Schumann and his 1840 Romantic songs: Three vocal duets in the Memorial Library at Stanford University

January 24, 2020
Ray Heigemeir
Photo of Robert and Clara Schumann

Robert Schumann. Zwei Dreistimmige Lieder

Memorial Library of Music, MLM 955

Guest blogger : Lorenzo Tunesi

The year 1840 can be regarded as one of the most florid and creative of Robert Schumann’s career. On September 12, after winning a cause against Friedrich Wieck, he could finally marry his beloved Clara. During the first months of their marriage, Schumann started to work almost exclusively on vocal scores, writing the music for poems by Heine, Burns, Goethe and Byron. Between 1840 and 1841, the composer completed his op. 29 for piano and mixed voices, engaging then with the composition of song cycles, such as the op. 35 group of twelve music settings on texts by Justus Kerner, and the Lieder op. 37, on poems by Friedrich Rückert. All were love songs that Schumann addressed to Clara, in an effort to write to her “purely in music.”[1]

Robert and Clara Schumann

Schumann’s Drei Zweistimmige Lieder (op. 43), also known as Drei Duette, belong to this happy and productive period. Although little is known about the genesis of these three vocal scores, it is quite conceivable that they were meant to be enjoyed in domestic and friendly contexts. During the 1840s, indeed, the newly-married couple moved to Leipzig, where they used to host in their own house numerous musical events and soirées, attended by, among others, Mendelssohn and Moscheles. It is not hard to imagine that those were the most suitable occasions for the composer to premiere his newly-written songs – always accompanied by Clara on the piano.

The Drei Zweistimmige Lieder op. 43 consist of three duets for soprano and mezzosoprano or contralto.




Wenn ich ein Voglein war

Nicht Schnell

E minor


Nicht Schnell

A minor

Schön Blümelein


C major

The first anonymous poem, Wenn ich ein Voglein war, belongs to the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn (v. 1, 1806). The two voices move within a low range, perfectly matched by the piano accompaniment, which rarely goes further than the central octaves. In this first lied, the piano accompanies the two singers’ voices – most of the time - proceeding in thirds and sixths.

The second piece is probably the best known of the three. The music of Herbstlied (or Autumn song) is set on a text by Siegfried August Mahlmann. In the first part of the score, the instrumental accompaniment is markedly characterized by groups of four sixteenth notes, acting as a middle line whereas the upper part doubles the soprano over a bass which, in turn, creates ostinato figures. The second part of the piece begins at measure 25, where Schumann introduces a new rhythmic figure: the piano now proceeds in groups of three sixteenth notes, recalling harp arpeggios. 

Schumann, Drei Zweistimmige Lieder [detail]

The third and final piece, Schön Blümelein, on a poem by Robert Reinick, is characterized by a vivacious rhythm of triplets, which perfectly depicts the happy and light-hearted morning walk described in the poem.  The scene is dominated by flowers, butterflies, bees and ladybugs. As Richard Miller has observed, musically, the “effervescent articulation” of the piano part is contrasted by the “tender expression and good vocal legato” of the singers which “realize the inherent charm of this little duet.”[2]

The three duets are currently among Schumann’s less known and less performed songs. Considered a minor work, scarcely significant in order to value the German composer’s mastery already in the mid-nineteenth century,[3] the Drei Duette op 43, despite their rare inclusion in concert programs, have managed to become a constant presence among collections and anthologies of Romantic lieder, which are seen as remarkably representative of their genre.

Lorenzo Tunesi Lorenzo Tunesi is in the doctoral program in musicology. His research interests include late medieval and renaissance music in Italy and France.  


[1] Worthen, John, Robert Schumann. Life and Death of a Musician, New Heaven; London, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 205. 

[2] Miller, Richard, Singing Schumann: an interpretive guide for performers, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 215-216.  

[3] Anon, Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung, XLVII, No. 5 (January 29th, 1845), p. 68.