The Dutch bass-baritone Robert Holl is one of the great Lieder singers of our time. A recent review of a recital from The Times illustrates his extroardinary technique and mesmerising power: ’Dutch baritone Robert Holl delivered a Schubert programme with such natural force and passion that resistance was impossible … Holl’s huge presence, and huge, dark voice can transform itself at will into the lightest breath of spring, rising into a hushed head-voice with total ease, or fining itself down to recreate the vision of a wakeful gondolier and a sleeping Serenissima.’
In Holl’s first recording for Hyperion, he brings his tremendous artistry to Schubert’s last song-cycle.
The songs in Schwanengesang were described by Schubert’s publisher Haslinger as ‘the final blooms of Schubert’s creative muse’. Schwanengesang contains some of Schubert’s greatest works. It tells no particular story, but the two sets of songs are linked by their poetic themes—nature, love and separation in the case of the settings of Rellstab, bitterness, loss and despair in the case of Heine.
This recording includes two further songs. The first, Herbst, though also to a text by by Rellstab, did not appear in Schwanengesang, and the manuscript was not discovered until the 1890s. A highly atmospheric nature-piece, its texture anticipates Mendelssohn’s songs on a similar theme, with its tremolando right hand and sinuous, fateful left-hand melody. The other extra is Der Winterabend from 1828. The poem by Leitner creates the image of a contented man, contemplating not just the winter evening, but by implication also his approaching death (the silvery moonlight is a symbolic pall cast over the objects of his life). In his extensive booklet notes, Roger Vignoles writes that ‘If one wants to know how Schubert felt about his own mortality, it is worth noting the loving care he bestowed on this song. Every turn of phrase, every modulation is perfectly judged, as in the hushed sidestep (through a major third, his favourite interval) that announces the entry of the moonlight into the poet’s chamber’.
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Hindsight is a great tidier-up. So are publishers, especially when an author or composer is dead and safely unable to protest; and the last of Schubert’s ‘three great song cycles’ is, as is well known, a publisher’s compilation. There is nothing to suggest that Schubert ever intended the seven settings of Ludwig Rellstab and the six Heinrich Heine songs to be performed together, let alone that the nightmarish vision of Der Doppelgänger should be succeeded (as is customary) by the conventional, if exquisite sentiment of Die Taubenpost, a song that owed its inclusion largely to the fact of its being the very last song Schubert wrote, just one month before his death on 19 November 1828. And yet Haslinger proved a shrewd compiler, and this portmanteau work has stood the test of time, thanks to the overarching genius of Schubert.
Schwanengesang is not of course a cycle in the sense that Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise are cycles. It tells no particular story, but the two sets of songs are linked by their poetic themes—nature, love and separation in the case of Rellstab, bitterness, loss and despair in the case of Heine—and in fact, if one listens to the six Heine songs not as published but in the order in which the poems appeared in print, they do convey something like a coherent narrative. In this version, which can be heard by playing the tracks in the sequence 10, 12, 11, 13, 9, 8, there is a natural continuity from the encounter in Das Fischermädchen to its bitter outcome in Am Meer; Die Stadt, with its vision of the place where the poet lost his love, leads inexorably into the nightmare of Der Doppelgänger; finally, in Ihr Bild the lover muses on his loss, which Der Atlas reveals as an emotional trap from which he can never escape. However, Schubert’s version eschews a linear narrative in favour of a musical arch suspended between the two colossal pillars of Der Atlas and Der Doppelgänger.
Inevitably Schubert’s early death cast a posthumous glow over both Schwanengesang and its predecessor Winterreise, the proofs of which Schubert corrected on his deathbed. It is after all what Haslinger was counting on when he announced Schwanengesang as ‘the final blooms of [Schubert’s] creative muse’. But it would be a mistake to think that Schubert’s choice of texts was necessarily influenced by thoughts of his own imminent demise. His appetite for poetry was voracious, always on the look out for texts that could be put to musical use, and he would automatically snap up whatever was new or came to hand. In 1828, Heine’s was a new voice in literary circles, and it was natural that his Reisebilder should have figured in the weekly reading parties Schubert took part in at the house of Franz von Schober.
In the case of the Rellstab poems, it appears that Schubert received them from Anton Schindler, Beethoven’s secretary. Ludwig Rellstab, two years younger than Schubert, had sent them to Beethoven, who made pencil notes against some of the poems but died before he could set them to music. Richard Stokes has remarked on the similarity of several of the Rellstab poems to those by Jeitteles in Beethoven’s song-cycle An die ferne Geliebte, with their nature-imagery and implied separation from a distant beloved. What the poems certainly have in common is the concept of Sehnsucht, an indispensable term in German Romantic poetry that roughly corresponds to the English ‘longing’ or ‘yearning’, but with a wider range of meaning than either. The word itself appears explicitly towards the beginning of Kriegers Ahnung, in the title of Frühlingssehnsucht, and in In der Ferne. But its spirit informs the music of every one of these songs.
Liebesbotschaft, for instance, is the essence of Sehnsucht, already audible in the gentle rise and fall of the piano introduction, and in the constantly rising inflections of the vocal line, which stretches to the interval of a tenth for the final line of the first and last stanzas (on the words ‘Grüße’ and ‘Träume’ respectively), this very interval perhaps also serving as a metaphor for the distance that separates the two lovers. Outwardly conventional, with its rippling water and charming left-hand echoes in the piano part, the song is a masterpiece of construction, with an inspired chain of descending modulations as the singer imagines his beloved bowing her head in thought, and a correspondingly animated rising sequence to depict his imminent return.
Kriegers Ahnung finds Schubert in proto-Wagnerian mode, as always alive to the orchestral potential of the piano, with ominous brass-like chords conjuring up the gleam of campfire on armour. Although sectional in structure, like an operatic scena, it moves seamlessly from one stanza to the next, as in the lulling triplets of ‘Wie hab’ ich oft’ that become the warlike undertone of ‘Hier, wo der Flammen düstrer Schein’, and in the disillusioned return to the opening mood, where he recognizes that he will never see his beloved again.
Triplets again run throughout Frühlingssehnsucht, its longing (and its frustration) expressed by impassioned rising figures in the piano introduction, and by the obsessively repeated rhythms of the voice part. Each verse ends with a question (‘Wohin?’ ‘Hinab?’ etc.) at which point the music stops and itself seems to ask ‘minor, or major?’. Significantly the final verse begins in the minor, but reverts to the major on the words ‘Nur Du!’—but it is hardly a comforting conclusion.
Neither does the well-known serenade that follows offer any greater consolation. In Ständchen, the melody is replete with longing, echoed by the piano’s answering phrases. Telling details are momentarily illuminated by a switch from minor to major (for example, at ‘Des Verräters feindlich Lauschen’, suggestive of the gleam of a blade in the twilight) and, as the lover becomes more impassioned, there is a characteristic enharmonic change on the word ‘Bebend’. But the climax at ‘Komm’, beglücke mich!’ is illusory; for all the piano’s ecstatic coupling with the voice, major turns to minor and hope to disillusion.
Aufenthalt returns to the obsessive rhythms and driving triplets of Frühlingssehnsucht, now given more weight in keeping with the impressive landscape it invokes (both the poem and Schubert’s music should be essential items in any exhibition devoted to the concept of ‘the sublime’ that inspired generations of landscape painters). Well known as the song is, there are moments of great harmonic originality, as in the long-held (and unresolved) dominant seventh on ‘Tränen’, and even more dramatically, the enharmonic sidestep at the climactic ‘Starrender Fels’ in the final repeat of the opening stanza. In a sense the song is Der Wanderer in a new landscape and a rawer state of emotional torment.
If both Aufenthalt and Frühlingssehnsucht depend on repetitive rhythmic cells in the verse, In der Ferne takes this characteristic of Rellstab to inordinate lengths. On paper, lines like ‘Wehe dem Fliehenden/Welt hinaus ziehenden!’ hardly seem promising for musical setting. Yet Schubert had a remarkable knack of turning poetic eccentricity to musical advantage. Recognizing that the constant harking on the present participle, and the rhythmic monotony it creates, keeps the poem suspended in a kind of grammatical limbo, Schubert creates a limbo of his own. Bare octaves harmonized by sighing appoggiaturas suggest an eerie, desolate landscape, while once the voice enters, the musical rhythm deliberately compounds the verbal, in tolling chords that can never escape their own inexorable tread. It is worth noting that when sung in the original key, the note the singer cannot escape is F sharp, the same that tolls like a bell through Die liebe Farbe in Die schöne Müllerin, where the young miller cannot escape the colour green. In the second part of the song where nature begins to unbend, with triplets and semiquavers depicting the breezes—and the singer’s unfulfilled longing—Schubert makes striking use of the piano descanting above the voice. In the major tonality the effect is especially poignant (see later, on the subject of Am Meer), while the song’s ultimate return to the minor is devastating.
After this deeply disturbing song (which comes close to bridging the gap between Rellstab and Heine) Abschied provides something in the way of light relief. With its engaging trotting motif in the piano, it is one of the most charming examples of Schubert’s late varied-strophic form. But although ostensibly carefree, with each verse ushered in by a long-drawn out ‘Ade’ and an imaginary wave of the hand, it nevertheless suggests a lover shrugging off disappointment, or at least protecting his heart from too much Sehnsucht. The singer must leave but doesn’t tell us why, and when the harmony clouds for the last and final verse, we could surmise that he is putting a brave face on it.
Heinrich Heine made his career out of subverting the very conventions represented by a poet such as Rellstab. Where Sehnsucht comes into play in Heine it is either undermined by an ironic sting in the tail, or has fatal consequences, as in Am Meer, with its overtones of sexual disease. In the latter case the echoes of Schubert’s own circumstances are clear, and indeed one may imagine the shock of recognition with which Schubert must have encountered these poems. With the possible exception of Wilhelm Müller’s Winterreise poems, not since the Goethe songs of his youth can Schubert have felt such a challenge, and it is tempting to speculate how much else he would have made of Heine had he lived to a riper age.
Although it has precedents—in his much earlier setting of Goethe’s Prometheus, for instance—Der Atlas immediately signals a new tautness, and corresponding increase in intensity in Schubert’s song-writing. In this the spare outlines of Heine’s verse play a crucial role; like an explosive packed into a small container, Schubert’s music derives all the more power from the confines from which it seems constantly to be trying to escape. This is immediately explicit in the groaning appoggiaturas of the opening bars, which create the interval of a diminished fourth as though defining the narrow confines of Atlas’s prison. When the voice enters, at every step and heave it is dogged by left hand octaves as if dragging a ball and chain. At the climax, it tries one last massive heave, stretching the octave by a semitone before falling back impotently to the tonic, and it is no accident that the agonized top note on ‘Schmerzen’ forms an augmented fourth against the dominant in the piano: known in the middle ages as diabolus in musica, with the piano’s boiling tremolando it is like a victim stretched on the rack.
In contrast to Der Atlas the pared-down simplicity of Ihr Bild combines bleakness and poignancy in equal measure. Here perhaps Schubert comes closest to the Schumann of—it was onto Schumann of course that the mantle of Heine-composer-in-chief would soon fall. But the details are pure Schubert: the bare unisons of the opening, the chromatic inflection of ‘Träumen’ and ‘starrt’’ (the latter approached by the interval of an augmented fourth), the change to major as the image comes to life and the ineffable sweetness with which the girl’s smile is depicted. To all this the piano adds its own commentary, most devastatingly in the final bars: the singer’s expression of disbelief may be voiced in the major, but the postlude, echoing it in the minor, mercilessly drives the reality home.
In the seemingly innocuous barcarole of Das Fischermädchen, Schubert’s characteristic harmonic shifts suggest his awareness of the potential ambivalence of Heine’s poem. True, there is an insouciance to the piano introduction (with its echoes of male-voice harmony, as in a fishermen’s chorus) and an eagerness each time in the voice’s entry, as it overlaps the piano’s final cadence. But is there a suggestion of ‘lover beware’?
In Die Stadt Schubert deploys his pictorial skill to revolutionary effect, creating a watery stasis through nothing more than the suggestion of a pedal-point timpani roll and the incessant flutter of a single diminished seventh, constantly repeated. Together with the mysterious brass chords that evoke the city’s towers and pinnacles, it is an impressionistic vision every bit as revolutionary as the misty seascapes Turner was painting at much the same period.
Am Meer is another seascape, this time suggesting a painting by Caspar David Friedrich, with a pair of figures by the shore, their backs turned to the viewer and gazing out to sea. Heine never used many words when fewer would do, and here, as in all these remarkable poems the listener is left to fill in the gaps in the narrative. Schubert himself paints the scene with a musical device that is also tailor-made to heighten the emotional intensity. In the opening chorale-like melody, the voice is descanted by the piano playing a third higher, in a vivid depiction of the evening light gleaming on the surface of the sea. But this descant also serves to intensify—in a manner Schubert had already perfected in Winterreise—both the woman’s tears in the first verse and the singer’s anguished realization at the end of the second.
The final brooding chords of Am Meer prepare us for the night and silence of Der Doppelgänger. Much of this song’s power derives from Schubert’s use of repetition. First, there is the piano’s Dies irae-like ground bass, circling ominously within the eerie interval of a diminished fourth (compare the bass of Der Atlas); then the singer’s obsessive returning to the same note, F sharp in the original (see In der Ferne), as he describes the scene, and indeed tries to decipher it for himself; and finally the fact that this note is present in every single chord up to the moment of horrified recognition on the word ‘Gestalt’. From this point however all harmonic rules are torn up, the bass starts to rise chromatically, the word ‘äffst’ shifts enharmonically to D sharp minor (‘Why do you ape the pain of my love?’) and it takes yet another cataclysmic chord from the piano to wrench the music back to the home key and the singer’s last despairing cry.
The final playout of Der Doppelgänger poses an interesting question. As the piano reverts to its ground bass, Schubert unexpectedly re-harmonizes the fourth chord, preparing for the warmth of a dominant seventh and a plagal cadence complete with tierce de Picardie. Is the sudden flash of colour one final turn of the emotional screw, or is it an exorcism, an ironic benediction?
Perhaps it is Schubert himself saying to the spectre ‘Rest in Peace’. If so, it makes less abrupt the change of tone to the final song of Schwanengesang, a song which has won hearts by its charm and, as the last song Schubert wrote, comes to us as a voice from beyond the grave. A whole book could be written about Schubert’s relationship to the third degree of the scale, and his fondness for key-shifts through the same interval—think of the heart-stopping descent from B to G major that occurs in Nacht und Träume—and it can be no accident that the lilting melody of Die Taubenpost revolves around the third of the scale. Indeed, Schubert himself seems to make the point at the end of the second couplet, when he harmonizes the word ‘vorbei’ in B major rather than the tonic G major (original keys). Repeatedly both piano and voice return to this note; only at the very last cadence of each verse does either fall to the tonic.
As it happens, in August of that year Schubert had sent a surprisingly dismissive note to the young poet Johann Gabriel Seidl: ‘Enclosed I send you back these poems, in which I could find absolutely nothing poetic or useful for music.’ Surprisingly, because he had already set ten of that writer’s poems to music, including the charming Wanderer an den Mond and the ineffable Im Freien. Whatever the rejected poems were, we can be glad that Die Taubenpost was not among them. For if by October 1828 Schubert did have a premonition of his own death, he could not have chosen a more apt summing up of his art. Seidl’s poem turns out to be in the form of a riddle; and when he finally reveals the identity of his carrier-pigeon it is as though Schubert himself is saying to us: ‘This is what my music has been about all along—die Sehnsucht’. Goethe’s Mignon sings ‘Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, / weiss, was ich leide’—‘Only he who knows longing, knows what I suffer’—and Schubert knew and gave unforgettable expression to that suffering. But his was also the embodiment of a softer, more positive side of Sehnsucht: as Seidl put it, ‘Die Botin treuen Sinns’—‘The messenger of constancy’, and in his music he remained true to his heart, and true to life.
This recording includes two further songs. The first, Herbst, though also to a text by Rellstab, did not appear in Schwanengesang, and the manuscript was not discovered until the 1890s. It was actually Schubert’s first setting of the poet, composed in April 1828 and dedicated to Heinrich Panufka, a young violinist, singing teacher and music critic whom Schubert had met the previous year. A highly atmospheric nature-piece, its texture anticipates Mendelssohn’s songs on a similar theme, with its tremolando right hand and sinuous, fateful left-hand melody. It also derives a special harmonic colouring from the first two lines of each verse, which are identical in melody, but heard first in D minor and then immediately a tone lower in C minor.
The other extra is another song from 1828, this time to a poem by Karl Gottfried von Leitner. It is one of a number of later settings of poets like Seidl, Schulze and Leitner, all in what might be described as varied-strophic or rondo form. Here one can feel Schubert almost trying to marry his songs with his piano sonatas—the accompaniments less illustrative of detail, the textures continuous and varied largely through strategically placed modulations. All this is amply demonstrated in Der Winterabend, over which Schubert’s piano-writing casts a silvery hush every bit as lovely as that cast by the moonlight in the poem. Hypnotically repeated semiquavers anticipate from the start Leitner’s image of the snow spreading a blanket through the streets, while above them floats a melody that sighs and dreams, as in a memory of former Sehnsucht, but then returns to its starting place. It is the image of a contented man, contemplating not just the winter evening, but by implication also his approaching death (the silvery moonlight is a symbolic pall cast over the objects of his life).
If one wants to know how Schubert felt about his own mortality, it is worth noting the loving care he bestowed on this song. Every turn of phrase, every modulation is perfectly judged, as in the hushed sidestep (again through a major third, his favourite interval) that announces the entry of the moonlight into the poet’s chamber. And in the closing pages, when the song becomes a duet between voice and piano, can it be a coincidence that the piano’s first entry recalls Schubert’s own Rosamunde—at the words ‘Denk’ an sie’? Once again, as in Die Taubenpost, the melody revolves continually around the third of the scale, which Schubert constantly re-harmonizes even in the final playout, so as to continue the singer’s musings into eternity.
Roger Vignoles © 2008