Born in 1797, the same year as Franz Schubert, Heine, a poet, prose writer, critic, and journalist, is a towering figure of nineteenth-century German literature, a versatile and brilliant man of letters who significantly influenced European culture.
After a failed attempt to launch a career in the family business, Heine went to Göttingen, in 1820, to study law. The following year, he was in Berlin, where he attended the lectures of Hegel and participated in the brilliant intellectual life of the Prussian capital. After receiving his law degree, in 1825, Heine, who was Jewish, converted to Christianity, hoping that this would increase his chances of finding employment. In 1827, Heine published his Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs), to great acclaim. Restless and unable to settle into a traditional career, Heine, excited by the July Revolution in France, in 1830, moved to Paris in 1831. A true cosmopolitan, this German poet and exile, chose Paris, the cultural capital of Europe in the nineteenth century, as his permanent home. In his essays on many subjects, including music, politics, literature, and the arts, for French and German periodicals. Heine wrote with authority on many subjects pertaining to culture, but he was particularly perceptive as a music critic, realizing, for example the importance of Berlioz and understanding Chopin's genius as a composer. Suffering from spinal tuberculosis, which was diagnosed in the late 1840s, Heine became incapacitated by paralysis and consequently spent the rest of his life on what he called his "mattress grave." He died in 1856, the same year as Robert Schumann.
Regarded as a great lyrical poet, Heine is also an ironist, a Romantic poet who consciously distances himself from the kind of metaphysical rapture that poets such as Novalis craved. In fact, as Albert Béguin asserted, Heine's poetry reverses Romanticism's tendency to progress from purely psychological to metaphysical concerns. Perhaps due to its psychological complexity, Heine's poetry attracted many composers, including Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Wolf, and Richard Strauss. Interestingly, one of the greatest achievements of nineteenth-century music is Schumann's cycle Dichterliebe (The Poet's Love), based on poems from the Lyrisches Intermezzo section of the Buch der Lieder. What makes Dichterliebe a fascinating work is the fact that Schumann, who understood Heine's ironic, even cynical view of love, manages to incorporate Heine's poems, which seemingly emulate but also parody the Romantic spirit, into a musical composition which encompasses, but perhaps also transcends, Heine's world view.