening' sky and a 'relentless' wind into the mixture at least.

The title of the poem equates to something like 'the warrior's presentiment', or we might say 'foreboding'. We might consider that the title says all there is to say about what is to come in the poem, but the 'foreboding' turns out to be a very complex feeling.

The first stanza sets up a catalogue of verbalised feelings that will be extended as the poem proceeds. We have a 'heart' that 'seems' so 'anxious' and 'heavy' (another example of Rellstab's pointless duplications) as well as seeming 'hot' with 'longing'.

Wie hab' ich oft so süß geruht
An ihrem Busen warm!
Wie freundlich schien des Heerdes Gluth,
Lag sie in meinem Arm!
How I have often sweetly rested on her warm bosom! How friendlily shone the glow of the hearth [when] she lay in my arm!

The second stanza adds more verbalised emotion to the catalogue: 'sweetly' rested, just in case the (male) reader cannot imagine the feeling of resting on a 'warm' bosom with a 'friendly' glow coming from the hearth.

Hier, wo der Flammen düstrer Schein
Ach nur auf Waffen spielt,
Hier fühlt die Brust sich ganz allein,
Der Wehmuth Thräne quillt.
Here, where the sombre glimmer of the flames, Ah, only plays on weapons, here the breast feels all alone, the tear of melancholy wells up.

In the third stanza we come to understand at last the duality of the emotions announced at the end of the first stanza. The contrasting situations of the loving embrace in front of the domestic hearth (the Sehnsucht, 'longing') and the waking vigil at the army camp fire (the anxious and heavy heart) has potential, the two scenes being united with the image of the flickering fire, but Rellstab's poetic technique is just not up to handling it.

He can only give us second order, verbalised emotions: the 'sombre' light of the fire, the 'breast' that 'feels all alone' and the 'melancholic' tear. In the previous stanza we encountered a warm female bosom, now it has become a male breast. Simply telling the reader of these feelings does not evoke those feelings in the reader. The psychological contrast of 'fear' (although that word is never used) and 'longing' makes it difficult to imagine the two occupying the mind at the same time.

Herz! Daß der Trost Dich nicht verläßt!
Es ruft noch manche Schlacht. –
Bald ruh' ich wohl und schlafe fest,
Herzliebste – Gute Nacht!
Heart! That the consolation does not desert you! More battles are calling. – soon I shall rest well and sleep soundly, sweetheart – Good Night!

After mangling the two contrasting situations, in the final stanza Rellstab runs out of steam in trying to bring the situation to some conclusion. We wonder which Trost, 'consolation' the heart is in danger of losing – we haven't heard of one so far. Unless, that is, the 'longing' for the lady is that consolation. But then, we pedants worry at turning a 'longing' into a 'comfort'. It just makes no sense.

More syntactic riddles: the exclamation marks after Herz and verläßt express modes, not periods. Somewhere we need a grammatical crutch between Daß and Es ruft to understand the causative flow of these lines. Lacking that, we are left wondering whether the subsequent battles which are calling are supposed to be the cause that the 'consolation' does not leave the heart (no, your author doesn't understand that sentence, either). The dash certainly forms some kind of caesura, but to what effect we have no idea. The sequence of a full stop and a dash is in itself quite problematic.

Is the coming 'rest' and 'sleep' (Rellstab doubling yet again) something that will now occur ('soon'), or at a later point, or even as death in battle? No idea. Worse: the sentence after the dash changes the point of view abruptly: in the second stanza the beloved was addressed as 'her' and 'she'; suddenly she is addressed directly and is wished 'good night'. Rellstab's poetic incompetence turns the potential contrast into a shambles of ambiguities and points of view.

Ultimately, the basic problem of the poem, leaving all its other infelicities aside, is that it doesn't deliver what the title announces. The phrase Kriegers Ahnung, 'warrior's foreboding' suggests that something bad is sooner or later going to happen in a coming battle – sooner, we assume, from the line 'soon I shall rest well and sleep soundly' addressed to the beloved.

But the line, loaded with ironic pathos – or pathetic irony, if you prefer – delivers only a fizzle, not a bang, because, once again, Rellstab cannot resist one of his irritating duplicates ruhe and schlafe. In this context this duplication is particularly irritating, since ruhe echoes preceding instances in the poem, whereas schlafe just pops up gratuitously here. Furthermore, the prospect of 'peace' and 'sleep' doesn't seem like much of a foreboding: to translators and analysts of Rellstab's poetry engaged in the tedious battle to make some sense of his work it sounds very welcome indeed.

The martial poem of soldierly foreboding is now at its end, twitching in its final agonies, mangled beyond all help. The coup de grâce is administered by the greeting addressed to a person not currently present: Gute Nacht!, exclamation mark included. Is this some allusion to a long night into which one should not go gently? No – it's just 'Goodnight'.

Frühlingssehnsucht / Spring longing

Säuselnde Lüfte
Wehend so mild,
Blumiger Düfte
Athmend erfüllt!
Wie haucht Ihr mich wonnig begrüßend an!
Wie habt Ihr dem pochenden Herzen gethan?
Es möchte Euch folgen auf luftiger Bahn!
Wohin?
Rustling breezes blowing so gently are filled with [the] flowery scents [they] have breathed in! How blissfully you breathe on me in greeting! What have you done to my beating heart? It wants to follow you on your airy path! To where?

For some quite inexplicable reason, in this poem Rellstab creates stanzas that consist of four very short lines, three longish lines and a final line with only two syllables (one iamb). The four short lines are rhymed a-b-a-b.

Short, rhymed lines are notoriously difficult to write: the only justification for writing them is showing off. Your author has found no named precedent for the form used in this poem and would be surprised in fact if there were one: what four short lines, three long lines and one tiny line are supposed to be good for poetically is simply a mystery.

To achieve his four short, rhymed lines Rellstab has to break German syntax on the wheel. In our commentary on the first poem we looked at, Liebesbotschaft, we could have said much the same thing, only there at least he gave himself a few more syllables to work with.

Not only is he squeezed in a vice of scansion and rhyme, he is forced to end each line with an enjambment, that is, an unbroken flow into the next line. His reader becomes tetchy at such mannered versification: what is the point of writing four short lines with three enjambments that have to be reconstructed by the reader's brain into two lines or even one line, in order to make any sense at all?

Having levered, prised and hammered his way through his four extremely short lines, he then gives us three lines of ten or eleven syllables. What a relief! – except that now, just in case the poetics are getting too easy, he imposes a rhyme scheme on himself of c-c-c.

The advice to the poet is the same as that to the pianist: if Liszt's La campanella is your encore, you had better make it look easy; if you, poet, choose a tricky verse form: ditto, ditto. In Rellstab's virtuoso piece we hear the creak of tortured fingers and the drops of sweat (and blood, probably) splashing on the paper. It's even less fun for the reader than it was for the author.

The solitary iambic line which concludes each stanza is just an embarrassment. An imaginative poet wanting to show off can pack these short end-lines with wit and surprises. But even those tricky things sapphics allow the poet five syllables to round the stanza off – Rellstab allows himself two. Having clamped himself in the poetic vice of two syllable words, Rellstab is not imaginative in choosing them: his words are 'where to?', 'downwards?', 'why?', 'and you?' and 'only you!' – to which brainless pap we can only say 'why bother'?

Rellstab's text is bad enough for the German speaking reader, but at least they can keep going backwards and forwards over it until they have finally parsed it; someone listening for the first time to this poem being sung will merely say: 'does not compute'. For the translator it's a nightmare on wheels.

All Rellstab's failings as a poet surface in this poem: the impressionistic vocabulary, with one kitsch word after another; the pathetic fallacy; the tortured syntax; the repetition of redundant words; the tedious verbalisation of feelings and the sheer level of violence done to the German language in order to make it fit the idiotic pattern.

The Romantic speed reader skips through the poem and by the end has perceived only a heap of 'nice' words and phrases: Bächlein, Silbern, Fluren und Himmel, sehnend, Sonne, Gold, Wonne, hold, selig begrüßendes, tiefblauen Himmel, Wälder und Höh[e], Blüthenschnee… What a charming poem!

Bächlein, so munter
Rauschend zumal,
Wallen hinunter
Silbern in's Thal.
Die schwebende Welle, dort eilt sie dahin!
Tief spiegeln sich Fluren und Himmel darin.
Was ziehst Du mich, sehnend verlangender Sinn,
Hinab?
Little streams, so cheerfully rushing, surging silvern downwards to the valley. The rocking waves, they hurry there! Meadows and sky are reflected deep in them. Why are you pulling me, sense demanding longing, downwards?

Your translator did his best, but the schwebende Welle and the surface of brooklets that reflects 'deeply' both meadows and sky exceed his imaginative powers. Now reeling, the sehnend verlangender Sinn strikes home as a merciful knockout punch. What on earth does that mean?

Note that Schubert disliked the oddity of wallen, which describes a turbulent liquid surface (for example, on boiling water), and corrected it to wollen, 'want to'. Whether this was a deliberate emendation or a transcription error is unclear. However, it underlines the oddity of beginning the stanza with a noun that is indeterminate in number – only when the reader gets to wallen/wollen on line 3 is the ambiguity resolved into a plural.

Rellstab could have written unambiguously plural nouns such as Bäche, Quellen, Flüsse or even Ströme… wallen and established the number of the noun in the first word. As it is, however, he could not free himself from his limited Romantic vocabulary. Nothing but a Bächlein, yet another Bächlein, would do.

Grüßender Sonne
Spielendes Gold,
Hoffende Wonne
Bringest Du hold.
Wie labt mich Dein selig begrüßendes Bild!
Es lächelt am tiefblauen Himmel so mild,
Und hat mir das Auge mit Thränen gefüllt! –
Warum?
The greeting sun of playful gold, hopeful bliss you [the sun] bring kindly. How your blessedly welcoming image refreshes me! It smiles on the deep blue heaven so kindly, and has filled my eye with tears! – Why?

This stanza is packed with the evocative vocabulary of the Romantic era. Here we have not only the chocolate box lid but the box itself, stuffed with those chocolates with the nice runny caramel centres. Snaffling one may be fun, but queasiness and humming teeth set in long before we get to the eighth sticky delight.

Yet again the repeated enjambment forces us to parse this word heap carefully.

When it has all been disentangled and we have even reconciled ourselves with some difficulty to the rhyme of Bild, mild, and gefüllt (perhaps that's how they speak in Berlin) we can only agree with the closing word: Warum?, 'why?' What has German done to you, Herr Rellstab, that you treat it this way?

Grünend umkränzet
Wälder und Höh'!
Schimmernd erglänzet
Blüthenschnee!
So dränget sich Alles zum bräutlichen Licht;
Es schwellen die Keime, die Knospe bricht;
Sie haben gefunden was ihnen gebricht:
Und Du?
Woods and heights crowned with green! Shimmeringly glints the snow of blossom! So everything strains towards the bridal light; the seeds swell, the buds break open; they have found what they had lacked: and you?

Another stanza packed with words and phrases from Romantic Verse for Dummies. Bräutliches Licht, 'bridal light', is initially startling, ultimately baffling, as everything 'strains towards' it.

Rastloses Sehnen!
Wünschendes Herz,
Immer nur Thränen,
Klage und Schmerz?
Auch ich bin mir schwellender Triebe bewußt!
Wer stillet mir endlich die drängende Lust?
Nur Du befreiest den Lenz in der Brust,
Nur Du!
Unceasing longing! Heart filled with desire – always only tears, complaint and pain? I too know swelling desire! Who will alleviate this unrelenting longing? Only you can free the springtime in the breast, only you!

There is a core conceit in this poem – the beloved who frees the lover's springtime mood – that holds some promise. We found similar potential in Kriegers Ahnung. But in both poems Rellstab shows us that he simply does not have the poetic brain to develop such themes.

He seems to get lost in the intricacies of his own making, a problem that is easy to illustrate: when we finally stumble upon the last line Nur Du!, 'only you', we realise how futile these 'tail phrases' have been. Nur Du is present at the start of the immediately preceding line, so really quite redundant; all the others have added nothing to the central theme of the poem. All the others were rhetorical questions; the final one is an emphatic statement. They could all be cut out and no one would notice.

Ständchen / Serenade

Leise flehen meine Lieder
Durch die Nacht zu Dir;
In den stillen Hain hernieder,
Liebchen, komm' zu mir!
My songs plead softly with you through the night; come down to me, Beloved, in the still grove!

With Schubert's setting for this poem, the fruit machine of musical fame clanked to a halt with three sevens lined up – jackpot! Unfortunately he was no longer around to collect the coins as they tumbled out. Others did that for him.

As we shall see in detail soon, Rellstab's text consists of line after line of lazy, brainless kitsch. For more than a century and a half, singers have performed this song and we have had no reports of members of their audiences bursting out in laughter or having to blow into a paper bag to try and bring their hyperventilation under control – although in reading Rellstab's texts your author has come close to it. How, the reader asks, did Schubert manage to create a melody of such excellence that most listeners are able to float over the disgusting textual mess beneath it?

Schubert focussed on the possibilities of the metre and not the underlying text. Once we concentrate on the metrical form of the poem, the melody – like all good melodies – almost writes itself:

Leise | flehen | meine | Lieder
Durch die | Nacht zu Dir;
In den | stillen | Hain her | nieder,
Liebchen, | komm' zu mir!

Key: long/stressed, short/unstressed.

The prosodist sees this stanza as two pairs of lines. The first line of each pair is a trochaic tetrameter (i.e. four trochees, long-short, ¯ ˘), the second consists of a trochee and a dactyl, long-short-short, ¯ ˘ ˘.

The dactyl at the end of each couplet here performs the task it does in so much poetry – it closes the couplet down. Even Rellstab is enough of a poet to realise that no enjambment can follow this kind of dactyl; Schubert, the metrical master, understood that, too. In this poem, the couplet rules.

The rhyme scheme reflects these two couplets: a-b-a-b. In the first stanza at least, Rellstab gives a nod towards this structure in his use of the semi-colon between the two couplets.

Schubert gave the long vowel of the second and fourth trochees extra length and extra stress, almost creating a 'super trochee' as it were. Bang – Schubert has his melody.

Of course, it's all very obvious once you have heard the tune, but when you are staring at a blank sheet of scored paper, not so much. Schubert's genius becomes apparent in the way he varies the melodic line even though Rellstab kept strictly to the metrical plan in each stanza.

We can't stay amiable for too long, though – remember that this is Ludwig Rellstab we are dealing with. We note the ambiguity of Durch die Nacht, where durch could mean either 'through' as an arrow might pass through the night or 'through(out)', meaning, God forbid, all night long. Heine's 'Katzenjammer' comes to mind.

It is also unusual to find the verb flehen, 'to plead' or 'to beg' in such a nakedly intransitive form: just as in English, one would plead to someone or for something, but just pleading 'into the night' to no one in particular sounds as odd in English as it does in German. If the flehen were directed at the beloved herself, she would be Dich, not Dir and no zu would be necessary.

This grammatical conundrum is the reason why my refractory brain keeps hearing fliehen, 'flee' instead of flehen. Yes, I know, 'songs fleeing to you through the night', meh… but at least it's soundly grammatical.

Where would Romantic poetry be without stille Haine, still 'groves' or 'glades'? Lost in the dark wood, that's where.

Flüsternd schlanke Wipfel rauschen
In des Mondes Licht;
Des Verräthers feindlich Lauschen
Fürchte, Holde, nicht.
Slender treetops rustle whisperingly in the light of the moon; do not fear the hostile eavesdropping of the traitor, my darling.

In the second stanza Rellstab is up to his old duplication tricks: the slender treetops flüsterndrauschen, 'whisperingly rustle'.

The mention of the Verräther, the 'traitor', a very strong word, turns the idyllic tryst into an unpleasantly threatening event, made worse by the way that feindlich, 'hostile' is used to describe the eavesdropping. This vocabulary is fiercely extreme. It leaves the reader wondering who these horrible traitors are. Whoever they are, we hear nothing more of them.

The effect is made worse by yet another Rellstab duplication: just in case his readers overlook the implications of the word Verräther, 'traitor' – already wildly over the top – he follows it immediately with feindlich, 'hostile'.

There is a poetic tradition of the lovers' snitch. Schubert fans may recall the threat of the Spähern, the 'snoopers' on the lovers' boat-borne tryst in Leitner's poem Fischers Liebesglück (1821) (D 933, 1827). But 'traitor' is the wrong register for a situation that requires 'snooper'.

Hörst die Nachtigallen schlagen?
Ach! sie flehen Dich,
Mit der Töne süßen Klagen
Flehen sie für mich.
Do you hear the nightingales singing? Ah! they are pleading with you, in the tones of sweet complaint they are pleading for me.

Where would Romantic poetry be without nightingales?. From out of the depths of the Middle Ages, German has acquired the odd use of the word schlagen, meaning normally something like 'to strike', for the singing of songbirds such as the nightingale, hence Rellstab's usage here.

Now the nightingales take over the task of flehen, 'pleading' from the narrator's songs in the first stanza. At least flehen in this case is used more conventionally than in the first stanza, flehen Dich, 'plead with you'. Then one more permutation: flehen sie für mich, 'plead on my behalf'. This is lazy, unimaginative writing. Fortunately, we can listen to Schubert's music and pretend that we don't understand the words.

The task is clear – but is there any German poet around these days who could write better words to Schubert's fine music?

Sie verstehn des Busens Sehnen,
Kennen Liebesschmerz,
Rühren mit den Silbertönen
Jedes weiche Herz.
They understand the breast's longing, know the pain of love, move every soft heart with their silver tones.

A stanza of nightingales. It is so bad that there is little to say about it, only that its vocabulary is the equivalent of spreading jam on chocolate biscuits, one after the other: 'longing bosom', 'pain of love', 'silver tones', 'soft heart'. Now, slightly queasy, all sphincters clamped, let us move on.

Laß auch Dir die Brust bewegen,
Liebchen, höre mich!
Bebend harr' ich Dir entgegen;
Komm', beglücke mich!
Let your breast be moved too, darling, hear me! Trembling I await you; come, make me happy!

After a 'longing bosom' we now encounter a moving 'breast' – Dr Freud would wonder at Rellstab's avoidance of the organ traditionally associated with love and passion, the heart, in preference for more ambiguous body parts. It comes as no surprise therefore that the purpose of the tryst in the grove is not simply a chance to sit together, with perhaps a mild snog or some light petting, but an opportunity to 'make' the singer 'happy'. Lacking specifics, our only resort is laughter.

We children of vulgar times shouldn't take this language out of its historical context, but 'make me happy' is a remarkably fatuous climax to achieve in a serenade. Its use is yet another example of Rellstab's tin ear for language. Coming after the ineptitudes of the stanza which precedes it, we really should have no expectation of anything better – he doesn't have it in him.

In sum, therefore, a song with a soaring Schubert melody, one of his finest, held down to the earth by the rusty old iron chains of Rellstab's verse.

Ständchen : (Leise flehen meine Lieder) from Schwanengesang, D 957. Heinrich Schlusnus, baritone; Sebastian Peschko, piano. Recorded 4 May 1938, Berlin. Online.

Aufenthalt / Abode

This poem was embedded in Ludwig Rellstab's short story 'Jaromir', first published in Berlin in 1827 as part of his book Sagen und romantische Erzählungen. Romantisch here is a keyword for clattering knights in crumbling castles perched on precipices, ghoulish monasteries, spooks and supernatural events.

Rellstab ramped the gruesome elements of the story up, leading a delicately-minded reviewer in the Jenaische allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung to wonder how the incest in the tale, quite gratuitously introduced, contributed in any way to the plot. Rellstab was a devotee of E.T.A. Hoffmann and particularly the Spookmaster-General of the Romantics, Ludwig Tieck. Readers will recall meeting Hoffmann's work in our commentary on Doppel(t)gänger during our discussion of the Heine poems in Schwanengesang.

Jaromir is a tale that goes nowhere, but which is merely a transport medium for the hysterical effects that are nailed onto it. It has been rightly forgotten, but those sad people who not only read German Fraktur but who have nothing better to do with their lives than waste a couple of hours reading this tosh, can find it online in volume five of Rellstab's Gesammelte Schriften [pages 113-191; the poem is on page 132f]. Those who do read this will realise how kind we have been so far to Rellstab's miserable poetic efforts. Oblivion is the only thing these scribblers deserve.

In the story, the poem is given of an example of the songs sung by the lonely Countess Maria, the abandoned bride of Count Wolziska, in her castle overlooking the young Elbe in the Czech Republic.

The poem is irrelevant to the plot and is merely a poetic reworking of the two prose pages of gothic description of the castle and its surroundings. Knowing this will help the reader a little in understanding who the narrator is and why she is living here. Well… a little.

It also throws a little light on the very odd German title that is repeated in the text, Aufenthalt, 'stay'. It is very odd because these days it is so generic. In modern German it can be used in connection with almost anything that remains in one place for some period of time, whether that period is a few seconds long (a bus at a bus stop), a few weeks long (in a holiday location) or even years (at a place of residence or in a country). In earlier times it was not unusual to use Aufenthalt as an elevated way of saying Wohnort, the 'place where one resides'. Therefore, although under normal circumstances we would object to the use of Aufenthalt in poetry of any sort, we have to accept that Rellstab is probably a victim of changing usage.

Rauschender Strom,
Brausender Wald,
Starrender Fels
Mein Aufenthalt.
Rushing river, roaring forest, jutting cliff my abode.

Yet again, Rellstab chains himself to extremely short lines. In contrast to some of his previous examples of short lines, which were elongated through enjambment with their successors, in this first stanza he takes no prisoners at all: each line stands in splendid metrical isolation from its fellows. In Jaromir we are expected to believe that the lonely Countess Maria sings this whilst accompanying herself on the lute.

Not only does Rellstab chain himself to abrupt short lines, just for good measure he asserts a rhyme scheme of a-b-c-b, a pattern which he only manages to achieve cleanly in two of the five stanzas: Wald-Aufenthalt(?) / reiht-erneut(!) / regt-schlägt / Erz-Schmerz / Wald-Aufenthalt(?).

Wie sich die Welle
An Welle reiht,
Fließen die Thränen
Mir ewig erneut.
Just as wave succeeds wave, tears flow again and again for ever.

This nonsensical stanza is entirely the result of the use of short rhymed lines. Lines such as Fließen die Thränen / Mir ewig erneut, in which ewig 'eternally' and erneut, 'once again' are combined leave the translator with no option but to jump into the foaming river and make an end of it.

Hoch in den Kronen
Wogend sich's regt,
So unaufhörlich
Mein Herze schlägt.
High up the waving treetops stir, and so unceasingly my heart beats.

Once we ignore the typical Rellstab duplication of wogend, 'waving, rocking' and regt, 'moves' we stumble into so unaufhörlich, 'so unceasingly'. Whilst the pedant is wondering what function of so is, the normal reader is hoping that the heart does continue beating 'unceasingly'.

Und wie des Felsen
Uraltes Erz,
Ewig derselbe
Bleibet mein Schmerz.
And like the ancient ore of the rock, my pain remains always the same.

A simile that should never have been thought of, let alone written down and then set to music. Awful.

Rauschender Strom,
Brausender Wald,
Starrender Fels
Mein Aufenthalt.
Rushing river, roaring forest, jutting cliff my abode.

The last stanza is an exact repeat of the first.

The exigencies of writing short lines to a tight rhyme scheme force the choice of the strange words and perverted syntax used in this poem. The poem is a strong candidate for the worst Rellstab poem in Schubert's selection. Schubert would have been well advised to have left it to Countess Maria and her lute.

In der Ferne / In the distance

Wehe dem Fliehenden
Welt hinaus ziehenden! -
Fremde durchmessenden,
Heimath vergessenden,
Mutterhaus hassenden,
Freunde verlassenden
Folget kein Segen, ach!
Auf ihren Wegen nach!
Woe to the fugitive setting out into the world! – foreign parts traversing, homeland forgetting, motherhouse hating, friends abandoning, followed by no blessing, Oh! on his paths!

Once more Rellstab sets an obstacle course for himself. Not only short lines, not only a fierce ryhme scheme but the frequent use of the present participle. We write 'frequent', since Rellstab cannot manage consistently to maintain the scheme which he initially appears to have set himself. The result can only be described as bizarre.

In the first stanza, after setting up the sequence of present participles in the first six lines, he breaks the scheme with a rhymed couplet.

Herze, das sehnende,
Auge, das thränende,
Sehnsucht, nie endende,
Heimwärts sich wendende!
Busen, der wallende,
Klage, verhallende,
Abendstern, blinkender,
Hoffnungslos sinkender!
Heart, the longing one, eye the crying one, longing, never ending, homeward returning! Bosom the heaving one, complaint, echoing, evening star, flickering, hopeless sinking one!

Good grief! Hoffnungslos sinkender indeed.

Lüfte, Ihr säuselnden,
Wellen sanft kräuselnden,
Sonnenstrahl, eilender,
Nirgend verweilender:
Die mir mit Schmerze, ach!
Dies treue Herze brach, -
Grüßt von dem Fliehenden,
Welt hinaus ziehenden!
Breezes, you rustling ones, waves softly curling, sunbeam, hurrying, nowhere tarrying: which broke with pain, oh! this loyal heart, – greet the fleeing one, the world leaver!

Terrible – just terrible. Can it get any worse? Yes.

Abschied / Farewell

One last heave and we have finished. It's going to have to be quite a heave though. At least the lines are longer, but you will notice the number of times Schubert had to intervene in the text in order to make it even slightly digestible.

The translation bears many marks of revulsion, but is not intended to improve Rellstab's gruesome text, just represent its gruesomeness in English.

Ade, Du muntre, Du fröhliche Stadt, Ade!
Schon scharret mein Rösslein mit lustigem Fuß;
Jetzt nimm meinen letzten, den scheidenden Gruß.
Du hast mich wohl nimmermehr traurig gesehn,
So kann es auch jetzt nicht beim Abschied geschehn.
Ade, Du muntre, Du fröhliche Stadt, Ade!

Farewell, you cheerful, you happy town, farewell! My horse is already pawing the ground with happy foot; now accept my last, parting, farewell. You have never seen me sad, so this cannot happen at this farewell. Farewell, you cheerful, you happy town, farewell!

Right in the first line Rellstab lobs one of his duplicates at us: muntre, 'cheerful' or 'happy' and fröhliche, er… 'happy' or 'cheerful'. Since we also get Ade, 'farewell', twice and Du, 'you', twice, the only word that stands alone in the line is Stadt, 'town'. The first line of each stanza will be repeated at the end of the stanza from now on: a remarkable economy of effort.

There will be a lot of talking to inanimate objects in this poem – that pesky pathetic fallacy again. In this first stanza, the dumb recipient of the conversation is the entire town. The town has never seen the poet unhappy, even the horse has a lustiger Fuß, a 'happy foot'.

Schubert changed meinen, 'mine' to noch den, 'just the' on the grounds of euphony: Rellstab's tin ear may be happy with the soft nasal slither of nimm meinen letzten, 'accept my last', but Schubert's immeasurably finer ear realised that this would be unsingable and substituted nimm noch den letzten, 'accept just the last'. Just in that correction alone we see the difference between the poetaster and the metrical master.

Rellstab's antique use of that other nasal slither, nimmermehr, 'never' also received the Schubert treatment, being changed to niemals noch, 'never'. In doing so Schubert replaced one semantic puzzle with another, but there is a limit to what the composer should have to do with the poet's incompetent text.

Ade, Ihr Bäume, Ihr Gärten so grün, Ade!
Nun reit' ich am silbernen Strome entlang,
Weit schallend ertönet mein Abschiedsgesang;
Nie habt Ihr ein klagendes Lied gehört,
So wird Euch auch keines beim Scheiden beschert.
Ade, Ihr Bäume, Ihr Gärten so grün, Ade!

Farewell, you trees, you gardens so green, farewell! Now I ride along the silver river, my song of farewell sounds echoing; never have you heard a song of complaint, so you will not suffer one at my departure. Farewell, you trees, you gardens so green, farewell!

Rellstab tells a surprised world that trees and gardens are green and rivers 'silvery', then throws yet another of his duplicates at us with schallend ertönet, 'echoing sounding'. Schubert changed Rellstab's klagendes Lied, 'plaintive song' into a trauriges Lied, indicating thus that he found a klagendes Lied a bit of a puzzle, too.

Ade, Ihr freundlichen Mägdelein dort, Ade!
Was schaut Ihr aus blumenumduftetem Haus
Mit schelmischen, lockenden Blicken heraus?
Wie sonst, so grüß' ich und schaue mich um,
Doch nimmermehr wend' ich mein Rösselein um.
Ade, Ihr freundlichen Mägdelein dort, Ade!

Farewell, you friendly little maids there, farewell! How you gaze out of your flower-scent-surrounded house with cheeky, alluring glances? As usual, I greet you and look around but never turn my little horse round. Farewell, you friendly little maids there, farewell!

Schubert intervened at four points in this stanza, on each occasion replacing Rellstab's affected archaisms: Mägdelein with Mägdlein (2x), presumably a 'maidservant' rather than just a 'girl'; our old friend nimmermehr again, the antique 'never'; Rösselein became Rößlein, 'little horse'.

Schubert fans may recall the wonderful phrase am blumenumwundenen Stabe, 'on a staff wrapped in flowers' from the fine poem by Johann Anton Friedrich Reil (1773-1843), Das Lied im Grünen, set beautifully to music by Schubert [D 917]. Where, in contrast, can we begin with Rellstab's aus blumenumduftetem Haus? – this kind of word-making gives German a bad name: 'flower-scent-surrounded'. The man is an utterly incompetent writer of German.

Ade, liebe Sonne, so gehst Du zur Ruh, Ade!
Nun schimmert der blinkenden Sterne Gold.
Wie bin ich Euch Sternlein am Himmel so hold;
Durchziehen die Welt wir auch weit und breit,
Ihr gebt überall uns das treue Geleit.
Ade, liebe Sonne, so gehst Du zur Ruh, Ade!

Farewell, dear Sun, so you are going to rest, farewell! Now the gold of the glittering stars shimmers. How fond I am of you little stars in the sky; Wherever we go in the world far and wide, you guide us faithfully everywhere. Farewell, dear Sun, so you are going to rest, farewell!

Yet another Rellstab duplication blocks our path, 'glittering' and 'shimmers', although careful attention is required to work out what is shimmering and what is glittering in this sentence. Indeed, Rellstab seems to have been overcome with an attack of grammarism in this stanza: after the glittering stars, and the narrator's corkscrew declaration of affection for them, he hits his readers with Durchziehen die Welt wir, which Schubert, taking pity on his listeners, changed to Durchziehn wir die Welt, 'go in the world far and wide'. Schubert clearly saw that for Rellstab's pretentious formulation Durchziehen die Welt wir there was no metrical necessity at all and changed it without hesitation to something more usual.

Ade, Du schimmerndes Fensterlein hell, Ade!
Du glänzest so traulich mit dämmerndem Schein,
Und ladest so freundlich ins Hüttchen uns ein.
Vorüber, ach, ritt ich so manches mal
Und wär' es denn heute zum letzten mal?
Ade, Du schimmerndes Fensterlein hell, Ade!

Farewell, you shimmering little window, farewell! You gleam so cosily with fading light and invite us into the little cottage with friendliness. Many times I have ridden past you and will today be then the last time? Farewell, you shimmering little window, farewell!

On this occasion Rellstab gives his readers a near triplicate in meaning: schimmernd, 'shimmering', hell, 'bright', glänzest, 'gleam'. Having just coped with three words of brightness, Rellstab informs the reader that the light from the 'bright' window is in fact dämmernd, 'fading'.

To whom does this little window belong and why is it important? Rellstab does not answer this.

Ade, Ihr Sterne, verhüllet Euch grau! - Ade!
Des Fensterleins trübes verschimmerndes Licht
Ersetzt Ihr unzähligen Sterne mir nicht;
Darf ich hier nicht weilen, muß hier vorbei,
Was hilft es mir, folgt Ihr mir noch so treu!
Ade, Ihr Sterne, verhüllet Euch grau! - Ade!

Farewell, you stars, cover yourselves in grey! – Farewell! The little window's dimly shimmering light does not replace you uncountable stars; I cannot stay here, must go past here, what good is it to me even if you follow me faithfully! Farewell, you stars, cover yourselves in grey! – Farewell!

The glittering stars are now hidden in grey. The narrator tells us that the 'dim shimmering light' of the window does not replace that of the stars for him, even though the stars are currently fading.

Still puzzling over the role of the cottage, we are told that the narrator must not linger. Why? Who knows? Now the stars have been hidden in grey, they are no further use to him. Finally he repeats the request in the first line for the stars to veil themselves in grey. How they should do this is beyond understanding.

Schubert dropped the genitive 's' from Fensterlein in the horror phrase Des Fensterleins trübes verschimmerndes Licht. It seems an odd change to make, but since so little makes sense we may as well leave it as that.

The shambles of this final verse is a suitable place to end our consideration of the poems which Rellstab wrote and Schubert set. The text of this poem is completely baffling.

Abschied from Schwanengesang, D 957. Elena Gerhardt, mezzo-soprano; Coenraad Valentyn Bos, piano. Recorded  c. 1920. (HMV) Online.

Conclusion

The work of a good or even only competent poet may be challenging but will ultimately offer some reward for the effort of reading. A Rellstab poem, on the other hand, is an obstacle course. The reader stumbles from line to line, for in each line there is some hindrance to be surmounted. Sooner or later – usually sooner – a Rellstab obstacle course ends in scrapes, bruises and no winner.

The musicmongers have shelves of CDs and gigabytes of MP3s of young men wearing Künstlerschwarz warbling Rellstab's rubbish in concert halls and recording studios. Your author used to find this pretentious philistinism irritating, but irritation has given way to the quiet amusement of watching an affected branch of the culture business make an idiot of itself.

As was the case with Wilhelm Müller and with Rochlitz – with whom he shares so many traits – Rellstab was only saved from passing completely into oblivion by Schubert, whose star, after some hesitation, rose into the night sky and took some scraps from now otherwise forgotten poets into the firmament with it. It's a great pity that Schubert gave Rellstab this little bit of recognition by posterity. He doesn't deserve it and he didn't deserve Schubert.