Sehnsucht (2005) for Chorus (SATB)

April 2005
Duration: ca. 5:30 min.
Premiere: August 28, 2005; DeKalb Choral Guild; Tim Jansa, conductor

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ABOUT “Sehnsucht”

“In the spring of 2005, Bryan Black, Music Director of the DeKalb Choral Guild and a long-time friend and collaborator, approached me with the suggestion that I compose a piece for the Guild’s upcoming European concert tour that summer. Since Bryan had just recently spent a couple of weeks in the German city of Weimar – home to J.W. von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, the 200th anniversary of the latter was being celebrated that year – Bryan suggested that I use one of Schiller’s poems for this endeavor.
After briefly consulting with Dr. Lowell Bangerter at the University of Wyoming, Schiller scholar and former professor of mine, I eventually decided to use Schiller’s 1801 poem “Sehnsucht”. Something in this text struck a “chord” with me, and even while reading the poem for the very first time, the main theme and overall structure of the piece quickly took shape. Considering that several performances throughout Europe were planned, I further decided against using any accompaniment and in favor of employing the full possibilities of an a cappella choral setting.
The actual composition took place over about 2 weeks in April of 2005, and on August 28 of that year – coincidentally Goethe’s 256th birthday – I had the pleasure of conducting the premiere of Sehnsucht, which was then repeatedly sung in several venues in Germany and the Czech Republic, most notably the St. Nicolas Church in Prague, the Berlin Cathedral in Berlin, St. Jacobs Church in Weimar where Schiller was first entombed in 1805 – and at the Frauenkirche in my hometown of Nurnberg with my own grandmother in attendance.”


The poem Sehnsucht (Longing), written in 1801 by the great German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), is uncharacteristically strong in its following of the Romantic literary tradition of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Schiller is probably best known for his Classicist, highly idealized style and, in his later years, close collaboration with literary behemoth Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832). In Sehnsucht, however, Schiller adheres more to the tradition established by writers like Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel or Friedrich von Hardenberg (a.k.a. Novalis) with their longing prose and tendency to abandon reality in lieu of a better, natural existence in far-away lands and the realm of dreams and imagination. Schiller, however, cannot do without a certain interim return to reality even though the poem ends on an ambiguous, yet cautiously positive and transcendent note as will be shown below.

The speaker (the “ich” of the poem) begins with a sigh of despair – the ubiquitous “ach” that forms somewhat of a common thread running through the entire piece. Starting off in the gloom of C minor, the main theme alternates in the lower and middle voices (“Oh, from this deep valley’s bottom [“Tales Gründe(n)”]”) before being taken over by the sopranos after a modulation into E minor, yet maintaining the rhythmic integrity of the motif. The damp fog (“kalte[r] Nebel”) is so oppressing that, in measure 8, it leads to an outburst in the tenors and altos: a cry for guidance to find a way out of this dreadful situation. It is immediately answered (by some higher power?) in the pickup to measure 11 where the sopranos announce the sudden sight of beautiful hills (“schöne Hügel”) which loom, eternally young and green (”ewig jung/ewig grün”), far in the distance. The descending fifths symbolize their perceived power of transfiguration, and the speaker’s spirit rises, moving upward in the altos, sopranos and tenors (measures 15-18), leaving behind the gloom of reality and culminating in entering a dream-like state in measure 19: If only he had wings (“Schwingen”, “Flügel”) he would take to the skies and fly over to these hills.

After a few powerful beats of these imaginary wings (measure 19), he begins–in his mind–to soar through the skies and take in the wondrous sights and sounds of the hills: sweet harmonies promising heavenly peace (“Harmonien […]/Töne süßer Himmelsruh”), light fragrant breezes (“leichte Winde […]/der Düfte Balsam”), golden fruit beckoning from lush trees (“gold’ne Früchte […]/winkend zwischen dunklem Laub”) and flowers (“Blumen”) that even the cold of winter cannot harm (“werden keines Winters Raub”). Another “ach” (pickup to measure 29) introduces a sequence in which the narrator, obsessed with this vision of happiness and bliss in eternal sunshine (“ew’gen Sonnenschein”) winds himself through ascending chromatic modulations, rhythmically alternating between the outer and inner voices, into a trance-like state of almost fanatic frenzy (measures 34-35), conjuring up the invigorating (“labend”) powers of the hills’ lofty heights.

But earthly reality cannot be ignored. With an abrupt blow we are back in C minor where we began and the main motif engulfs us in despair once more: crashing waves (“Wellen”) of a raging river (“des Stromes Toben”) bring a sudden end to the blissful vision we had only moments before. There is no way to reach those hills without first facing the hardships and overcoming the dangers posed by the rushing waters–and, in realization of what lies ahead, the soul trembles (“die Seele ergraust”).

All hope seems lost when, seemingly out of nowhere, a small boat (“Nachen”) comes into sight, bobbing (“schwanken”) on the swift waters–portrayed by a variation of the opening theme. But its ferryman is missing (“der Fährmann fehl[t]”), so it is up the narrator alone to muster all his courage (measures 48-49) to raise the sails (“Segel”) and, propelled by a spirited (“beseelt”) breeze, begin to glide away into the distance (measures 50-51) and an unknown fate, symbolized by a suspended, almost ethereal E-flat minor chord.

Here the narrative perspective shifts from the first-person “ich” to a second-person “du” in measure 52/53: a heavenly voice from afar reminds the listener that without faith (“glauben”) and the will to take chances (“wagen”) the seemingly impossible cannot be attained. The powers-that-be will only help those who take heart (“die Götter leih’n kein Pfand”), and only through their miraculous intervention (“nur ein Wunder”) can one reach the promised land (“Wunderland”) that one has glanced from afar. The tenors echo the familiar descending fifths promising eternal youth, and the piece ends on a strangely ambiguous chord somewhere between B-flat and D major: the end of the journey that has just begun is unknown, but whatever the outcome, we are already a step away from the original C at the beginning of the piece – whether it be forward toward the hills or back into the Valley of Mist.


by Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805)

Ach, aus dieses Tales Gründen,
Die der kalte Nebel drückt,
Könnt’ ich doch den Ausgang finden,
Ach wie fühlt’ ich mich beglückt!
Dort erblick’ ich schöne Hügel,
Ewig jung und ewig grün!
Hätt’ ich Schwingen, hätt’ ich Flügel,
Nach den Hügeln zög ich hin.

Harmonien hör’ ich klingen,
Töne süßer Himmelsruh,
Und die leichten Winde bringen
Mir der Düfte Balsam zu.
Gold’ne Früchte seh’ ich glühen,
Winkend zwischen dunklem Laub,
Und die Blumen, die dort blühen,
Werden keines Winters Raub.

Ach, wie schön muß sich’s ergehen
Dort im ew’gen Sonnenschein,
Und die Luft auf jenen Höhen,
O wie labend muß sie sein!
Doch mir wehrt des Stromes Toben,
Der ergrimmt dazwischen braust,
Seine Wellen sind gehoben,
Daß die Seele mir ergraust.

Einen Nachen seh’ ich wanken,
Aber ach! Der Fährmann felt.
Frisch hinein und ohne Wanken,
Seine Segel sind beseelt.
Du mußt glauben, du mußt wagen,
Denn die Götter leih’n kein Pfand,
Nur ein Wunder kann dich tragen
In das schöne Wunderland.