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Spring Song — which spring?

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This post is contributed by John F. Russell, author and editor of The Music of Robert Louis Stevenson.

Affairs of Weather

Five penciled notes around the text of one fair copy of Stevenson’s Spring Song supply a complete history of the poem when decoded. An investigation of these inscriptions not only reveals an exact place and date for its composition at odds with earlier conclusions, but also discloses the inspiration for its creation and the appropriate music for its lyrics. In addition, the manuscript itself corrects a common misreading and provides evidence to identify the copyist.

SS1

Fig. 1: Beinecke GEN MSS 664 Box 42 f. 942

The air was full of sun and birds,
The fresh air sparkled clearly.
Remembrance wakened in my heart
And I knew I loved her dearly.

The fallows and the leafless trees
And all my spirit tingled
My earliest thought of love, and Spring’s
First puff of perfume mingled.

In my still heart, the thoughts awoke;
Came bone by bone together.
Say, birds and sun and spring, is Love
A mere affair of weather?

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The Text

Of the three known manuscripts of ‘Spring Song’,  one at the Beinecke Library has a penciled title,

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Fig. 2: 6910

another has a clearly marked title,

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Fig. 3: 6911

and one at the Writer’s Museum has no title at all (LSH 137/91), but appears as the canceled second part of a cycle of at least three poems under the heading Fröhlicher Landmann, named after Schumann’s piano piece. The first work in the cycle was Come, Here is Adieu to the City, and a third was represented only by a Roman numeral without any following text.

Fig. 4: Writers' Museum, Edinburgh, LSH 137/91

Fig. 4: Writers' Museum, Edinburgh, LSH 137/91

Fig. 4: Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh, LSH 137/91

The texts of all three manuscripts of Spring Song are identical except for minor changes in punctuation, and all are copied by the same person in what McKay calls an “unknown hand” in entry 6910 of The Stevenson Library of E.J. Beinecke (1961).

Although the texts are the same, some editors’ transcriptions are not. The first two lines of the last stanza are printed as “In my still heart the thoughts awoke, came lone by lone together” in Poems Hitherto Unpublished (1916), New Poems (1922) and The Complete Poems of Robert Louis Stevenson (1923). The editions of Janet Adam Smith (1950, 1971) and Roger C. Lewis (2003) print “bone by bone” instead. The correct reading is apparent from a comparison with the word “love” in each of the three manuscripts:

SS6SS7SS8

Since the copyist consistently joins the letters “lo” at the bottom and equally consistently joins the letters “bo” at the top, the correct transcription is, “In my still heart, the thoughts awoke; Came bone by bone together.”

This macabre image may be easier to assimilate if we suppose that Stevenson drew it from Ezekiel 37:1-14:

The hand of the Lord was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the Lord and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones …This is what the Sovereign Lord says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life … there was a noise, a rattling sound, and the bones came together, bone to bone.

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The Copyist

In the introduction to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Handwriting (1940) Gertrude Hills explains why caution should be used when identifying Stevenson documents:

SS9

The author reproduces a manuscript of “Robin and Ben” from Moral Tales (1881-2) and verifies that it is in Stevenson’s hand. When it is compared with the ms. of Come Here is Adieu to the City the overall appearance suggests that they had the same copyist.

SS10

Fig. 10: Robert Louis Stevenson’s Handwriting, 1940, p. 25

Fig. 11: Writer’s Museum LSH 137/91

Fig. 11: Writer’s Museum LSH 137/91

It would take a handwriting expert to decide, but the comparison seems to support the conclusion that the three manuscripts of Spring Song as well as that of Come Here is Adieu to the City are in Stevenson’s handwriting.

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The Place

The editors of Poems Hitherto Unpublished claim without evidence that Spring Song was written in 1871. In the Collected Poems (2003), Roger C. Lewis indicates no date, but says the poem was written in Edinburgh. RLS never returned to that city after 1886, and so Lewis implies the poem was written before 1887.

In entry 6910 for Spring Song in The Stevenson Library of E.J Beinecke, McKay remarks,

Stevenson has written the following notes in pencil at the bottom and in the left margin: Bon / Road behind C…’s gymnase / first conceived out hunting, however.

SS12

Lewis quotes the same remark in his comments on the poem. What stands out in these marginalia is that for no apparent reason two words are in French: Stevenson judges this poem “bon” and mentions a “gymnase.”

There is no reference to a “gymnase” in Edinburgh during the period 1870-1886, and neither McKay nor Lewis attempted to interpret the apparently illegible word preceding it. RLS himself was unsure about that initial letter, first writing a small c and then capitalizing it.

However, a little scrutiny identifies the word as “Cone’s” and the full phrase as “Road behind Cone’s Gymnase.” There is no evidence of such a building in Edinburgh, but the presence of the two foreign words suggests France, where of course there are many gymnase. A search of Paris reveals the Théâtre du Gymnase at 38 Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle. Perhaps writing the word “bon” reminded Stevenson of the street name Bonne-Nouvelle and then the theater, encouraging him to make the note.

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Théâtre du Gymnase in 1877, A-P. Martial, 1828-1883 (via Gallica ark:/12148/btv1b8458129r)

SS14

Stevenson was fluent in French, and if he remembered a French theater run by someone named “Cone,” it is likely that he approximated the French pronunciation of that name in his English note.

The October 16, 1880 issue of the Academy, a British publication for which RLS wrote criticism and which he was known to read in Paris, reveals the correct spelling in an announcement of the new manager of the Gymnase:

SS15The French pronunciation of Koning became the English Cone and this explains why RLS was confused about writing the first letter. Spring Song was therefore written on the road behind Victor Koning’s Théâtre du Gymnase at 38 Boulevard Bonne-Nouvelle in Paris.

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The Date

According to J.R. Hammond’s A Robert Louis Stevenson Chronology (1997), after 1880 (when Koning took over the Gymnase) RLS was in Paris only twice, in April 16-May18, 1881 and August 11-23, 1886.

For Stevenson Paris in the springtime of 1881 was not much to sing about. Fanny and Lou had been married hardly a year and they were both recovering from illnesses. Virginibus Puerisque, in which the first three essays are about love and marriage, was published April 15th of that year and contained a statement about lovers that hardly proved true for the newlyweds.

They are half inclined to fancy it is because of them and their love that the sky is blue and the sun shines. And certainly the weather is usually fine while people are courting.

During that sojourn in Paris he wrote at least 11 letters. Five of them complained about money troubles, five complained about his and Fanny’s health, two complained about the cold weather, and one described Paris as “a temple of stenches.”

It seems unlikely then that Paris in the spring of 1881 was full of sun and birds, the fresh air sparkled clearly, and Lou’s earliest thought of love and spring’s first puff of perfume mingled.

The second and last time Fanny and Louis were in Paris was in August of 1886. They stayed at 12 rue Vernier with the painter Will H. Low, whom he had not seen for ten years. They first became acquainted at Grez, where Lou also met Fanny for the first time, probably in August of 1876. Remembrance must certainly have wakened in his heart at this reunion.

In A Chronicle of Friendships (1908, p. 331), Low records the events of Stevenson’s stay with him, and notes that he took Lou on trips in an open carriage

… through the beautiful city in the pleasant sunshine, which was clement to him during all the stay in Paris … Every sight of the streets pleased him, above all, the trim Parisiennes … or, more often, bareheaded working girls tripping along on their way to their shops … [Stevenson said,] “The Lord was on His mettle when He made the French woman.”

Both McKay and Roger C. Lewis pointed out another note in pencil on the left side of the ms. and transcribed it as, “first conceived out hunting, however.”

SS16Although the word “conceived” is difficult to make out, there is no argument about the correctness of the transcription, only with the sense. In Samoa in the 1890’s Stevenson had a gun cabinet at Vailima, but in August of 1886 it is not probable that he lurked about the Paris Théâtre with a rifle in his arms, flushing grouse. If little time elapsed between his conceiving of Spring Song and writing it down on the road behind the Gymnase, it implies that he did his hunting in Paris. What was he after?

On one excursion with Stevenson, Low says their first goal that day was the bookshop of Calmann-Levy at 3 rue Auber to find a copy of New Arabian Nights as a gift for Rodin, who was doing a bust of Henley. From there they went across the Seine to J. Hetzel’s bookshop at 18 rue Jacob in search of a translation of Treasure Island for Low’s wife Berthe.

Although Low does not recount any more of the journey, he may have had one more goal in mind. His former teacher and friend the sculptor Adrien Gaudez (1845-1902) was restoring the sculptures on the Porte Saint-Denis at the junction of boulevards Bonne-Nouvelle and St. Denis. A glance at a map of Low and Stevenson’s itinerary suggests that their final destination could have been the site of Gaudez’s restorations.

Not only was Gaudez Low’s teacher, but he was also a friend of Stevenson, who reported in Booth-Mehew letter 450 what a good time he, Low, cousin Bob and Gaudez were having in Paris in October of 1876 when he was 25. It would seem natural that Low would want to surprise Stevenson with a visit to his other old friend since the Gymnase was only an eight minute walk from where Gaudez was working.

SS17

The Itinerary of Low and Stevenson (Google Maps)

On the road behind the Gymnase there were probably birds and sun, but Low makes no mention of rifles or wild game, and so the only logical explanation for the penciled note is that Spring Song was written behind Victor Koning’s Théâtre du Gymnase and conceived while Stevenson and Low were out hunting, not birds, but old friends and books.

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The Music

Those familiar with early 19th century keyboard music immediately associate the title Spring Song with Mendelssohn’s piano piece from Songs Without Words (book 2, op. 30, no. 6). Stevenson must have because he made an arrangement of it, probably for flageolet, which he called by its German name Frühlingslied. It would hardly have been a surprise if the lyrics of Spring Song fit Mendelssohn’s music, but they don’t, and forcing them to would require more humoring of the notes than Stevenson ever permitted himself.

Although the editors of Poems Hitherto Unpublished were misled about the time and place for the poem’s origin, they provide an essential clue for identifying the inspiration of Spring Song in their remarks about it and three other poems, The Summer Sun Shone Round Me, You Looked So Tempting in the Pew, and Love’s Vicissitudes.

We naturally group together any notes concerning these four poems, so manifestly are they the result of the Heine influence. The metre of the first and third was used by the German poet time and time again. “Im wunderschönen Monat Mai” suggests itself immediately. Nor is it alone in form that the effect of Heine on Stevenson is apparent.

Stevenson refers to Heine many times in his letters, and Stevenson’s Library Db quotes him as saying, “Heine’s vocabulary I know very well, and can therefore read him with ease.” Spring Song does share many similarities with Im wunderschönen Monat Mai including the season, the mention of birds and the sentiment of awakening love.

SS18The meter is almost identical.

SS19Establishing the date of Spring Song as August 1886 is important because RLS began learning piano in April of the same year, and by December of 1887 he had developed a passion for writing lyrics to music. He had written songs previously, but apparently only by imitating someone else’s text and probably without reference to music.

In R.L.S. and his Sine Qua Non (1918), Adelaide Boodle described her relationship with Stevenson as his writing student and musical associate at Skerryvore in 1886,

It was sheer delight when, under friendly guidance, he was able laboriously to pick out some simple air (nearly always a Schumann for choice)

At that time Stevenson had been using various books to learn the piano, including Litolff’s series of simplified arrangements of famous works, one of which includes Mendelssohn’s Spring Song. Altogether he made six manuscript copies of melodies from Schumann piano works and two, Ländliches Lied and Träumerei, are from a volume published by Litolff devoted entirely to Schumann. Litolff also published Schumann-Album, which contains 40 Schumann songs in translation including Im wunderschönen Monat Mai.

Though it is only a subjective judgement, perhaps the most important indication that RLS constructed his poem around Schumann’s setting of Heine is the music’s unusual ending on an unresolved 7 chord (C#7), which Berlioz said Schumann was the first to do.

SS20This is meaningless to those untrained in music but is easily understood from its use in connection with Happy Birthday. After singing the usual lyrics, people often add the tag, “And many more” to the notes of an unresolved 7 chord. Another example is the “And that ain‘t all” motif that is often tacked on to popular piano pieces, sometimes with a tremolo on the chords. This device makes any piece of music seem as if it hasn’t ended, which is appropriate to the meaning of those lyrics. In the same way, Schumann’s song seems to be unfinished and ends as if with an unanswered question, just as Stevenson’s poem does.

Additional more objective evidence that this is the correct music comes once again from Stevenson’s penciled notes.

SS21

To the left of the phrase “Road behind Cone’s gymnase” Stevenson has written and crossed out “Cyclus.”

This remark raises once more the question of language. Why did Stevenson use the Latin “cyclus” instead of the English “cycle” or the German “Zyclus”? Heine’s poem appears in his collection called Buch der Lieder under the group title “Lyrisches Intermezzo [Lyric Interlude]” without any use of a word resembling or meaning “cycle.” However Im wunderschönen Monat Mai is the first work in Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe (Poet’s Love, 1840) and the title page immediately explains Stevenson’s use of the Latin word.

SS22Though there is no evidence that RLS owned this edition of the music, it seems clear that he had seen and remembered it.

Schumann’s music accommodates Heine’s two stanza poem by repeating almost exactly the same music twice. However Stevenson’s poem has three stanzas and so requires three repetitions. Although this distorts Schumann’s original form, the third repetition of this hauntingly beautiful music is nevertheless welcome and the entire song with Stevenson’s lyrics can be heard by clicking here.

That Stevenson should choose as his model a song from Schumann’s Dichterliebe, Poet’s Love, is apt, for would it be so surprising, while riding in an open carriage on a beautiful summer day in Paris and admiring the pretty, bare-headed parisiennes, if not just love, but poetry as well could be a mere affair of weather?

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Written by rdury

27/10/2015 at 1:17 pm

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