Die alten, bösen Lieder (the hateful songs of times past) is the final song in Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe (A poet’s love.) The poet makes an angry, passionate plea for someone to bring him a coffin and he’s very specific about his requirements.
der Sarg muß sein noch größer wie’s Heidelberger Faß
So first of all the coffin must be bigger than the Great Cask at Heidelberg which is an enormous wine barrel in the cellars of Heidelberg Castle. The current cask was built in 1751 from, apparently, 130 oak trees. It originally had a capacity of 221,726 litres but the wood has since dried out and its capacity is now only 219,000 litres. That’s 3,634 fewer bottles of wine, alas!
And the bier carrying the coffin must have boards which are strong and thick and
länger, als wie zu Mainz die Brück’ (longer than the bridge at Mainz.)
I tried to find out which bridge Heine might have had in mind when he wrote the poem in 1822-1823. Unfortunately the oldest surviving bridge in Mainz, the Südbrücke, was originally built in 1860, so it can’t have been that one. Still, it’s a very fine bridge and gives you an idea of the breadth of the Rhine at this point:
Finally, the poet wants twelve giants to carry the coffin. The giants must be:
noch stärker sein, als wie der starke Christoph, im Dom zu Köln am Rhein (even stronger than the strong St Christopher in Cologne Cathedral.)
And here’s the very fine Cologne St Christopher, carved around 1470 by Tilman van der Burch:
So why does he want such a large coffin to be carried by twelve giants and sunk in the sea?
Ich senkt’ auch meine Liebe und meinen Schmerz hinein. (I sank my love and my pain therein.)
At the start of Dichterliebe the poet is full of love and hope, and by the end he is full of grief and despair. Only such a large coffin as the one he has described is big enough to contain his sorrow. I hope you enjoy this rendition by Ian Bostridge, accompanied on the piano by Julius Drake.