Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861) is recognized as the most important composer of German Romantic Opera in the period between Carl Maria von Weber (1786-1826) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883). Many people may know of his dark, supernatural operas, Der Vampyr (1828), Der Templer und die Jüdin (1829), and Hans Heiling (1833), which were extremely popular in his lifetime.
While Marschner should rightfully be remembered for his significant contribution to the development of German Romantic Opera, he also expended a great deal of time to the genre of art song. Perhaps shockingly, he composed over 430 lieder. Marschner’s output includes treasures owing him a place alongside the most celebrated lieder composers of his time. Marschner composed more songs than Ludwig van Beethoven, Felix Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, and Robert Schumann combined, but for some reason, we do not hear them on today’s concert stages. Marschner’s songs give ample evidence of his dramatic flair, his progressive use of chromatic harmony for his day, and his expressive flexibility. He has a notable amount of vocal chamber music for various combinations: two sopranos, soprano and alto, three female voices, soprano and baritone, and voice and guitar. Marschner also set poetry by many literary figures we recognize as important: Goethe, Heine, Rückert, Eichendorff, Schiller, Geibel, Brentano, Rellstab, Müller, and others.
Robert and Clara Schumann both particularly liked Marschner’s music. For example, Robert cited the Romanze “Wer ist der Ritter Hochgeehrt” from Marschner’s Der Templer und die Jüdin in his Fantasie, op. 17, and Clara composed variations on a theme from Marschner’s Hans Heiling. Marschner and his music circulated in the Leipzig salon circles Schumann frequented during the early 1830s. Schumann’s diary records that he personally met Marschner several times at the Carus and Wieck homes, where he and other guests sang Marschner’s lieder and selections from his operas.
Early on in Marschner’s career, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung (Leipzig) said of a set of his music, “The author certainly possesses an uncommon talent for discovering melodies always interesting and never ordinary. The harmony is full, though not overbearing.” While Marschner undeniably borrowed from Carl Maria von Weber and other greats, he had a compositional voice all his own. Similar to Marschner’s operatic writing, his songs feature vocal line leaps of an octave and more, the frequent use of triplets, a special brand of melodiousness, and the assurance that no matter where you are in a given work, you are never far from a diminished chord. Marschner’s work has a freshness to it, and his harmonic palette is unequalled in his contemporaries. He is not one to languish in moods or ask for prolonged contemplation of atmospherics. He is decisive and his music is always approachable. Marschner deserves his place among respected 19th century German composers of vocal music and his songs should be in greater circulation.