Jonathan Gaisman writes of Verklärte Nacht, Schoenberg’s early work (1899) based on a poem by Richard Dehmel:

Looking at the poem on its purely literary merits, it is indeed difficult not to wince, or, at the mention of the man grasping the woman’s “starken Hüften” (sturdy hips) suppress a snort of derision. However, the poem deserves to be taken seriously precisely because it does not stand on its own. Somewhat similarly to certain Schubert songs, the rank ordinariness of the verse contributes to a work of art in the first rank of beauty.

At once I thought of Schubert’s two great song cycles – but the author must have had something else in mind. The poems by Wilhelm Müller that Schubert used for Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise are for the most part unobtrusive and unpretentious. (Partly by virtue of being simple. As a counterexample, Sei mir gegrüßt is a beautiful song based on a “difficult” poem by Rückert.) One could call them ordinary but only as being “without qualities” rather than crude or philistine.

Conflating ordinariness with bad taste, the critic makes the reader interpret “ordinary” as low, common or vulgar. The author points out a supposedly cringeworthy passage in Dehmel’s poem as evidence of its “rank ordinariness.” Deferring to Jonathan Gaisman’s judgment – he knows German literature and I don’t, in comparison – I would nevertheless quote an American critic writing in 1917, when Dehmel was still alive and in his 50s:

All these virtues of his would be futile, of course, were it not for the poet’s art. But Dehmel is a very notable master of language and an even more notable master of the music of verse. His diction is extraordinarily concrete, but the richness and energy of his rhythms give the majority of his poems a touch of the sumptuous and splendid. He has constantly invented his own stanzaic forms and thus, through their modulations, expresses in the most intimate way the spirit of his moods and aspirations.

Ludwig Lewisohn, the author of the above, was an acknowledged expert on German literature and a translator (German was his first language); I recommend reading his note on Dehmel in full. Lewisohn explains the poet’s particular importance to German audiences in the opening paragraph:

The extraordinary high esteem in which the poet Richard Dehmel is held by his contemporaries is not wholly due to the æsthetic power and charm of his lyrics. It is due, in an even higher degree, to the fact that these lyrics reveal, both consciously and unconsciously, the struggle and development of a type of personality supremely interesting to the German mind.

Against this backdrop, it shouldn’t be a surprising fact that pretty much every composer of note active at the turn of the 20th century set to music at least one poem by Dehmel. Schoenberg was in good company, with Richard Strauss, Pfitzner, Zemlinski, Webern and even Kurt Weill. Wiegenlied and Befreit by Strauss are rather well known. Both are guilty pleasures to me but the guilt is over letting myself enjoy the music, not so much the lyrics.

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