Schöne Fremde – a Woman, the World, or Schumann’s Song itself?

The song “Schöne Fremde” you hear in this recording was composed by Robert Schumann. The text of the song is a poem which the German writer Joseph von Eichendorff wrote as part of his novel “Dichter und ihre Gesellen” (Poets and their fellows). In 1840, seven years after the book was published, Schumann began to compose a cycle of 12 songs, the “Liederkreis, Opus 39.” One of them is “Schöne Fremde.”

The singer in this recording is Luciano Marazzo. The Argentinian-born tenor found his home in Moscow, Idaho, where he runs the Online Music Guild (, an online service that provides music coaching for classical musicians around the globe.

The poem’s language is straight-forward, its title is not. In the novel, a wanderer has just arrived in Rome, a city he has never seen before. He sits alone in the park of his host’s palace when a young beautiful woman appears. The wanderer takes a guitar and sings “Schöne Fremde.”

Schöne Fremde can mean a beautiful (schön) female (as the -e ending of adjective and noun is telling us) stranger (Fremde) or the beautiful foreign world (here certainly Rome) because Fremde means both, a stranger and the world outside of what we know. The adjective fremd means strange and foreign in the same time.

The poem has three stanzas. The first describes the scene, the place and the time. In the second stanza, actually in the middle of the poem, we meet the narrator who believes to hear a message from this fantastic Roman night (phantastische Nacht), and in the third stanza, the narrator expresses what the stars are – or better: might be – telling him.


Es rauschen die Wipfel und schauern,
Als machten zu dieser Stund
Um die halbversunkenen Mauern
Die alten Götter die Rund.

This is one sentence, stating the activity of the tree tops (die Wipfel), rauschen and schauern, two popular verbs in romantic poetry, and comparing it with a walk old Gods take around the ruins in the night. Rauschen means to rustle or to whoosh, a sound we hear mostly when nature is in action and forebodes fateful events. Schauern is used in an old-fashioned way. Today we say erschauern or erschaudern, together with an object (e.g. uns, mich, die Kinder). The tree tops make us shiver.

Notice the word order. The flexibility of the German language allows us to put the verb schauern after the subject (die Wipfel). Normally, we say, “Es rauschen und schauern die Wipfel” or “Die Wipfel rauschen und schauern.”

The next three lines present a comparison to the tree tops’s activities: As if (als + subjunctive of machen = machten) the old Gods (die alten Götter) walk around (die Runde machen) the walls (die Mauern) which time has thrown in disrepair (halbversunken = half sunken), meaning the ruins of Rome at this hour (zu dieser Stunde).


Hier hinter den Myrtenbäumen
In heimlich dämmernder Pracht,
Was sprichst du wirr wie in Träumen
Zu mir, phantastische Nacht?

It starts out as a statement, but in mid-sentence it turns into a simple question: Was sprichst du zu mir, phantastische Nacht? After the location – hier (here), behind the myrtle trees (Myrtenbäume, a plant, found in the Mediterranian area, in this poem a symbol for Italy) – and the condition – in splendor (Pracht) that is secret (heimlich) and dawning (dämmernd) – we expect a verb. Instead, we face a question word: was. Now the narrator appears on the scene and addresses the night: What are you telling me, fantastic night, wirr (confused, mazy) wie in Träumen (like in dreams)?


Es funkeln auf mich alle Sterne
Mit glühendem Liebesblick,
Es redet trunken die Ferne
Wie von künftigem, großem Glück.

Now the narrator is present in the schöne Fremde. The stars (Sterne) twinkle (funkeln) at him (auf mich) with a burning (glühend) gaze of love (der Liebesblick); and die Ferne (the distance, afar) talks (reden) enthralled (trunken) – but about what? Now, the poem’s message is becoming as ambivalent as its title. It does not say that the stars talk about, but talk as of (wie von) a future grand happiness (künftigem, großem Glück). At the end, the poem – and therefore the song – itself becomes the schöne Fremde.

Published by


Bernd Hendricks. Born in Duisburg, Germany. Based in Berlin. Writer, German Language Educator. I was six years old when I went to the opera for the first time. My Grandma took me to Hänsel und Gretel at the Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duisburg. The first time I met an opera singer personally was during my time as foreign correspondent in New York when at a Christmas party a baritone pelted me with questions about the language of Zauberflöte. He was preparing for his role as Papageno. After my return to Berlin in September 2010, I have been giving German lessons to singers on their audition tours. My workshops in Berlin, Vienna, and London are based on my widely read book Ach, ich fühl’s—German for Opera Singers in Three Acts: Studying, Speaking, Singing. My latest book, Die Frist ist um—Navigate the Language of 10 German Operas, takes you on a journey through the language of the most popular and often performed operas in the German-speaking countries. I am also the author of several non-fiction books and two novels.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s