Mozart’s Violet

I recently came across a little Mozartian gem called Das Veilchen (“The Violet”), K. 476. It’s a song for voice and piano he wrote in 1785 set to the words of a poem by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The poem was written in the early 1770s as a metaphor for a young man’s broken heart, and Mozart set it to music in 1785. Listen here:

And here are the words of the poem (the poetic English translation is in italics):

Ein Veilchen auf der Wiese stand (A violet in the meadow stood),
gebückt in sich und unbekannt (with humble brow, demure and good);
es war ein herzigs Veilchen (it was the sweetest violet).
Da kam ein’ junge Schäferin (There came along a shepherdess)
mit leichtem Schritt und munterm Sinn (with youthful step and happiness),
daher, daher (who sang, who sang),
die Wiese her und sang (along the way this song).

Ach! denkt das Veilchen, wär’ ich nur (Oh! thought the violet, how I pine)
die schönste Blume der Natur (for nature’s beauty to be mine),
ach, nur ein kleines Weilchen (if only for a moment),
bis mich das Liebchen abgepflückt (for then my love might notice me)
und an dem Busen matt gedrückt (and on her bosom fasten me),
ach, nur, ach nur (I wish, I wish)
ein Viertelstündchen lang (if but a moment long)!

Ach, aber ach! Das Mädchen kam (But, cruel fate! The maiden came)
und nicht in acht das Veilchen nahm (without a glance or care for him),
ertrat das arme Veilchen (she trampled down the violet).
Es sank und starb, und freut’ sich noch (He sank and died, but happily [said]):
und sterb’ ich denn, so sterb’ ich doch (and so I die then let me die)
durch sie, durch sie (for her, for her),
zu ihren Füßen doch (beneath her darling feet)!

Then Mozart added the following line to the very end:

Das arme Veilchen! es war ein herzigs Veilchen (Poor little violet! It was the sweetest violet).

Okay. I want to point out a few things that Mozart does in the song that are a little surprising. The first stanza has some foreshadowing of what’s to come; check out the falling line when she sings with humble brow, demure and good; (0:16-0:20), and the middle line of the stanza when she sings it was the sweetest violet (0:20-0:24). Also in the first stanza, Mozart wrote in a light, staccato accompaniment during the words with youthful step and happiness, referring to the shepherdess, the violet’s love interest (0:28-0:32), and the interlude between the first and second stanza imitates the carefree nature of the girl (0:38-0:44). 

The second stanza changes tone completely from the first. The first half opens in minor with intense, heavy chords as the violet pines for his love (0:44-0:58), but then we return to the cheerful lightness of the first stanza for a bit as he thinks about his girl (for then my love might notice me / and on her bosom fasten me; 0:58-1:05). The stanza finishes with intense chords and ends on a dominant chord (which means that Mozart essentially left a feeling of unfinishedness to this stanza, and it’s kind of leading into what happens in the third stanza).

The third and final stanza is the most tragic of the three. But, cruel fate! The maiden came (1:15-1:21) is accompanied by major chords, leaving the listener to wonder what exactly is going to happen to the violet. And then the words without a glance or care for him / she trampled down the violet (1:21-1:31) are lightly accompanied (in fact, the singer is alone for the first phrase) until she trampled down the violet, when dramatic, heavy chords emphasize the tragic situation. After a pause, the words He sank and died, but happily are emphasized by a slow, falling line (remember the foreshadowing from earlier?), but things pick up again as the violet says, and so I die then let me die / for her, for her / beneath her darling feet (1:44-1:54) where, once again, a cheerful accompaniment replaces the sad mood with one of extremely cheerful and slightly out of place humor, as the violet is willing to sacrifice himself for his love.

Then, the final two phrases of the song are Mozart’s own. Poor little violet! is very recitative-like in nature (recitative is a style of singing where the singer can adopt the rhythms of regular speech), and this sets up the idea that this final section is a commentary on the story of the violet. And the final line, It was the sweetest violet, is identical to that in the first stanza. To me, this seems like Mozart was adding a tone of offhanded objectiveness regarding the story of the violet. To me it’s almost as if Mozart found the man’s happy attitude about his heartbreak a little silly, so he lightened the overall mood through the music. It’s like an older, more experienced person nonchalantly patting the young man on the head and saying that youthful hearts bounce back quickly.

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