I have one of my colleagues in cognitive psychology to thank for introducing me to the Lieder repertoire of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. This was during the period when I was working at the Schlumberger-Doll Research Laboratory in Ridgefield, Connecticut (while living in Stamford and getting into New York for just about every possible concert opportunity that interested me). The Laboratory had a contract with Bolt, Beranek, and Newman concerned with the study of metaphor and how it could be applied either to interpreting the complex data collected by Schlumberger measurement equipment or to the learning of interpretation skills. After my interest in music had emerged during informal conversation, this particular colleague showed up at our next meeting with a copy of "Abendempfindung an Laura" (K. 523) and asked where we could find a piano. As I recall, we ended up having dinner in Stamford and resorting to my own instrument after having finished with the meal. That was enough to get me hooked; and, on my next trip into New York, I picked up a copy of the Peters Edition of 29 of these songs. This happened to be in the low voice version, which transposed many of the songs to lower keys.
While this was not a particularly "historically informed" purchase, it turned out to be pleasantly fortuitous. I had chosen it because my psychologist colleague was an alto; but, unfortunately, we never had an opportunity for any further sessions. However, when I moved to Los Angeles I discovered a new colleague who happened to be a very serious amateur where the baritone song repertoire was concerned. Since my condo was a short drive from our laboratory, we set up a schedule of weekly sessions during lunch hour at my place; and we started digging into the Mozart repertoire very early in those sessions (which eventually culminated in a prolonged study of Robert Schumann's Dichterliebe that progressed to a point where we could perform it for my piano teacher without either of us blushing). By the time we began these sessions, I had heard quite a few of the Mozart Lieder in recitals in New York (mostly at the 92nd Street Y); so I knew where I wanted to start.
Coincidentally, this happened to be the first entry in the Peters Edition, "Das Veilchen" (K. 476), a setting of a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. This song had struck me the first time I heard it in recital simply because it had never occurred to me to associate Mozart with any of Goethe's texts. Goethe was Franz Schubert's "turf," along with several ventures by Ludwig van Beethoven. However, Goethe was born in 1749; so there would have been any number of opportunities for Mozart to become acquainted with his early work. This particular text comes from a libretto Goethe had prepared for the singspiel Erwin und Elmire, with music by Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, which was first performed at the Weimar Court Theatre in May of 1776. (The inspiration for this singspiel, by the way, was a ballad included in Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield.)
The text is interesting for a variety of reasons, one of which is the number of composers who set it, including Clara Schumann. I particularly enjoy Goethe's use of the irony of circumstance, which plays out very nicely in what seems on the surface to be a simple ballad. Here is the text interleaved with David Kenneth Smith's translation from his Web site of the complete Lieder of Clara Schumann:
Ein Veilchen auf der Wiese stand,
A violet in a meadow stood,
gebückt in sich und unbekannt;
but bent he was and quite unknown;
es war ein herzigs Veilchen.
he was a charming violet.
Da kam eine junge Schäferin
There came now a youthful shepherdess
mit leichtem Schritt und muntrem Sinn
with lightest step and merry heart
die Wiese her und sang.
the meadow there, and sang.
Ach! denkt das Veilchen, wär' ich nur
"Ah!" thought the violet, "if I were
die schönste Blume der Natur,
the fairest blossom in the world,
ach, nur ein kleines Weilchen,
ah, just a tiny moment,
bis mich das Liebchen abgepfückt
until the darling plucked me out
und an dem Busen mattgedrückt!
and on her bosom gently pressed!
Ach nur, ach nur
Just once, just once
ein Viertelstündchen lang!
a quarter-hour long!"
Ach! aber ach! das Mädchen kam
Alas! alas! the maiden came
und nicht in acht das Veilchen nahm,
and not a glance the violet gave,
ertrat das arme Veilchen.
she tread upon poor Violet.
Es sank und starb und freut sich noch:
He sank and died but happy yet:
Und sterb' ich denn, so sterb' ich doch
"I'm dying now but dying thus
durch sie, durch sie,
through her, through her,
zu ihren Füßen doch.
and at her feet I die."
Equally interesting is that Mozart not only caught the irony but decided that it needed to be emphasized for his Viennese audience. He did this with a brief but powerful coda which repeats the text "das arme Veilchen" and concludes with a recapitulation (in both music at text) of a passage from the first verse, "es war ein herzigs Veilchen." I have noticed that some singers have been particularly effective in conveying the impact of that past tense war with the connotation of unfulfilled destiny. This is definitely Mozart at his most memorable, and it may be the best example of his appreciation of how brevity could be the soul of wit. I have not heard it enough since I left the New York concert scene.