9 minute read

Pisaroni & Martineau

Of Lovers, Gods, and Warriors

A Schubert Recital

Susan Youens

Among Franz Schubert’s large circle of friends was a number of amateur poets and lesser-known literary names, and many songs heard in the first half of tonight’s recital are based on their works. All of these were written in the 1820s, during the last six years of Schubert’s life. Earlier in his career, as a student of the Italian composer Antonio Salieri, he had become familiar with the libretti of the operatic reformer Pietro Metastasio (the pseudonym of Antonio Domenico Trapassi, 1698–1782). His works, set to music by many composers, form the backbone of the 18th-century Italian opera seria tradition. We hear three of Schubert’s Metastasio settings tonight, as well as one song to a text believed to be Metastasio’s at the time. The final part of the program is dedicated to one of the German literary world’s most brilliant luminaries: Goethe, whose poems are the source of 75 solo songs by Schubert. Many facets of Goethe’s genius come to sounding life even in this small selection of songs: Greek mythology reinterpreted for a new age, the erotic life, pastoral traditions, a new relationship to nature, and folklore.

Like several of Schubert’s poet friends, Franz von Schlechta, of Bohemian baronial ancestry, did not win literary glory, becoming a government official instead. But he is remembered as the author of the words for one of the composer’s perennial favorites, Fischerweise, possibly composed in March 1826. Here, motor rhythms tell of joy in one’s work. Matching Schlechta’s glee at the escape from feminine wiles—women seen as fishers of men, men as the “fish that got away”— Schubert imbues the repeated words “schlauer Wicht” (“cunning minx”) with merry, if slightly misogynistic, relish.

Another close friend of Schubert’s, the charming dilettante poet Franz von Schober, penned the mini-allegory Schatzgräbers Begehr, in which a “treasure hunter” (an artist?) digs for treasure, although he knows that he is perhaps digging his own grave. In his 1822 setting, Schubert joins Schober’s words to a baroque-style “striding bass,” a chorale texture with rich inner voices constantly on the move, the traditional descending chromatic tetrachord indicative of lamentation at the start, and a hollow fifth at the end.

Schubert might have written Lied eines Kriegers on an unknown poet’s text for New Year’s Eve celebrations in 1824. Here, an old soldier reminisces in the wake of war—or are he and his fellow fighters even alive? (The song is originally set for bass and unison male chorus.) The words “everlasting peace” hint at ghosts. The music exemplifies the sort of noisy march, filled with dotted rhythms and massive, pounding chords, one expects in patriotic music; the turn to minor for the invocation of “ew’ge Friede” is a somber note at midstream and at the end.

Des Sängers Habe, on another poem by Schlechta, was composed in early 1825, when a troubled Schubert was enduring ill health and material worries. This is a song of defiance in the face of those difficulties, but by the end, we are brought back to Schubert’s most deeply personal inner world of happiness in the creation of music.

The Pomeranian poet Karl Lappe’s verse, hymning the simple life, was briefly fashionable in the early 19th century. In Der Einsame, a poet-singer sits at his hearth in the evening, accompanied by the cricket, emblematic of poetry since ancient times: not until day’s end, he muses, can one transmute recollections into the stuff of poetry by discarding the dross and keeping only the gold. For all the atmosphere of comfort in this music (perhaps composed in 1825), Schubert both tells us that the singer is something of a prig—art cannot, must not, be all sunshine—and prolongs the word “ganz” at the end (“When your song breaks the silence, I am not completely alone”) to hint at how difficult it is to evade thoughts of loneliness and death.

The text of the Lied des gefangenen Jägers appears in the final canto of Sir Walter Scott’s long epic The Lady of the Lake, when the heroine Ellen Douglas hears a song from the tower of Stirling Castle: it’s her beloved Malcolm Graeme singing, in a scenario reminiscent of Blondel and Richard the Lionheart. Schubert’s 1825 version of the “Song of the Imprisoned Huntsman,” as translated to German by Adam Storck, is defined by its stirring polonaise rhythm, bold tune, and Schubert’s characteristic contrast between minor mode (the unhappy present) and parallel major mode (the happy past).

In 1825 and 1826, Schubert set to music ten poems from the posthumously-published Poetisches Tagebuch of 1822 by the gifted poet Ernst Schulze. In this anthology, Schulze harps on his unfulfilled desire for two sisters, first Cäcilie Tychsen (who died at age 18 in 1812), then her older sister Adelheid. Only his early death from tuberculosis put an end to the pitiable tale. Im Jänner 1817 (sometimes known as Tiefes Leid) of 1826 sees Schulze expressing his misery and his longing for death, again reflected in a shift from minor to major. His wretched situation never changes, and Schubert therefore repeats three stanzas with only the words altered.

In July 1825, Schubert and his friend, the baritone Johann Michael Vogl, performed at the famous Upper Austrian monasteries of St. Florian and Kremsmünster. One imagines the composer remembering the experience when he set Am Fenster in March 1826. The words are by Johann Gabriel Seidl, a minor Viennese poet who inspired the music for such masterpieces as Das Zügenglöcklein, Im Freien, and Die Taubenpost from Schwanengesang. The singer remembers arriving at his monastery some years before in crisis—we hear a dark turn to parallel minor here, followed by the warmth of major for the conversion experience hymned in the third stanza—and has found peace in his new life. There are tolling bells midway to herald unshakeable faith.

In Totengräbers Heimwehe, on a text by the merchant– amateur poet Jakob Nikolaus Craigher de Jachelutta, we hear the last moments of a grave-digger’s life. (Schubert’s hometown Vienna, among many other things, is associated with the idea of the “schöne Leich,” or beautiful corpse: magnificent funerals mattered here.) Schubert splits the song, composed in April 1825, into harmonically contrasting sections, the first a dark, powerful expression of despair at life’s futility, the second a quietly rapturous vision of the afterlife as he dies. Between the two is a transitional passage in which harmony disappears, the starkness all the more effective after the rich chords of the first half.

Schubert’s friend Franz von Bruchmann was the son of one of Vienna’s richest bankers. His An die Leier, based on a dubious German “translation” of a poem supposedly by the great Greek poet Anacreon, inspired one of Schubert’s last Antikenlieder, composed in 1822 or 1823. The poet-singer first proclaims that he will sing of Cadmus (in the Theban War), the house of Atreus (the Trojan War), and Hercules— but his lyre has other ideas and sings instead of love. One imagines the lovely lady to whom the singer addresses this compliment, a renunciation of Mars for Venus.

In Pietro Metastasio’s text for Alcide al Bivio of 1760, it is Fronimo, tutor to the young god Hercules, who sings Pensa che questo istante. The words were assigned to the young composer Schubert as a homework exercise by his tutor Antonio Salieri (who corrected Schubert’s Italian prosody in the second version of this work.) With its bel canto vocal line and heroic dotted rhythms in the piano, the song could be mistaken for Rossini or early Verdi.

Schubert’s Three Songs for Bass Voice of 1827 were written for Luigi Lablache, one of the most celebrated singers of his time, whose signature roles included Leporello in Don Giovanni and the title character of Don Pasquale. (He also holds the distinction of having performed at the funerals of Beethoven, Chopin, and Bellini.) The text of L’incanto degli occhi is taken from the second act of Metastasio’s 1740 opera Attilio Regolo, which features a story set in ancient Rome at the time of the Punic Wars. The title hero is the general and consul Marcus Atilius Regulus, who died around 250 B.C. In the operatic fiction spun from ancient history, Regulus has a daughter, Attilia, who plots to save her father’s life with the help of her beloved Licinio, who sings this aria. Whatever affectionate parody of fashionable Italian opera is at work here, Schubert shines through as himself.

The musical inspiration for Il modo di prender moglie was clearly Rossini, particularly Figaro’s aria “Largo al factotum” from Il barbiere di Siviglia. Rossini’s operas were all the rage at the time, and Schubert’s mimicry of his style is wickedly precise. The text can be summed up as comical cynicism about marriage-for-money, set as a lively, bustling aria—but with a touch of the diabolical at the end, as if to demonstrate that marrying for money is in truth dastardly. The words for Il traditor deluso, from Part II of Metastasio’s sacred drama Gi- oas re di Giuda (“Joab, King of Judah”), are set by Schubert as an impressive recitative and da capo aria. The singer works himself up into a frenzy, full of melodramatic touches, syncopation, challenges to the pianist’s dexterity, and vocal pyrotechnics. In Metastasio’s drama, the murderous female usurper Athalia, grandmother of the rightful ruler, sings this aria, but Schubert makes it a bass display piece.

At a social gathering in spring 1801, the inimitable poet, playwright, novelist, artist, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe heard the folksong “Da droben auf jenem Berge” and decided to write a folk-like poem of his own to fit the tune. The result was Schäfers Klagelied. Schubert’s setting, composed in 1814, is a siciliana whose lilting 6/8 rhythms are affixed to a scene both pastoral and melancholy. We hear lamentation in the outer sections, somewhat livelier passages for the second and fourth sections, and a flower-picking idyll and a storm in the larger middle section—the song contains an entire arc of emotion.

The words of Geheimes (“Secret”) come from the Buch der Liebe in Goethe’s 1819 anthology of verse inspired by the great medieval Persian poet Hafez (or Hafiz), West-östlicher Divan. There, they are followed by another poem, Geheimstes (“Most Secret”). Both hymn the sense of exclusivity in erotic love: “how to enhance the delights of love by secrecy and by anticipation” could be the subtitle. The omnipresent trochaic rhythms in the piano figuration of Schubert’s setting, composed in March 1821, can be seen as stylized happy sighs of longing or—more daring—erotic panting on the lovers’ part.

Am Flusse is one of the many texts that Schubert set more than once. Goethe wrote these words in 1768–69 during his university years in Leipzig. He had fallen in love with an innkeeper’s daughter, but she preferred someone more solid. In the poem, the speaker addresses his love songs and tells them to flow away into the sea of oblivion. In his first setting, composed in 1816, Schubert created an exquisite miniature, all minor-mode wistfulness at lost love. Seven years later, in the December 1822 setting, heard in this program, he understood Goethe better: now love is recollected in tranquility, the musical waters flowing quietly along without the emotion of the earlier song.

In Greek mythology, the beautiful Phrygian youth Ganymed was carried aloft by an eagle to become Zeus’s cupbearer on Mount Olympus. Goethe’s poem, written in free verse between 1772 and 1774 and based on a work of the Greek poet Pindar, thoroughly alters the myth: in his vision, the sensuous experience of nature is the gateway to rapturous transformation, the “I” and the “All” fused in ecstasy. In 1817, a period of great experimentation in his song oeuvre, Schubert set this exquisite poem about the merger of creativity, love, and the world to music that is itself a journey, beginning and ending in different keys.

Goethe wrote Auf dem See in 1775 when he was on holiday at Lake Zurich. In the text, we find many relationships between the poet and nature: he is inside her, as in a womb; he is on her breast; he is outside of her but attached; he is surrounded by her, but at a distance. The poet’s sensibility is a living thing in its own right, feeding, being cradled by love and nature. The final image is of ripening fruit mirrored in the surface of the lake, the correlative of the poet’s own sensibility, located in a landscape of reflection. In Schubert’s setting, composed around 1817, we hear not just the oars and the waves on the lake, but Goethe’s signature optimistic vitality rendered into music. A measure of silence interrupts this mood (the silent pause is a Schubertian hallmark), followed by a brief moment of uncertainty—brief because it is promptly dismissed in favor of the here and now.

In Grenzen der Menschheit, on another Pindar-inspired poem written in 1780, the god of Goethe’s pantheistic universe takes the form of a wise father, evoking love and awe in his worshippers. In the thematically related Prometheus, also based on Pindar, Schubert’s and Goethe’s Titan had asked (defiantly, rhetorically) why we should honor the gods. This later song of symphonic scope and depth, composed in March 1821, is the answer—a massive set of variations on the “defiance” motif found in the other work.

Goethe’s Erlkönig is the most terrifying erotic poem in his oeuvre. Based partly on a Danish folk song and partly on the poet’s own memories of a night ride in April 1779, the ballad tells of a father riding through nature fraught with perverted lust, its whispering promises unmasked at the end as rape and murder. The poet first used the text as part of a singspiel, Die Fischerin, in 1782, then published it separately. Schubert wrote the song when he was 18 and published it as his Opus 1—one of the most astonishing publication debuts in music history. Hammered octaves fill the air with sound and fury, with menace that mocks the father’s attempts to reason his son’s fears away. This wild ride through many keys is unified in part by the child’s repeated cries, “My father! My father!”, set to dissonances that pierce.

From a contented fisherman to a dying gravedigger, from disconsolate lovers to happy ones, from Scottish heroes to great poets, from Greek gods to terrifying nature spirits: Schubert endows a vast spectrum of gods and humans with music of unparalleled expressivity and depth. For each of the vivid characters we meet in this program, he fashions his uniquely original musical language in such a way that we know them better—and know both poets major and minor and Schubert himself better as well.