Schumann’s second oratorio, Der Rose Pilgerfahrt (The Pilgrimage of the Rose, 1851) is firmly set on European soil: it begins with elves in a round dance on Midsummer hearing a quite, plaintive voice, the voice of the Rose. In contrast, Das Paradies und die Peri (1843) is errantly Oriental, flying the listener from India to Egypt and then to Palestine and Syria. As it should be doing, since its text is based on a translation of Lalla Rookh (1817) by the Irish poet Thomas Moore.
Schumann used a translation by Emil Flechsig, his childhood friend from Zwickau, a theologian (a “proto-deacon” at the summit of his career). Moreover, it seems that Schumann wrote the text for the lovely Ballad of the Nile Genies himself (“Schmücket die Stufen zu Allahs Thron,” “Decorate the steps to God’s (Allah’s) throne”). Schumann’s preference for Flechsig is remarkable because, according to Sarah McCleave of Queen’s University Belfast,
the brothers Schumann of Zwickau issued the first German translation in 1822.
The brothers being, apparently, Robert Schumann’s father August and uncle Friedrich. Their firm specialized in translations from British romantics – including Walter Scott and Byron – but perhaps the Moore did not turn out well enough to satisfy the composer twenty years on. Nor did Schumann use de la Motte Fouqué’s translation, first published in 1822 in Berlin, then reissued in Vienna in 1826.
Thomas Moore’s oriental fantasy caused quite a furore in Europe. In January 1821, the king of Prussia held a Lalla Rookh-themed feast at the court in honor of his daughter and her husband, the soon-to-be emperor Nicholas I of Russia. Princess Charlotte, now officially the Great Princess Alexandra Feodorovna, played the part of Lalla Rookh at her wedding celebrations in Kashmir.
In the absence of a complete German translation, the Prussian court probably approached Moore’s poem through Amédée Pichot’s 1820 translation into French prose, or the 1820 anonymous, free translation under the title Choix de poësies de Byron, W. Scott et Moore. In addition, Letters to a German Noblewoman on the New English Poets by Friedrich Johann Jacobsen, also published in 1820, contained a detailed review and excerpts from works by Byron, Moore, Wordsworth and by lesser authors such as the Scottish philosopher Thomas Brown.
The core of Moore’s romance is made of four long poems within a brief prose narrative, which outlines the protagonist’s journey from Deli to Kashmir. The poems entertain, enlighten and enchant her along the way. At the end, the princess Lalla Rookh (a Persian name, “tulip cheeks”) meets her betrothed, who – surprise, surprise! – happens to also be the poet she has fallen in love with. In Berlin, this happy reunion in Kashmir was enacted in a tableau vivant with Grand Princess Alexandra as Lalla Rookh and Grand Prince Nicholas as Aliris, “the youthful king of Bucharia,” also known as Feramorz.
Moore noted this in his diary on April 3, 1821, while in Paris:
Called at Galignani’s: a strange gentleman in the shop accosted me, and said, “Mr. Moore, I have not the honour of being acquainted with you, but I was requested by the Princess of Prussia to tell you, if ever I met you, how beautifully the fête at Berlin, taken from your ‘Lalla Rookh,’ went off.” He then told me several particulars. The Grand Duchess of Russia (daughter of the King of Prussia), who acted “Lalla Rookh,” is, he said, very handsome; and the sister of Prince Radzivil, who played the “Peri,” a most beautiful little girl.
Elise Radziwill was 17 or 18 then, mutually in love with prince Wilhelm (later Wilhelm I, the first Kaiser), one of Charlotte-Alexandra’s elder brothers, who also played a part in the “fête.” Later that year, Moore records news of Alexandra’s further interest in his work:
Lady H. read me a letter from Lord Willam Russell at Spa, in which he mentions that the Grand Duchess of Russia is there, and that she always carries about with her two copies of “Lalla Rookh” most splendidly bound and studded with precious stones, one of which he had seen.
I’m largely following Mikhail P. Alexeyev’s 1982 article, Thomas Moore and the Russian Writers of the 19th Century, and I’m lucky to have texts like Moore’s diary at my fingertips. [For the full text of Alexeyev’s work as a pdf, click the “17-824” link on this Literary Heritage archive page.] One can only wonder how much time a Russian student of English literature would have spent in 1982, or even 1992, to access a copy of that four-volume 1855 edition.
Vasily Zhukovsky, a major Russian poet, a great translator and Alexandra’s Russian teacher, was so impressed by the theatrical feast in Berlin that he kept going back to that memory for years. But I’ll save that for another post.