About this Recording
8.557568 - SCHUBERT, F.: Lied Edition 20 - Poets of Sensibility, Vol. 3
English  German 

Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)
Poets of Sensibility, Volume 3

 

The Göttinger Hainbund: Settings of poems by Matthias Claudius, Ludwig Hölty and Leopold Graf zu Stolberg

The unique quality of Schubert as a song composer was largely associated with the appearance of the two great, inspired Goethe settings, Gretchen am Spinnrade (1814) and Erlkönig (1815). The astounding originality of these two compositions became the revolutionary start of a whole epoch, initiating the setting of poems with new standards and means, in which the strophic form was entirely abandoned and the hitherto secondary musical ‘accompaniment’ was set free and given equal importance with the poem. The exceptional nature of the two songs is undisputed, but this is a one-sided way of looking at it. Many song-composers before Schubert had already gone far in a similar direction, and above all the ballad compositions of Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg, highly prized by Schubert and taken up with great enthusiasm, had done much to prepare the way.

At the same time there was, in Schubert’s early career, a group of poets of signal importance in his development as a song-composer. These were the poets of Empfindsamkeit, as well as those poets who, rooted in the Pietist tradition, in the middle of the eighteenth century, as a sign of newly awakened bourgeois selfawareness, created a new form of prose and poetic writing. Individual feeling, personal sensibility beyond dogmatic guidelines and points of view, the reaction of the soul in face of all aspects of life and death, stood at the centre of their writing. With this they were not opposed to the Enlightenment’s ideal of reason, but saw it as a necessary completion of the self. Understanding and feeling should be brought together, united in the true sensibility of the heart. Stemming from England, the movement found considerable scope in Germanspeaking regions. Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock was its forerunner, Friedrich Matthisson its most prominent representative.

In the university town of Göttingen in about 1772 some poets came together, giving their association the name Hainbund after an ode by Klopstock, Der Hügel und der Hain (The Hill and the Grove). Among their number were Ludwig Hölty, Johann Heinrich Voss, the brothers Stolberg and others. Close to them stood, together with Klopstock himself, Matthias Claudius and the ballad writer Gottfried August Bürger. It was particularly the simple, folk-style poems of the group that Schubert chose for his settings. With their individual basic attitude, always striving for emotional and intellectual truth, they were personally near to him. Yet also in stylistic and technical approach they are important for Schubert as a song-composer. In his ‘training’ as a composer of the apparently simple form of the strophic or varied strophic song, he developed a commanding technique which, in his various writings, established him alongside the ‘revolutionary’ songcomposers mentioned at the beginning.

The many songs, particularly those of the early years between 1813 and 1817, settings of poets of ‘sensibility’, could be counted, as it were, as the soil on which the great, inspired early Goethe settings grew. Yet it is certainly wrong to see these only as first steps. Many of them, included here and on the earlier recordings, are valuable in themselves, finished works and the creation, even in their apparent simplicity, of the genius of the greatest song-composer that the world has produced.

The song Der Tod und das Mädchen, D531, (Death and the Maiden), a setting of Claudius, has a central position in Schubert’s creative work. The thematic spectre ‘Death’ with his various aspects, fear of death, premature death, death as comforter and saviour, as the ruling authority over human existence, is present in the little poem, and in Schubert’s setting two elements appear, structural components that recur in other works: the legendary metrical dactyl (long-short-short, accented note - unaccented - unaccented), the rhythm of the wanderer, of death, of the perpetual journey into the uncertain, and the idea of the ‘perpetuum mobile’, here in the ‘endless loop’ so characteristic in its harmony and melody, and the overlapping periodic structure in which the first chords of the second, fourth and sixth bar sound simultaneously as the end and the beginning of a musical semi-phrase. Here we can experience an example of Schubert’s unique art, producing with the most sparing means the greatest expressive power. Framed by Death’s almost continuous opening and closing music, the anxiously rising and yet again artlessly falling song of the maiden serves only as a short, unimportant intermezzo in Death’s infinite ocean. Here the closest connection between the structure of the text, musical form and expression predominates. The melodic progressions in the first five bars of the song move in small steps, rising at the word ‘jung’ to the high point of the melody, the arch falling downwards again at ‘ich bin noch …’, the futility of pleading for mercy truly reflected in the music. In the following line ‘und rühre mich an’, which Schubert repeats, the harmony changes for the first time to the major. Here is heard the despairing heart of one who seeks to convert his mortal enemy into a friend. The repetition of the line, falling into the minor, and finally the downward movement of the piano postlude shows that the maiden is already lost. Death starts his song in the minor, taking up again the motif of the beginning, but nevertheless not the melodic upward and downward movement of the piano prelude, but in steady, simultaneously soothing and unyielding repetition of the note over six long bars. At the words ‘Sei gutes Muts’ the harmony changes to the subdominant, the point of the deepest range of the musical cadence. It is thus suggested that the best way to face death is as a release, while the melody, rising to the upper fifth of the harmony and staying there in a repeated note over four bars, retains the inviting character of Death’s words. With the continuation at the words ‘sollst sanft’ nevertheless something sinister happens: the bass, in the preceding bars moving in a soothing, lilting line, changes with two minute semitone steps towards a chasm. At the word ‘sanft’ the harmony moves to an E major second chord, which stands at the greatest possible distance from the preceding subdominant, B flat major, an interval of a tritone, the sharpest dissonance in the tonal system. Circling twice round this point of deepest suspense, the music finally draws to a close in the major at the word ‘schlafen’; whether this shift is to redemption or dissolution into nothing remains open. In the last bar Schubert writes a fermata over the last pause, notation that prolongs the stillness at the end of the song, as it were into infinity. The importance of the theme and the musical idea for Schubert is shown by his return to it again in his famous String Quartet in D minor, written in March 1824, seven years after the song.

The authorship of the poem Der Leidende, D432, (The Sufferer), that Schubert himself ascribes to Hölty, is a puzzle, as it is not listed among the latter’s poems. Besides, Schubert is very free with the text; one may compare the differences in the two versions here included, different in this respect from all other Hölty settings, where the textual changes for Hölty’s original are from revisions by Johann Heinrich Voss. Walther Duerr, in the New Complete Schubert Edition, presumes the possibility of an original Schubert text in the style of Hölty. Compared with the other few poems written by Schubert (one set to music by himself, others to be found in his diaries) this seems not unlikely; a certain weariness with life, which today easily seems to us sentimentality, in Schubert’s life always has real causes, is always present. That the subject occupied him intensively is shown by the two versions, which are also musically divergent: the second is in extended parts a melodic reversal of the first. Where one goes up, the other goes down, and the reverse. Listening to them it will be noticed how temporary moods differ, without the great emotional ‘arch’ of the song changing.

In Hölty’s Totengräberlied, D44, (Grave-digger’s Song), Death is surprisingly replaced by the dead body. Claudius’s poem sings in cheerful sarcasm of the ‘armen Schluckers’ (‘poor wretch’) who holds in his hands the bones as evidence that every skull, however beautiful and rich its owner may have been in life, looks the same … and Schubert uses this sarcasm in his music with the greatest audible amusement. The serious recitative of ‘Grabe, Spaten, grabe’ (‘Dig, spade, dig’) is followed by a drastically blunt melody, a surprising and rare example in Schubert of this kind of Viennese association with the dark side of life.

In stark contrast stands the following song, Lied/Die Mutter Erde, D788, (Mother Earth), a setting of Stolberg. At the beginning of 1823 Schubert began to suffer from syphilis, and even if this was not the direct occasion for the choice of this text, when he set it in April of the same year the words must have gone right through him. Perhaps at this point he could only choose a subject that represented death a priori as saviour. His music is, in the initial representation of the sensuousness of life, serious and weighty, at the change to ‘des Todes Atem’ (‘the breath of death’) it becomes bright, moving and, as it were, weightless. Over almost the whole song spins a rocking, wide-ranging melodic figure, symbol of Mother Earth, embracing all in death. Only once is the consolatory, soothing process interrupted. At the words ‘Es scheint der Mond, es fällt der Tau/aufs Grab …’ (’The moon appears, dew falls on the grave …’) the hitherto strictly observed arrangement of one line of verse to one melodic phrase is interrupted and with the repetition of ‘aufs Grab’ the regular musical periodic structure is destroyed. Thereby the predetermined verse rhyme clashes and becomes completely inaudible. Suddenly we find ourselves for a short, terrible moment, no longer in dispassionate consideration of general consolation, but experiencing the heart-rending, lamenting, terrified point of view of one doomed to death.

In 1815, the year of Hölty’s Die Nonne, D208, (The Nun), ballad setting played a great part in Schubert’s song-writing, and his musical adjustment to the style of his texts is especially careful. Hölty’s folk-style ballad made different demands from those of the Schiller ballads written in ‘high style’ (such as Der Taucher/ The Diver) or the gloomy, picturesque Ossian songs. A narrative basis, change between different speakers, ironically distanced style of narrative and dramatic recitative intensification, strophic rounding off in individual, related passages, result in a patchwork that is always exciting and easily understandable. The bloodthirstiness is not far removed from many horror films of our own time.

Täglich zu singen, D533, (To sing daily), by Claudius, is a little strophic song in the style of Bach’s Schemelli songs [Bach’s contribution to the Schemelli Gesangbuch of 1736], written strictly in three parts, expressing the joy in life of one who knows how to live in happy moderation.

Diametrically opposite is the anonymous lament Trauer umfließt mein Leben, D371, (Sadness surrounds my life), of the melancholic, weary of life, set in solemn chorale style, steeped in painful dissonances, while in Stimme der Liebe, D412, (Voice of Love), by Stolberg, a hymn-like song of incredible harmonic and cantabile expanse grants us a glimpse of the unending melody of the high romantic. Much the same happens in Hölty’s An die Apfelbäume, wo ich Julien erblickte, D197, (To the apple-trees where I saw Julia), while his Seufzer, D198, (The Sigh) again, in a simpler setting, takes up the lonely sadness of Klage, D371. An eine Quelle, D530, (To a Spring), by Claudius, shows with gentle musical humour the shy young lover, Hölty’s Die frühe Liebe, D430, (Early Love) the adolescent who seems quite disinclined to self-restraint.

The next five songs, Hölty’s An den Mond, D193, (To the Moon), Claudius’s Abendlied, D499, (Evening Song), another lament, Hölty’s Klage an den Mond, D436, (Lament to the Moon) and two versions of his Auf den Tod einer Nachtigall, D201, D399, (On the Death of a Nightingale), of which the first fragment survives, stand at the very heart of empfindsamer poetry. For each of the poems Schubert finds a new, individual musical look, remote from every cliché.

Auf dem Wasser zu singen, D774, (To be sung on the water), has become the most famous setting of a text by Count Leopold zu Stolberg. The symbolic representation of ‘changing time’ in the ‘splashing’ figuration of the piano, turning in every direction, never ending and yet always changing, the working together of the vocal part and accompaniment in this semiquaver motion, until finally, at the end of each verse and of the whole work, the song, in a phrase of truly infinite beauty is set free from this changing time and vanishes - this is no longer setting to music, but creating a new whole, in which each verbal and musical level becomes part of an integral artistic form.

The last songs, Lied in der Abwesenheit, D416, (Song in Absence), by Stolberg, a fragment, as are the four settings of Hölty, Der Liebende, D207, (The Lover), Minnelied, D429, (Love Song), Der Traum, D213, (The Dream) and Seligkeit, D433, (Happiness), show the Empfindsamkeit poets and their composer from a completely worldly side, an aspect in which they affirm the sensuous pleasure of life, something not foreign to one or the other.

Ulrich Eisenlohr
English version by Keith Anderson


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