January 15, 2019

A personal note from Anna Lucia Richter about Heimweh

Heimweh. Homesickness. A beautifully bittersweet word, a little old-fashioned yet never outdated. Everyone associates the word with something different. But what is it, exactly? According to the Grimm edition of the Deutsches Wörterbuch, the word Heimweh was coined only a century before Franz Schubert’s time. After first appearing in a well-known Swiss scientific journal (Scheuchzer’s Seltsame Naturgeschichten des Schweizerlandes wochentliche Erzehlung, 1705), it quickly came into general use, and soon inspired a number of poets (Claudius, Wieland, Uhland and Heine, just to name a few of the ones Schubert knew).

In Brentano‘s musical comedy Die lustigen Musikanten, Truffaldin says, “I became a night watchman and an astronomer here just so I wouldn’t have to gaze by day upon the city I was driven back to by homesickness (Heimweh); I can assure you that I’ve often felt a kind of away-sickness (Hinausweh), too.” This illustrates another fascinating aspect of the term Heimweh: its fleeting nature. We long for a certain place, and once we’ve been there for a while, a similar yet different feeling takes hold of us — “Hinausweh,” wanderlust, the “travel bug.” Home is easy to idealize from a distance, to the point that the image in our minds is practically divorced from reality; as a result, longing for home practically implies that, once we’ve gotten there, we’ll start longing for somewhere else. But what exactly is it that we’re homesick for? It’s rarely an actual home, or some specific piece of furniture within it. For children, the answer is obvious: being homesick usually means missing Mom and Dad. Home means security, because our parents keep us safe and secure. So when we feel homesick as adults, are we ultimately longing for a feeling of security? Are we hoping that being home will give us a sense of peace and quiet in this chaotic world? In other words, is Heimweh the desire to find something in the outside world — security, calm, awareness — that we can really only create within ourselves?

After all, the truly amazing thing about longing, about homesickness, is how diffuse and yet how insatiable it is. The child-woman Mignon and the Violet are both destroyed by it. But why? What is so heart-wrenching, so universal and timeless, about Heimweh? Personally, I think it’s about the loss of childhood, which is something everyone goes through, and which is one of the most difficult goodbyes to say. As Schopenhauer writes in his 1817 book The World as Will and Representation, “Childhood is the time of innocence and happiness, the paradise of life, the lost Eden on which we look back longingly through the whole remaining course of our life. But the basis of that happiness is that in childhood our whole existence lies much more in knowing than in willing….”

The joy of unambitious knowing rather than willing is a constant goal in music as well, and when it works, it offers us a brief glimpse through the keyhole into paradise. We dissolve into the moment; our hearts understand everything without ever being able to put it into words, nor needing to. When that happens, the longing is stilled — we simply ARE. Schubert, in particular, gives us a great many chances to peek through that keyhole. To me, he seems to transform vulnerability into solace, to make yearning so radiantly beautiful that it almost seems desirable. There is something comforting, something fulfilling, about highlighting so many different aspects of Heimweh through the characters found in the Schubert lieder here, so that I, as a young woman, feel connected to an old gravedigger or a dwarf (and his Queen, of course). Homesickness transcends gender and socioeconomic status — it’s deeply human. And exploring that facet of humanity has been one of the greatest gifts and the greatest joys I have ever experienced as a singer. 

– Anna L. Richter