Such works as the “Etudes Symphoniques” and the “Kreisleriana” express much of the spirit of unrest and longing aspiration, the struggle to get away from prison-bars and limits, which seem to have sounded the key-note of Schumann’s deepest nature. But these feelings could only find their fullest outlet in the musical form expressly suited to subjective emotion. Accordingly, the “Sturm and Drang” epoch of his life, when all his thoughts and conceptions were most unsettled and visionary, was most fruitful in lyric song. In Heinrich Heine he found a fitting poetical co-worker, in whose moods he seemed to see a perfect reflection of his own—Heine, in whom the bitterest irony was wedded to the deepest pathos, “the spoiled favorite of the Graces,” “the knight with the laughing tear in his scutcheon”—Heine, whose songs are charged with the brightest light and deepest gloom of the human heart.
Schumann’s songs never impress us as being deliberate attempts at creative effort, consciously selected forms through which to express thoughts struggling for speech. They are rather involuntary experiments to relieve one’s self of some wo-ful burden, medicine for the soul. Schumann is never distinctively the lyric composer; his imagination had too broad and majestic a wing. But in those moods, peculiar to genius, where the soul is flung back on itself with a sense of impotence, our composer instinctively burst into song. He did not in the least advance or change its artistic form, as fixed by Schubert. This, indeed, would have been irreconcilable with his use of the song as a simple medium of personal feeling, an outlet and safeguard.
The peculiar place of Schumann as a songwriter is indicated by his being called the musical exponent of Heine, who seems to be the other half of his soul. The composer enters into each shade and detail of the poet’s meaning with an intensity and fidelity which one can never cease admiring. It is this phase which gives the Schumann songs their great artistic value. In their clean-cut, abrupt, epigrammatic force there is something different from the work of any other musical lyrist. So much has this impressed the students of the composer that more than one able critic has ventured to prophesy that Schumann’s greatest claim to immortality would yet be found in such works as the settings of “Ich grolle nicht” and the “Dichterliebe” series—a perverted estimate, perhaps, but with a large substratum of truth. The duration of Schumann’s song-time was short, the greater part of his Lieder having been written in 1840. After this he gave himself up to oratorio, symphony, and chamber-music.