One of the best known compositions from Robert Schumann's "song year" of 1840 is the ballad "Die beiden Grenadiere," op. 49, no. 1, to a poem by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856). Any work about Napoleon, in any genre, was inevitably politically charged, both at the time Heine wrote his poem (perhaps in 1821, after hearing the news of the former emperor's death on 5 May 1821) and the date of its most famous musical setting (at the beginning of the decade when Germany was edging towards revolutionary outbreak). What impelled this 21st-century investigation of the song was curiosity about its confusing initial gesture in the piano, a tonic six-four chord as an anacrusis, leading to unharmonized tonic pitches on the downbeat of measure 1. Speculation about Schumann's intention led to an investigation of both men's attitudes towards Napoleon, especially the aftermath of his downfall. That Heine venerated Napoleon (who emancipated the Jews) cannot be doubted, but Heine, given to paradox and contradiction, was no hagiographer. His poem is as much literary as it is political, with its borrowings from Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Herder's translation of the Scottish ballad "Edward." The First Empire, like all empires, is not merely historical fact but a confabulation of poetic legends. Heine's underlying concern, I would argue, was not Bonapartism per se but rising German nationalism of the sort he found ominous and that Schumann, to some as yet ill-defined degree, supported. But composer and poet both associated Napoleon with the ideals of the French Revolution in the days before it and the emperor succumbed to what is darkest in human nature. In my opinion, Schumann understood Heine's delineation of nationalistic fanaticism and found apt musical gestures for that understanding. Here, I trace the composer's lifelong sense of identification with Napoleon and the compositional decisions that tell of a political point of view in "Die beiden Grenadiere."
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