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8.557026-27 - SCHUBERT, F.: Lied Edition 14 - European Poets, Vol. 2
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Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)
European Poets, Vol. 2

 

Schubert as a composer of Italian arias? As a setter of gloomy, bloodthirsty Scottish ballads? He was both. Even as a schoolboy at the Staatskonvikt he had a voracious literary appetite. To begin with it was friends who supplied him with almanacs and anthologies of poetry, and ‘seldom did he refuse a choice’ of this kind, as his school-friend Albert Stadler recalled. His later choices of text were individual, specific and deliberate, and not only from literature in German, a fact that one might consider obvious in multicultural Vienna, capital of the Austrian state that included so many different peoples. Oddly enough poetry from the neighbouring Slav and Balkan states played scarcely any part in Schubert’s song-writing. The literary scene itself, however, had long since become European. Poets, philologists and readers busied themselves with the poetic art of other countries and languages, and the hunting out of collections and translations of foreign works had become a highly regarded occupation. Famous, for example, was the collection Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (Voices of the Peoples in Songs) by Johann Gottfried Herder, which appeared in 1778-79, in which Goethe, Lessing and Lavater, among others collaborated, and which drew on German, English, Spanish, Danish, French, Gaelic, Greek, Italian, Estonian and Lithuanian folk-songs.

A major point of interest was provided by the literature of the Anglo-Saxon region. In 1759 Lessing in his seventeen literary letters drew attention again to Shakespeare, then forgotten in Germany, and thus prepared the way for the great veneration of Shakespeare in the Sturm und Drang period. In 1760 there followed the Scot James Macpherson’s Fragments of Ancient Poetry, eight years later translated for the first time into German. These included free versions of poems from the Irish-Scottish sagas about the hero and bard Fingal and his son Ossian. Macpherson claimed that these were old poems that had been discovered, which he had merely translated and this aroused fascination with the dark world of Nordic mythical heroic sagas and led to an Ossian craze that had far-reaching influence on the whole of European literature until into the nineteenth century, a craze that also affected the young Schubert.

There was a further strong influence from Italian literature, not principally in the lyrical and epic but rather in the dramatic genre of opera with its most important and influential representatives, the theatre poets and librettists Lorenzo Da Ponte and Pietro Metastasio.

Schubert had command of no foreign languages, yet this did not impair his sympathetic understanding of the colouring, for example, of English poetry. The quality of the translations that were at his disposal may have been difficult for him to evaluate and they were not always the best. Nevertheless his instinct for what was useful to him for inspiration and composition was unfailing and sure. These Ossian poems resulted in some of the most exceptional and astonishing compositions of his whole life. While the English texts, however, were altogether a choice of the heart, his engagement with the Italian language began with a set task. His composition teacher Salieri gave him texts by Metastasio, at first as prosaic homework. He later set some Italian texts that he had chosen himself.

With these so fundamentally different poetic worlds of the Anglo-Saxon and the Italian, the stylistic, formal and emotional variety of the music that Schubert wrote in setting them is immense. This also concerns the fact that the songs here included span the period from 1813 to 1827, almost the whole of Schubert’s creative life. We hear him here first as a self-taught and gifted young man in Verklärung (D 59) (Transfiguration), when he was at the same time a pupil of Salieri and of the Italian style, as in Son fra l’onde (D 78) (I am amid the waves), Pensa che questo istante (D 76) (Consider that this moment), and Misero pargoletto (D 42) (Unhappy child). Then he developed what he had learnt in his lessons into something more independent and individual, as in Vedi quanto adoro (D 510) (See how much I love you), and La pastorella (D 528) (The shepherdess), but at the same time he remained true to his original unbounded love for experiment, as in Die Nacht (D 534) (The Night). Later we see a search for new possibilities in the combination of poetic expression and musical structure, as in the settings of the Petrarch Sonnets (D 628-630). Finally in the Shakespeare settings, D 888, 889 and 891, and the Songs for bass (D 902), we find a mature musician, a master of the tools of his trade as a composer used to produce an inspired work of art. We can never know, were he not to have died a year later, whether he might not have produced substantially different music in later life. Two weeks before his death he began to study fugue with Simon Sechter and wrote his first exercises. If one considers stylistic diversity, without loss of a personal character or disappearing among superficial successors, as a criterion for the quality of a composer, Schubert might stand at the top of the list in the period between 1700 and 1900, perhaps only surpassed by Johann Sebastian Bach. This then could be the most outstanding feature of the songs here included, the harmonic combination of stylistic adaptability and variety with unmistakably individual musical language.

The three Ossian songs are significantly different compositions from the group of Ossian settings heard on the first CD of the present series (the other six songs are included in European Poets Vol.1, Naxos 8.554795). If Die Nacht (D 534) (The Night) and Der Tod Oskars (D.375) (The Death of Oscar) are compared, the free depiction of nature, with the terrors and beauties of the night, appears as a colourful, bold, inspired composition. This is in contrast with The Death of Oscar, completely different, non-illustrative, sparingly written, with its stylistic elements of folk-song, which nevertheless is throughout adequate for the narrative style of the poem. It may be that this quasi archaising style springs from an attempt by Schubert to come nearer to this sort of ballad material in a different way from the earlier Ossian settings. These sound altogether chaotic, free, modern. If here the frequent repetition of similar basic ‘narrative’ musical motifs sometimes produces a certain monotony, there are also some flashes of genius that reward careful listening. The completely unexpected, quasi directionless modulation at the beginning for ‘meine Augen sind von Tränen erblindet’(My eyes are blind with tears) should be mentioned, the mirror relationship of both principal motifs, ‘Führer der Helden, o Oskar, mein Sohn’ (Chief of the warriors, Oscar, my son) directed upwards, appealing, ‘Eins war Dermid und Oskar’ (Dermid and Oscar were one) downwards, a narrative element in the story, the lamenting piano sequence after ‘Er ging und kehrte zum Mädchen seiner Liebe’ (He went, and returned to the maid of his love), and finally the modulation at the end, falling into a bottomless abyss, yet musically pleasing, at the suicide of the girl, ‘sie fiel, bebte und starb’ (She fell; she trembled, and died).

In Die Nacht (The Night) the text directions indicate ‘First Bard’ and ‘The Chief’ in the outline of the poem Croma. Five bards spend the night in the house of a chief, who is himself a poet. They recite extempore the description of the night and this is commented on by the chief. In the inspired musical realisation of the picturesque scenes of night there is here a sheer abundance of ideas, easily perceptible to the listener. Technically attractive and highly unconventional is the recapitulation of the opening music at the end of the first part, after ‘er bebt in der Mitte der Nacht’ (He trembles amidst the night), since it sounds a semitone lower. This produces a formal rounding off, but at the same time a remarkable impression of lack of direction - that is, as the music runs, without it being noticed, contrary to the ‘right’ way. Noteworthy is also the contrast between the onomatopoeically ‘modern’, strong harmonies of the first part and the archaic, dance-like, rhythmic and melodic music of the last part.

Lorma, D 376, setting an excerpt from Macpherson’s Ossian epic The Battle of Lora, survives only as a fragment. Nevertheless it says something that Schubert had intended and perhaps actually carried out a complete setting of Lorma’s lament and death. The surviving fragment shows a certain unity in its three-part form: Recitative - setting the scene; Arioso - Lorma’s lament; Recitative - development of the events until the return of the initial sadness. The music reflects very exactly the inner feelings of Lorma, her inner agitation. This distinctness is so strong that the music seems not so much associated with the pre-existent text as to be its prior source.

Johann Gottfried Herder was the translator of the famous Scottish ballad Edward (D 923) and of Alexander Pope’s poem The Dying Christian to His Soul, that Schubert set under the title Verklärung (Transfiguration). Herder, with his humanistic ideas and his aesthetic, philosophical and theological dissertations, was a formative and influential spirit in the eighteenth century and after. As court preacher of Duke Karl August of Weimar he was friendly with Goethe and Schiller. Besides he also translated (as did Goethe in his Werther) Ossianic texts and discussed them together. He also established the concept of ‘folk-song’ in German usage. Schubert made three versions of Edward, of which only the third, included here, is in the form of a duet. It is strophic in structure, simple, ‘archaic’, and includes strongly dramatic effects, particularly at the end, when, after the long dialogue between mother and son, both suddenly sing together, Edward in burning hatred, his mother in despairing introspection.

Verklärung (D 59) (Transfiguration) is surely the strongest song composition of the young Schubert. He reacts to the unsentimental, puritanical power of the text first with a baroque, polyphonic introduction, which is followed by a very graphic recitative, suggesting the feelings of the soul in its death throes. This leads to music of ‘transfiguration’, such as only Schubert could write, calm ecstasy with a simple but absolutely compelling melody and a flowing chordal accompaniment with gently hypnotic harmonies. Particularly striking here are the successive, blending melodic lines of the voice and piano descant at ‘sanft in’s Leben’ (gently into life) and ‘Engeleinklang’ (sic) (sound of angels) as well as the harsh, triumphant recitative ending of the song.

Der blinde Knabe (D 833) (The Blind Boy) is a masterpiece of the mature Schubert, with its simple and inspired characterization. There is first the slow accompaniment figure with the virtually contourless counter-movement of the right and left hand (qv. the title), ever and again interrupted in the bass through the two throbbing quavers that provide a clear pattern of figuration for the whole song, but also very discreetly offer an onomatopoeic element. The semiquaver figures seem to depict hands feeling their way; both bass quavers like the sound of the blind boy’s stick; the hesitation of the semiquaver movement at the words ‘Licht’ (light) and ‘hell’ (bright) are like the helpless stopping of one who cannot understand what can only be seen with the eyes. The harmony in the opening moves forwards only very hesitatingly, cautiously, with small steps; in the piano muted horn fifths sound, like signals from another world. The initially tentative melody of the vocal part, with its repeated notes, in the middle section, when it moves to the inner life that ‘schön mir lacht’ (laughs to me), shifts suddenly into wide-spaced intervals in joyful, unchecked movement, while the piano bass ranges more widely in its figuration, thereby dwelling on the boy’s state of mind, but introduces longer pauses, and changes as he loses the rhythm. At the last line of the text, ‘obgleich ein armer, blinder Knab’ (Although a poor blind boy) we hear an unexpected, dark break into the minor, which occurs so abruptly, as if he were pushed over (by the observer?). Then the line of the text is repeated with the word ‘obgleich’ (although), but musically it is in a completely different form, removing the feeling of darkness and escaping the danger of sentimental pity. The postlude has no cadence, but sticks to the tonic - a cadence would suggest: ‘Here is our goal, and we shall surely reach it’ - and announces the immutable condition of being blind. Schubert’s music, then, creates a simple, but deeply sympathetic aural picture of the blind boy with no element of kitsch, transforming the sentimentality of the poem into true humanity. Here again, as in the best of Schubert’s songs, there is the most astonishing thing, the absolute agreement between the text and the musical structure, which produces one striking, completely integrated whole.

Colley Cibber (1671-1757), the author of the poem, was an English actor and playwright who published a candid Apology for the Life of Mr Colley Cibber Comedian after an eventful life in the theatre. We are indebted to his translator Jacob Nicolaus Craigher de Jachelutta for two poems that were also set by Schubert, Die junge Nonne (The Young Nun) and Totengräbers Heimweh (The Gravedigger’s Longing).

Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) was the author of a collection of erotic poems under the title The Mistress, from which Joseph Ratschky translated The Inconstant as Der Weiberfreund (D 271). Schubert’s strophic song is like a younger brother of Leporello’s famous catalogue song in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

When we hear the Shakespeare settings An Silvia (D 891) (To Silvia), Trinklied (D 888) (Drinking Song) and Ständchen (D 889) (Serenade) we can only regret that Schubert did not set more texts by the English poet. With the sureness of a sleepwalker he adds to the partly galant, partly cruder poetry music that it seems could not be otherwise. Franz Liszt wrote a virtuoso transcription of Ständchen for solo piano, the source of its early fame. Many songs by Schubert were generally first known after his death to the public outside Vienna through Liszt’s transcriptions that he included in his concert programmes. Liszt was one of Schubert’s leading advocates.

Schubert’s ability to produce something of his own from adaptations can be seen in the Italian songs included here. These began with his composition lessons with Salieri, who realised the exceptional talent of the fifteen-year-old and taught him for nothing. He gave him texts by the famous poet Pietro Metastasio to set. The latter was born in Rome in 1698 and in 1730 moved to Vienna as Imperial Court Poet. In his lifetime he was highly regarded as a poet, but today his importance has diminished and he is seen only as a passable librettist. The historical importance of Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) has been undervalued, not least denounced through the mythical tale of his relationship with Mozart, whom he certainly did not murder. The fact is that in addition to his various activities as a composer and Kapellmeister he was also highly regarded in Vienna as a teacher, with Beethoven, Hummel and Liszt among his pupils.

Son fra l’onde (I am amid the waves), Pensa che questo istante (Consider that this moment) and Misero pargoletto (Unhappy Child) were composition exercises. All three show that Schubert was a clever and gifted composition student. Son fra l’onde (D 78) is the dramatic lament of Venus buffeted by the waves in the sea. The short aria is of enormous dramatic strength and already shows astonishing compositorial sureness of touch in the balance of the wild figuration and tremolos of the accompaniment and the wide-ranging arch of the vocal part. Interestingly Schubert was at the same time busy with the setting of Schiller’s mammoth poem Der Taucher (The Diver) and in many respects the song included here, although fully valuable in itself, sounds like a study for the great ballad. Son fra l’onde shows Schubert’s talent, Der Taucher his genius - and perhaps Salieri took the latter as a waste of time (or would have, since unfortunately we do not know whether he knew of this project by Schubert). His reservations on poems in ‘the barbarous German language’, as reported by Schubert’s friend Joseph von Spaun, may be exaggerated, but it is certain that on this point there were tensions between teacher and pupil.

Pensa che questo istante (D 76) has as its subject the myth known since antiquity of Hercules at the crossroads (between virtue and vice). Fromino, the mentor of Hercules, addresses his pupil and exhorts him not to forget his origins and to be aware of his responsibility to the world and to the gods. Then he leaves him to his destiny and his own power of decision. The solemn style of the song corresponds to the weighty nature of the situation. The development from the first to the second version is interesting, although unfortunately it is not known whether this was a revision undertaken on Salieri’s instructions or on Schubert’s own initiative. Through a widened harmonic range and some important melodic changes it moves from a plain row form (each time starting with ‘pensa’) to a unified aria in arch form.

In Misero pargoletto (D 42) Timante addresses his son in the mistaken belief that the latter has married his sister. Schubert suggests despair and shame at the supposed incest in music that very exactly and impressively depicts the wavering of Timantes between pain, the desire for silence and pure horror.

La pastorella (D 528) (The Shepherdess) is from Carlo Goldoni, playwright and the Italian teacher of the daughter of Louis XV, author of some two hundred plays, among them two in French. It is a late exercise set by Salieri, as can be seen from some corrections in the manuscript, as for Vedi quanto adoro (See how much I love). The composition exercises were contrasted, there the great Scena ed Aria, here the light (but not so easy to sing) Ariette in pastoral, bel canto style following Rossini, whose operas had been seen in Vienna since 1816. The little song, taken from the comic opera Il filosofo di campagna (The Country Philosopher) is a replica of the peasant girl Lena’s at the arrogance of her city aunt.

Before the final version of Vedi quanto adoro (D 510) (See how much I love) there are three comprehensive sketches that show that it was very important for Schubert to have a perfect version of the composition, whether because he intended to give Salieri a kind of companion piece, or because the piece was to serve as proof of his ability as a composer of opera in his quest for employment in one of the opera houses in Vienna. Aeneas, at the behest of the gods, is about to leave Dido, Queen of Carthage. She overwhelms him first with reproaches, then turns to gentle persuasion to change her lover’s mind (See how much I love you still, ingrate!). What we hear is practically a perfect adaptation, suggestions of Haydn’s Arianna a Naxos (first pointed out by Graham Johnson), but also of Mozart’s concert arias which fall into line with a complete, large-scale unity with a highly vocal and dramatic effect.

Moving on towards Schubert’s greatest masterpiece in Italian, the three songs for bass, we come first to the Four Canzonets (D 688), written in 1820. Why he returned again to Italian texts and specifically to these and set them not as arias but in pure song form, is not clear. In all outward modesty they show impressively that Schubert had long outgrown his student years. They are simple, plainly set miniatures of great melodic beauty and quality, completely without illustrative and onomatopœic elements. They almost seem to be written for an ambitious amateur singer, but the previous supposition that this was definitely Franziska von Roner, the later wife of Schubert’s close friend Joseph von Spaun, is really not tenable. The texts of the two first songs, earlier falsely ascribed to Metastasio, are by the Venetian Jacopo Vittorelli. The poems are his best known and were often set to music, with a setting of Non t’accostar all’urna (Do not approach the urn) by the young Verdi.

The Three Songs for bass with piano (D 902) were dedicated to the famous bass Luigi Lablache. Lablache was reportedly uniquely remarkable for the praised richness and beauty of his voice (and also for the miraculous breaking of his voice, when he went to sleep a treble and woke as a bass). He valued Schubert highly and also performed his German songs. The inspiration from Rossini for the songs is clear, the buffo style of his fellow-composer, five years his senior, perfectly achieved, at least a match for the compositional substance of corresponding Rossini arias. The noble cantabile quality of the first, the comic and dramatic character of the second and the breakneck parlando of the third song must have been pure pleasure for Lablache.

We meet a completely different world with the three Petrarch Sonnets (D 628-630). The fact that Schubert moves far away from Italian musical language is certainly not primarily for the German translation, but first of all because of the quite different nature of the poetry. Petrarch (1304-1374) was, with Dante and Boccaccio, the creator of the classical canon of Italian literature, co-founder of humanism, creator of the poetic, unattainable, ideal beloved, Laura, after he had met her in the flesh at Avignon in 1327. His sonnets and canzoni collected in his Canzoniere influenced European literature until into the eighteenth century, and Laura still haunts Schiller’s poems. The translator of the first two sonnets, August Wilhelm Schlegel, was, together with his brother Friedrich, a pioneer and exponent of romanticism; his principal literary work, however, was the translation of Shakespeare. We owe three fascinating compositions by Schubert to Petrarch’s poems, and they are, in short, to be considered equal cousins to the Michelangelo songs of Hugo Wolf, the fame of which they have never had. Almost from the first note it can be seen that Schubert understood the necessity of approaching these poems through completely original compositional means. In the first sonnet, Apollo, lebet noch dein hold Verlangen (D 628) (Apollo, if your tender desire still lives), recitative and arioso form, in smooth transition, an unconventional whole, and the music offers a remarkable mixture of severity, clarity and briefly apparent (Italian?) sweetness. For the understanding of the text Schlegel remarks: ‘Laura was represented by Petrarch frequently by allusion to her name under the symbol of the laurel. The general meaning is that this sonnet is written at the planting of a young laurel, but can be understood completely allegorically as a plea to Apollo through warmer weather to bring good health to Laura’.

Allein, nachdenklich (D 629) (Alone, pensive) is by far the most modern of the three compositions. The daring, darkly brooding dissonances and the hollow unison of the beginning clearly foreshadow Wolf’s Michelangelo songs, written 79 years later, the really dragging piano figuration at the words ‘schleichend, träge’ (creeping slowly) meets us again in Schumann’s Schöne Wiege meiner Leiden (Fair cradle of my sorrows) in a similar context (‘und die Glieder matt und träge schlepp ich fort . . . ‘ / and limbs dull and weary I drag onward . . . ) [Liederkreis, Op.24, No.5]. At the end there is a sudden change from egocentric introspection into a wonderful dolce little duet between the piano and the singer (‘und führt mit mir und ich mit ihm dann Reden’ / and speak with me and I with him). The return of the postlude to the minor shows really the true situation. A quite similar changed ending had already appeared in 1815 in the Goethe setting, Erste Verlust (First Loss).

Nunmehr, da Himmel, Erde schweigt (D 630) (Now that heaven and earth are silent) is the most spacious, colourful and richest in musical thought of the three songs. The opening motif of the falling sixth, known from Erlafsee (Lake Erlaf), written a year before, is there, as here, a motif of the deepest peace, (external) stillness, and also of resignation. In marked contrast to this is the hammering music of ‘Krieg ist mein Zustand’ (War is my condition), which dissolves again with the wonderfully tender motif at ‘winkt Friede mir gelinde’ (peace motions to me) and the endlessly enraptured return of the opening sixth at ‘So strömt, was mir ernährt’ (So flows what feeds me). The many and for Schubert very unusually full chords aptly serve the expression of darkness, the nocturnal, but are also set against the almost exaggerated tenderness - they are, as the text says, sweet and bitter in one.

Leiden der Trennung (D 509) (Sorrows of Parting), with words from Metastasio in a translation by Heinrich von Collin, possibly refers to a longer journey by a friend, Franz von Schober. The simple song shows an obvious, direct musical course reflecting the content of the poem. It begins in the minor (‘Vom Meere trennt sich die Welle’ / The wave separates from the sea) and closes in the related major key (‘sie süße Ruh verhofft und Friede’ / It hopes for sweet peace and rest); it moves gradually from a high to a lower register, corresponding to the course of the water. The melodic pattern corresponds first to the flowing, supple movement of the waves, while the sea is characterized by long note-values and wide intervals.

Abendständchen (D 265) (Evening Serenade) is by Gabriele von Baumberg, after a French poem the author of which is unknown. In Schubert’s setting it becomes a little song of incredible sweetness, translating Mozartian lightness into the language of romanticism. Already the prelude with a little imitated theme betrays the wish of the singer for togetherness, while the postlude and interlude of the piano reflect in harmonically parallel sixths and tenths the combination of truth and happiness in the text.

Urban Jarnik was a pastor and dedicated himself to the investigation of the Slovenian language of Carinthia and its dialects. His poem Die Sternenwelten (D 307) (The Star Worlds), written in Slovenian, was translated by Johann Georg Fellinger and published in a German-Slovenian reading book in 1813. Schubert’s music emphasizes the ceremonial and majestic character of the poem.

The translator of Psalm 13 (D 663) was no less than the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, an important exponent of the Enlightenment, valued for the clarity of his writings on popular learning. Schubert’s composition survives as a fragment, but was probably continued to the end - the psalm text itself is set completely. In spite of its strong, appellative character, which leaves no room for subjective feeling, there is something experimental about the song. One has the feeling that Schubert was looking for an adequate means of expression for this quite different form of religious poetry, without, nevertheless, coming to a satisfactory solution. Only once more, nine years later, did he approach this territory again with a setting of Psalm 92 for baritone solo, quartet and mixed choir. This was a commission for the Cantor of the synagogue in Vienna, Simon Sulzer, four months before Schubert’s death - and in Hebrew.

Ulrich Eisenlohr
English version by Keith Anderson


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