Tief ist die trauer, die mich umdüstert,
Ein tret ich wieder, Herr! in dein haus...

Lang war die reise, matt sind die glieder,
Leer sind die schreine, voll nur die qual.

Durstende zunge darbt nach dem weine.
Hart war gestritten, starr ist mein arm.

Gönne die ruhe schwankenden schritten,
Hungrigem gaume bröckle dein brot!

Schwach ist mein atem rufend dem traume,
Hohl sind die hände, fiebernd der mund.

Leih deine kühle, lösche die brände,
Tilge das hoffen, sende das licht!

Gluten im herzen lodern noch offen,
Innerst im grunde wacht noch ein schrei...

Töte das sehnen, schliesse die wunde!
Nimm mir die liebe, gib mir dein glück!

Stefan George, 1907

This poem by Stefan George is used as the text of the third movement of the String Quartet no.2 (1907-8) by Arnold Schoenberg, possibly the most notorious piece of chamber music of the last century. (In case you are wondering, it is sung by a soprano, who unexpectely enters - somewhat as the chorus do in Beethoven's 9th symphony - into a medium which had previously been purely instrumental.)

At first glance, it does not seem a good match for the forward-striving, asymmetric and disorienting music of Schoenberg. The poem has a very rigid rhythmic structure: almost every couplet has the same scansion, which can be notated as

_ .. _ . || _ .. _ .
_ .. _ . || _ .. _
where || marks the caesura or pause. Each line is a self-contained thought (end-stopped) and is divided into two, either by punctuation or by a logical grammatical division; the couplets are grouped two by two and the whole poem falls into two pieces of four couplets each. (This is exactly the stereotypical form of a melody in the Austro-German musical tradition: 2+2, 2+2 || 2+2, 2+2!) Overt emotional expression is suppressed by the rigid and symmetrical form, which instead produces a quasi-religious, incantatory effect remote from everyday language. The abstracted nature of the poem is reinforced by the absence of the capitals normally given to nouns in German, for example Trauer, Haus.

The rhyme scheme is extremely unorthodox: the middle of the second line of each odd-numbered couplet rhymes with the end of the next line:

Tief ist die trauer, die mich umdüstert,
        Ein tret ich wieder,
Herr! in dein haus...

Lang war die reise,
        matt sind die glieder,
Leer sind die schreine, voll nur die qual.

The effect is to blur the rigidity of the structure, linking couplets in sets of two and establishing a subtle cross-rhythm which is felt almost subconsciously. End-rhymes would have had a squarer and more mundane effect in combination with the monotonous rhythm.

There are strong echoes of Wagner in the last couplet - the text of Tristan und Isolde makes heavy use of 'Tod' (death) and 'Sehnen' (longing or yearning) and both in Tristan and Parsifal the motif of 'Wunde' (the wound) is prominent. Indeed, in the first act of Parsifal, Amfortas sings 'Nimm mir mein Erbe, schliesse die Wunde' (Take my inheritance from me, close the wound'), which George must have (unconsciously or consciously) recalled in 'schliesse die wunde! / Nimm mir die liebe'. However, Schoenberg does not exploit this similarity with specific Wagnerian reminiscences.

Possibly, since the traditional role of tonality and symmetrical rhythm in determining musical structure was so much weakened by Schoenberg's drive towards new modes of expression, he chose such a firmly, almost obsessively ordered text in order to guard against the utter disintegration of the musical fabric. (However, the last movement text Entrückung (q.v.) is not nearly so simple in expression.) Schoenberg's word-setting is rhythmically complex, but the prosody and form of the poem are respected, since each line is set exactly once, with no repetition of words. When you first swim away from the shore, it is best to hang on to a rope, in case you are swept away and never return...

Below is my, rather unrhythmical, translation.


Deep is the mourning that darkens about me,
I step again, Lord! into your house...

Long was the journey, weary are my limbs,
Empty are the reliquaries, full only the pain.

The thirsting tongue yearns for the wine.
Bitter was the dispute, stiff is my arm.

Grant rest to wavering footsteps,
Crumble your bread for the hungry palate!

Weak is my breath, summoning the dream,
Hollow are the hands, fevered the mouth.

Lend your coolness, quench the fires,
Redeem the hopes, send the light!

Embers in the heart still blaze openly,
In the inmost roots a scream still awakes...

Kill the longing, close the wound!
Take my love, give me your happiness!