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                          Lyric, lieder and poetry.

Listening to Michael Emmanuel Koch present John Keats’ poems to music, it has struck me how much Keats would have not only have appreciated this but how appropriate this is and popular it was in his time, not only in Britain (as in the case of Robert Burns’ poems) but also in Austria and Germany.

Poems were often set to music by composers and folk musicians. I really love hearing poems sang rather than recited ( as long as the music fits the mood of the poem and has a good melody of course!). Done well, the music can bring forth the rhythm and emotional content of the poem in a very effective way. Michael Emmanuel Koch is a good example of this. His renditions hark back to the medieval balladeers, who would travel around the countryside and play at fairs. Keats showed an interest in medieval stories as seen by La Belle Dame Sans Merci and The Eve of St Agnes.

I am struck by the coincidental theme of Hope in both a poem by John Keats, To Hope (written in February 1815, and published 1817)  and a lied of Beethoven’s also called To Hope (in German An die Hoffnung) at around the same period. Beethoven’s lied was set to a poem by Christoph August Tiedge ( I don’t know the date he wrote it) which Beethoven set to music twice. First in 1805 ( Opus 32) and then with a  new arrangement ( Opus 94) in 1815- this is the most popular version.


Here is the poem An Die Hoffnung:


 Compare it with Keats’ poem To Hope:

Keats side view2

When by my solitary hearth I sit,
And hateful thoughts enwrap my soul in gloom;
When no fair dreams before my “mind’s eye” flit,
And the bare heath of life presents no bloom;
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head.

Whene’er I wander, at the fall of night,
Where woven boughs shut out the moon’s bright ray,
Should sad Despondency my musings fright,
And frown, to drive fair Cheerfulness away,
Peep with the moon-beams through the leafy roof,
And keep that fiend Despondence far aloof.

Should Disappointment, parent of Despair,
Strive for her son to seize my careless heart;
When, like a cloud, he sits upon the air,
Preparing on his spell-bound prey to dart:
Chace him away, sweet Hope, with visage bright,
And fright him as the morning frightens night!

Whene’er the fate of those I hold most dear
Tells to my fearful breast a tale of sorrow,
O bright-eyed Hope, my morbid fancy cheer;
Let me awhile thy sweetest comforts borrow:
Thy heaven-born radiance around me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

Should e’er unhappy love my bosom pain,
From cruel parents, or relentless fair;
O let me think it is not quite in vain
To sigh out sonnets to the midnight air!
Sweet Hope, ethereal balm upon me shed,
And wave thy silver pinions o’er my head!

In the long vista of the years to roll,
Let me not see our country’s honour fade:
O let me see our land retain her soul,
Her pride, her freedom; and not freedom’s shade.
From thy bright eyes unusual brightness shed—
Beneath thy pinions canopy my head!

Let me not see the patriot’s high bequest,
Great Liberty! how great in plain attire!
With the base purple of a court oppress’d,
Bowing her head, and ready to expire:
But let me see thee stoop from heaven on wings
That fill the skies with silver glitterings!

And as, in sparkling majesty, a star
Gilds the bright summit of some gloomy cloud;
Brightening the half veil’d face of heaven afar:
So, when dark thoughts my boding spirit shroud,
Sweet Hope, celestial influence round me shed,
Waving thy silver pinions o’er my head.

The human experience of daring to hope that one’s sufferings might improve is a central theme in both poems. Whilst Tiedge considers one must not bother God with human problems, of whose existence he expresses doubt, Keats only addresses “Sweet Hope” of whom he places comfort in, using affectionate language. We get the sense that Keats has a personal connection to Hope.

In contrast Tiedge places less certainty in Hope’s ability to comfort the sufferer than does Keats, who explores his own inner torments such as despondency, disappointment relating to the success of his poetry and his concerns over the social conditions in England. Hope seems more distant to Tiedge than it does for Keats.

Tiedge’s lament over human suffering is of a less personal nature than seen in Keats’ poem,  but the suffering of humankind in general, though of course it is something he can identity with as he uses a personal pronoun in stanza three-“your”  which could be a reference to himself.

Tiedge’s last stanza considers Fate being an obstacle to Hope, suggesting that some experiences are almost impossible to overcome and looks to the Sun to see beyond the usual human eyes; the reference to the human experience being like a dream, and that beyond the Sun, what I sense means Heaven/ the Afterlife lies another existence waiting beyond the physical human one in which a greater understanding of life awaits.

Tiedge’s poem takes his exploration into human suffering further than does Keats, who is writing for the moment, how he feels sat by his “solitary hearth.” Keats ends his poem with a brighter mood; the poem’s aim is to raise his mood and feel more positive about his life.