Last time out, I mentioned that I had rewritten a stanza of Heinrich Heine’s Der Tod das ist die kühle Nacht as part of the text for Cool Night.   As near as I can tell, this poem has been set by close to a hundred composers, from Brahms to Rakowski.  Which would have been a great reason for me not to set it, if I had been looking for a reason not to set it.  Another reason not to set it is because it didn’t really say what I wanted it to say, or at least not with the imagery I needed to match with the rest of my text.

So let’s look at what I did, or perpetrated, depending on your perspective.

Here’s the original poem:

Der Tod das ist die kühle Nacht,
Das Leben ist der schwüle Tag.
Es dunkelt schon, mich schläfert,
Der Tag hat mich müd gemacht.

Über mein Bett erhebt sich ein Baum,
Drin singt die junge Nachtigall;
Sie singt von lauter Liebe,
Ich hör es sogar im Traum.

Here’s the English translation provided by

Death is the cool night.
Life is the sultry day.
It now grows dark; I’m drowsy,
The day has wearied me.

Above my bed rises a tree,
The young nightingale sings there, it seems;
She sings of naught but love –
I hear it even in my dreams.

Translation copyright © 1996 by Leonard Lehrman

Perfectly lovely.

But I was writing a text that purported to emanate from the delirious mind of Robert Schumann, terminally ensconced in an Endenich sanatorium.  I wanted to tie the tone of Heine’s poem to imagery that would more closely reflect Schumann’s obsessions.

Schumann, throughout his life, but especially in his youth, when he invented the Florestan and Eusebius characters, was in love with butterfly imagery, as a metaphor for transformation into an ideal state.  He picked this interest up early, entranced by the novels and stories of Jean Paul.

Keeping this in mind, I decided to switch the nightingale in the second stanza to a butterfly, which of course meant shifting the described experience from aural (the singing nightingale) to visual (the dancing butterfly).  Here’s my rewrite of stanza two:

Um mein Bett erhebt sich die Hülle,
Drin tanzt die junge Schmetterling;
Sie tanzt die Schritte der Liebe –
Die Flügel erschließen sich in Fülle

[Around my bed arises the cocoon
Where dances the young butterfly
She dances the steps of love –
Her wings unfold in opulence]

Which gave me the connection between Heine’s benedictive tone and the image of a cocoon as a transformative shroud.

I was aided in this process by the perceptive and knowledgeable Hans Gabriel, who immediately grasped what I was trying to do and helped me refine my first draft to more closely match Heine’s Volksliedstrophe form.  In fact, I sent him my draft of the second stanza without telling him anything about the source, and he immediately recognized where it was coming from.  When I expressed concern about an awkward turn of phrase, his response was, “German Romantic poetry is German Romantic poetry – much of it would qualify as ‘awkward’ by the standards of modern German, anyway.”

Just the assurance I needed.

And here’s a thank you to Corey Dargel, without whose simple HTML tip this post would not have been worth the effort.

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