Nikolaus Lenau

In his short, tragic poetic career Nikolaus Lenau came to embody the Sehnsucht, or melancholy longing, of the German Romantic movement. He immigrated to the United States and traveled widely. The inherent musicality of his verse made him a natural choice for many Lieder composers of the late 19th century, including American Charles Griffes.

Photo: Nikolaus Lenau, public domain.

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    Born Nikolaus Niembsch von Strehlenau in 1802 to German parents living in Csatád, Hungary, Lenau was bitten early with the Wanderlust, traveling ceaselessly around Hungary and southern Germany before crossing the seas to seek peace and happiness in the United States in 1833. Like the tormented protagonists about whom he wrote, Lenau’s own youth had harbored a hopeless passion, and his American journey ended in bitter disillusionment. In the last seven years of his life, he struggled with encroaching insanity before dying at the age of 48.

    Influenced by Goethe, Eichendorff, Byron, and the Young German Movement, Lenau’s verse employs many of the archetypes of Romantic thought: the wanderer (an image which carried a personal poignancy), the notion that “above every joy there hovers a threatening vulture,” the gnawing feeling of Weltschmerz (the pervasive 19th-century melancholy), the restless striving for an ultimate justice beyond the human reach, and the belief that nature mirrors human woes. Combining a deep pessimism of thought with an exquisitely elegiac lyricism of form, Lenau’s works range from the early poems on folk themes (Gedichte, 1832), to poems of praise for the American wilderness and its Native American inhabitants (“Das Blockhaus” and “Niagara”), to epics like “Savonarola” (1837) and “Die Albigenser” (1842).

    The inherent musicality of Lenau’s verse made him a natural choice for many Lieder composers of the late 19th century, among them not only Griffes (“Auf geheimem Waldespfade”), but also Ives, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Franz, Mahler, Wolf, and Berg, to name a few. Lenau’s dramatic verse dramas, Faust and Don Juan, inspired tone poems by both Liszt and Richard Strauss.

    –Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing

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    Sheet Music

    Songs by 22 Americans

    Composer(s): Samuel Barber
    Leonard Bernstein
    Paul Bowles
    John Alden Carpenter
    Celius Dougherty
    John Duke
    Charles Tomlinson Griffes
    Richard Hageman
    Charles Naginski
    William Roy
    Gladys Rich
    Virgil Thomson
    Elinor Remick Warren

    Voice Type: High

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