On Wings of Song

Illustration of Mendelssohn-Liszt: On Wings of Song in A flat
(Liszt transcription of Mendelssohn’s song Auf Flügeln des Gesanges, poem by Heinrich Heine.)

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Auf Flügeln des Gesanges, On Wings of Song, is one of the most loved and well-known songs of the classical repertoire. Liszt transcribed for piano solo the second of Mendelssohn’s Six Songs for voice and piano, Op. 34 (1834). The words of the song come from Lyrical Intermezzo, Book of Songs (1822-23), by the German poet, Heinrich Heine. Set to music in the warm, alluring key of A flat, Liszt adds bell-like octaves and sparkling cadenzas, enhancing the dream-like quality of the song. Not only singers but also instrumentalists, such as violinists Jascha Heifetz and David Nadien, have played this heart-rending love song.

The grandson of the Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn studied philosophy with Hegel, was fluent in several languages, and an accomplished draughtsman and writer. He visited and performed in England many times between 1829 and 1847 (the year of his death), possibly absorbing Victorian culture and its fascination with Oriental philosophy and art. One can imagine that these experiences played a part in Mendelssohn’s attraction to Heine’s love poem which is set on the banks of the River Ganges.

The illustration follows the details of the lyrics and Liszt’s piano transcription. Starting at the northwest corner of the painting, we follow the Ganges river from its source high up in the Himalayas as it flows through India’s central plains to the Ganges delta, and empties into the Bay of Bengal. Angel wings, taken from paintings by Fra Angelico and Leonardo (the annunciation) and Giotto (the ascension), weave in and out of snowy mountain peaks; beneath the full moon, a white bird carries the manuscript of Mendelssohn’s music towards the pale cloud-bed of the dreaming lovers. On the south east corner of the painting, a banyan tree frames a deep blue lagoon, its branches extending over ‘a garden of red blooms’ and pointing towards six ‘leaping, listening gazelles’. Lotus flowers, fragrant roses and ‘giggling violets’ surround the ’beautiful place’ on the Ganges banks where the lovers have been carried ‘on the wings of song.’ On the southwest corner, palm tree fronds reach over the couple, shading them with peace and love and leaving them to ‘dream their blessed dream.’