About this Recording
8.570067 - SCHUBERT, F.: Lied Edition 27 - Romantic Poets, Vol. 4
English  German 

Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828)
Settings of Poems by Romantic Poets, Vol. 4.

 

Four writers who shaped the Romantic period in very different ways are at the centre of the roster of poets on this recording. Theodor Körner represents the political side of the Romantic period with his Lyrik der Befreiungskriege (Lyric of the War of Liberation). Friedrich Rückert, with his Deutsche Gedichte (German Poems), among them the notoriously-infamous Geharnischten Sonette (Withering Sonnets), was in tune with the nationalist and anti-Napoleonic feeling of the period. Later he achieved a much greater significance through his countless translations and adaptations from Persian and from other oriental cultural areas.

Finally, the Schlegel brothers are known not only for their works of poetry but more for their numerous philosophical, aesthetic-theoretical treatises, writings and readings, as well as for their epoch-making translations (of Shakespeare’s plays). They can be regarded as the most important co-founders of the German Romantic movement.

Romantic poetry plays a correspondingly crucial rôle in Schubert’s development as a composer of Lieder. First and foremost, the poems of Friedrich Schlegel stimulated him to set out for new shores as a composer of Lieder. Schlegel’s poems were the impetus for Schubert’s phase of “romantic song” (Walther Dürr) from 1818 to 1823, when he explored and developed new ways of setting words to music, thereby laying the foundations of the unparalleled mastery which he attained in the last years of his life.

The first two songs included here, however, settings of poems by Körner, date from an earlier time - 1815; according to Schubert himself, the first of these songs was written in just five hours and the eighteen-year old composer caused quite a sensation with it, because of its enormous dimensions. Its length of 164 bars, its ‘orchestral’ accompaniment, its sections alternating between recitative and arioso all contribute to make this work a full-blown ballad, with a background of antique mysticism.

Amphiaraos, D. 166 [1], was described as ‘Apollonian’, a son of Apollo who, through his wife’s treachery, was forced to take part in the so-called ‘March of the Seven’ against the Greek city of Thebes. Amphiaraos foresaw both the catastrophic dénouement of the battle campaign to capture Thebes and his own death, but his warnings fell on deaf ears. So before his departure for battle he ordered his sons to murder their mother and later to continue the war from which he himself would never return. In the battle he found himself in an extremely dangerous situation and both he and his chariot were literally swallowed up by the ground when Zeus split it asunder with a bolt of lightning. This was Amphiaraos’s descent into immortality. Sadly, Schubert’s extremely effective setting of this dramatic event is still not widely known, but with its virtuosity, full of tension in both the voice and the accompaniment, this setting deserves to stand alongside some of the greatest and most famous of the ballads by Carl Loewe.

Gebet während der Schlacht (Prayer during battle), D. 171 [2], is a completely different sort of battle-song. During battle only a soldier who is scared to death or one who is convinced of the ‘justice’ of the war, is able to pray properly. Here it could be the case that both can pray - the poem can only be understood with knowledge of the background to it in Körner’s own life. He volunteered for active service in the battles against Napoleon’s occupying armies and was mortally wounded in August 1813; in the eyes of his comrades-in- arms and compatriots he died a hero’s death. Schubert first got to know his poems well in 1815 and, as a reaction to Napoleon’s return from exile on Elba, he wrote some war-songs, as well as the one-act theatrical Singspiel Die vierjährige Posten - a staunchly anti-war piece - to texts by Körner. In spite of the universal enthusiasm for war at that time Körner’s pacifist libretto was set to music by at least 21 different composers.

Schubert’s music to Gebet während der Schlacht begins with an arioso section which bursts out with an evocation of God in the dramatic battle music in the piano. Following a short recitative are five musically almost identical verses in which the music appears to express the fluctuation of feelings between pathos, fear and humility. This is far removed from the deeply pessimistic, fatalistic and intimidatory tone of the late great song Kriegers Ahnung (Warrior’s premonition) from Schwanengesang, which no longer asks the question about the justification for war. Yet there is no presumption in Gebet während der Schlacht of a blind glorification of war - the poem could easily have been set in this way.

Friedrich Rückert is represented in Schubert’s Lieder by six weighty and important settings. Of these, Dass der Ostwind Düfte (That the east wind’s scents), Du bist die Ruh (You are rest and peace), Lachen und Weinen (Laughter and tears) (in Romantic Poets 1 [Naxos 8.554797]) and Sei mir gegrüsst (I greet you) (in Romantic Poets 2 [Naxos 8.557831]) have become well-established fixtures in Lieder recitals. By contrast the two songs recorded here are unjustifiably relatively unknown, yet they are just as ingenious as the others.

Die Wallfahrt (The Pilgrimage), D. 778A [3], combines topics of death, religiosity and love in a poetically ornate, musically simple way, with chorale-like accompanying chords. The “tears of the penitent” who found her grave on the “pilgrimage to the Kaaba of Beauty, in the waste of burning sand” symbolize the remorse of a person who is in love, yet is unable to reach his wounded lover. The spareness of the music is characterized by the continually falling vocal lines, by the supremacy of the minor-key tonality in nine of the sixteen bars, which expresses stagnation and a lack of progress, and by the monotonous heavy tread of the piano chords. All these characteristics, as well as the obvious parallels in the metaphorical language of the poem (dried-up tears, the futility of love, isolation), place the song, in a curious way, closer to Die Winterreise of almost four years later.

Greisengesang (Song of Old Age), D. 778 [5], is a deeply serious reflection on old age and on the retreat into one’s inner world. Schubert divides the four verses of the poem into two big verses which differ from one another musically in only a few details. These are subdivided in turn into a strict four-beats-in-the-bar opening movement (first verse), transitional interlude (beginning of the second verse at the words „Der Jugendflor der Wangen …“ (“The bloom of youth in my cheeks …”) as well as a much freer, sweeping postscript. Schubert gives more space to the crucial phrases concerned with inner experience - „in’s Herz hinab“ (“deep in my heart”), „Jugendflor und Rosen“ (“Bloom of youth and roses”), „Duft der Träume“ (“Fragrance of dreams”), „nach Verlangen“ (“on demand”), than to the chilly, raw, outer reality. Furthermore, the contrast between the outer and inner worlds is represented and reinforced musically by alternating between minor and major harmonies and by contrasting unison passages in the voice and piano with a fully chordal section; between dragging the music down on the one hand and freewheeling, oscillating melody on the other. And so there comes into being a synthesis of text and music which, in spite of the strictness of the form, is full of colour, fantasy and emotional richness. It is worth mentioning too that Schubert did not set the last two verses of Rückert’s poem. They might have seemed to him, justifiably, as disruptive to the overall scheme; by omitting them he has certainly safeguarded the unity and persuasiveness of his setting.

Das Abendrot (The Evening Glow), D. 627 [4], and Das Marienbild (Picture of the Madonna), D. 623 [12], are settings of poems by the teacher, theatre critic and professor of aesthetics, Aloys Wilhelm Schreiber. The first of these was written for Count Johann Karl Esterházy at whose summer residence in Zselitz (Hungary) Schubert spent the summer and autumn of 1818 for the first time, as private tutor and music teacher to the Count’s two daughters. Das Abendrot is a hymn written in a refined style and is concerned with the beguiling colours and images of sunset and its metaphysical message of death and resurrection. The second song, to which Schreiber gives the title Das Marienbild in einem Baume (Picture of the Madonna in a Tree), is a poem about a votive picture placed in a natural setting. Perhaps it is for this reason that Schubert chose to set the text in a pastoral, gentlyrocking, as it were “close to nature”, 6/8 beat, and the countless chromatic stages in the melody and accompaniment are here the expression of humility, deference and pure modesty.

Ihr Grab (Her Grave), D. 736 [6], to a poem by Karl August Engelhardt, is an astonishing piece, above all for its harmonic language. The whole of the first part of the song offers no harmonic stability at all; rather, the harmony of the ever-falling line of the voice moves downwards almost through half of the circle of fifths, as it were into the abyss. The one who is left behind by her death seems to be insecure and aimless but finally takes „… der Trost, den sie mir gab“ (“… the comfort that she gave me”). In the middle of the song is a recollection of happy times spent together: „… vom Himmel kam sie, dass die Erde mir Glücklichen zum Himmel werde“ (“… she came from Heaven and made the earth a happy place for me”). This is side by side with the painful climax of the lament – ushered in by a Neapolitan sixth chord which, in Baroque tradition and theory, is the chord of grief, death and despair. After that, in a varied repeat of the beginning of the song, the harmonic language and emotion calm down, beholding finally a destination, a homeland: in a consoling majorkey tonality the song’s protagonist can finally discern an end to his wandering. There, next to her, he can: “...happily lay down my pilgrim’s staff”.

Totengräbers Heimwehe (Gravedigger’s Longing), D. 842 [7], is one of three important songs to poems by Jakob Nikolaus Craigher, Die junge Nonne (The Young Nun) in Romantic Poets 1 and Der blinde Knabe (The Blind Boy) in Romantic Poets 2. Totengräbers Heimwehe is an example of the sombre, despairing, Romantic yearning for death which is transformed in the vision of crossing over into the hereafter in a typically Romantic, quietly-transfigured ecstasy. In the first part of the song regular repeated chords in the piano’s right hand over aimlessly-circling octaves in the left represent the restless, futile hustle and bustle of life; above them are short, almost clipped, phrases of the gravedigger’s frustration - not only with his own job, but with all the things of life. Then, at „O Schicksal, o traurige Pflicht“ (O Fate, o sad duty”), the music moves into a gentler pace but without quite being able to shake off the aimless to-ing and fro-ing. At „Im Leben, da ist’s ach! so schwül...“ (“In life, all is so sultry”) a new, short, rising octave figure appears in the bass, only to break off abruptly and revert to its opening figure. It is hard to imagine a more complete and laconic depiction in music of the age-old myth of Sisyphos and his futile task. There follows a harrowing eight-bar passage with the voice and piano in unison which vividly evokes to the eye and the ear the line „Von allen verlassenen“ (“Abandoned by all). This passage ends with a long descent into the abyss („...in’s tiefe Grab“ / “...into the deep grave”). Of all things, this last, the bottom-most note on the word „Grab“/“Grave” now forms the basis for an absolutely magical musical vision of the beyond. Out of this the music moves from the minor into a previously-unheard and completely unrelated major-key tonality, which in turn opens the door onto an irresistible melodic and harmonic ascent of the greatest beauty.

In stark contrast to Totengräbers Heimwehe the song Im Walde (Waldesnacht) (In the Forest, also known as Forest Night), D. 708 [8], shows the observer the other side of the Janus-head of Romanticism: an ecstatically positive attitude to life in an all-embracing experience of the natural, the supernatural and the spiritual. „Windesrauschen, Gottes Flügel... “ (“Roaring wind, like the wings of God”), freedom of thought, the boundlessness of creative power – Schlegel’s poem creates a fusion of being of this world and of experience of God, of sensuality and spiritual transcendence: „Drang des Lebens aus der Hülle/Kampf der starfken Triebe wild/wird zur schönsten Liebesfülle/durch des Geisteshauch gestillt“ (“The surging life-force/the furious battle of powerful urges/are stilled by the spirit’s breath and are turned to the most beautiful and abundant love”). Here all the fundamental aspects of the corporeal and the spiritually-creative life are thrown into the melting-pot and Schubert’s music lights a glowing fire under Friedrich Schlegel’s explosively-Romantic concoction. In the course of its 214 bars Schubert sets up an urgently restless, almost manic forward-driving semiquaver motion which summarizes the text in a musically varied and astonishingly integrated spiritual storm.

Der Schiffer (The Boatman), D. 694 [9], of Schlegel’s poem bears no similarity to its namesake by Mayrhofer (D. 536, in Mayrhofer-Lieder 1 [Naxos 8.554738]). While Mayrhofer’s boatman has to navigate the river energetically and with real determination “in wind and storm” („im Winde, im Sturme“) Schlegel’s boatman lies in his boat “peacefully stretched out” („friedlich hingegossen“) and breathes “the cool air by the light of the moon” („kühl im Licht des Mondes“). Of his longingly-erotic fantasies for the blonde, who he wishes “...were sitting peacefully on the little bench” („...auf dem Bänkchen ruhend“) in front of him, Mayrhofer’s boatman knows not the slightest. Schubert underpins Schlegel’s night-picture with continuous gently-gliding and flexible semiquavers in the piano part and a melody alternating delightfully between a close, almost smooth to and fro movement on the one hand, and large intervals lengthening into extended phrases on the other. This wonderfully-relaxed and lascivious gesture translates the atmosphere of the poem completely into a musical river of sound. Here words and music really do come together in a perfect and equally-balanced unity which renders superfluous the old dispute about which has supremacy over the other – words or music?

Schubert sets Schlegel’s poem Fülle der Liebe (Unbounded Love), D. 854 [10], which is at once powerful and insistent in its expression and abstract in its symbolism and philosophical trains of thought, in a dramatic maestoso rhythm, interrupted by more lyrical gentle passages which merely vary the basic pattern and give the song a unifying ground-structure, while a pure and boundlessly harmonic richness prevents any sense of monotony.

In complete contrast is Lebensmelodien (Melodies of Life), D. 395 [11], from a poem by Friedrich Schlegel’s brother August Wilhelm which simply and graphically portrays the ways in which the swan, the eagle and the dove live their lives and make their journeys through life.

Since the song Die drei Sänger (The Three Singers), D. 329 [13], has come down to us in an incompletely-preserved manuscript which breaks off at the end of the last page, it is assumed that Schubert did actually complete it. The music has an almost forced simplicity, as though the composer were looking for ways to set the poem artlessly and naively, like a folksong, and the musical sections of the ballad are curiously unconnected to one another.

By comparison, Grablied für die Mutter (A mother’s funeral song), D. 616 [14], is full of genuine individual feeling and it is not difficult to guess what direct influence the painful and powerful experience of the early death of Schubert’s mother had on this song. In just a few notes, and with apparently scarcely-perceptible effort, Schubert expressed in sound vividly subjective suffering, the harshness of fate and the hope for redemption and reunion, “when the angel calls” („wenn der Engel ruft“).

Ulrich Eisenlohr
English version by David Stevens

 

The sung texts and English translations can be found at www.naxos.com/libretti/570067.htm.


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