Florian Boesch and Roger Vignoles were shortlisted for a BBC Music Magazine award for their first Hyperion album (). Boesch’s warm, sensuously attractive baritone voice, first-rate diction and remarkable acting ability were enthusiastically praised. Now the duo turn to a selection of Schubert’s Lieder from the dark heart of the repertoire.
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‘Dort, wo du nicht bist, dort ist das Glück!’ (‘There, where you are not, is happiness!’)—‘Und das Dort ist niemals hier!’ (‘and the There is never here!’). The final lines of Der Wanderer (track 1) and Der Pilgrim (track 16) encapsulate a recurrent theme of German Romantic art: that of the rootless outsider, living either by choice or by fate on the margins of society. It is the world of Goethe’s mysterious Harper and Mignon, and of the solitary, silhouetted figures in the darker landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich. In music it found its supreme expression in Schubert’s Winterreise and many individual ‘wandering’ songs: some grimly resigned, some serenely contemplative, others imbued with a sense of physical and spiritual isolation and longing for an ultimately unattainable ‘otherness’.
Schubert spent the whole of his short life within a two-hundred-mile radius of Vienna. Yet the composer and his circle, which included men like his champion from student days Joseph von Spaun and the charismatic but feckless Franz von Schober, were repelled by the philistine, repressive atmosphere of post-Congress Austria, run by Metternich as a virtual police state. These young men took refuge in friendship—exemplified by the so-called Schubertiads, convivial evenings of music, readings and charades, washed down by copious quantities of punch—and shared ideals, both political and artistic. Only in art could the ideal world be glimpsed. And a leitmotif of so many of the poems set by Schubert is the unbridgeable gulf between reality and the imagination, the artist and society.
Standing as an epigraph to Florian Boesch’s recital is Schubert’s famous 1816 setting of Der Wanderer by Georg Philipp Schmidt (known as ‘von Lübeck’ to distinguish him from other versifying Schmidts). In the composer’s lifetime this splendid, rather theatrical outpouring of Romantic gloom and (above all in the aching major-key music of ‘Ich wandle still, bin wenig froh’) pathos—perfectly in tune with the spirit of the times—was a favourite in Viennese salons, its popularity rivalled only by Erlkönig.
In contrast to Schmidt’s lone, melancholic figure, the protagonist of Friedrich von Schlegel’s Der Wanderer (1819) is cheerfully reconciled to his fate, like the Vagabond in Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel. From Schlegel’s oddly shaped verses Schubert creates a gently hypnotic nocturne, at once serene and restless, with an accompaniment that, as so often in his songs, suggests a string trio or quartet. In an inspired variation on the basic strophic plan, the vocal melody remains virtually identical for the second verse while the piano textures and harmonies are subtly altered in response to the new text.
The solitary traveller in Johann Gabriel Seidl’s Der Wanderer an den Mond exudes a weary, trudging stoicism. Schubert’s song of 1826 evokes both the Andante of the ‘Great’ C major Symphony, completed the same year, and—albeit in less nihilistic vein—several of the Winterreise songs. There is a suggestion of folksong in the opening tune, enhanced by the opens fifths of the bass, and a characteristic, and poignant, Schubertian minor-major polarity to point the contrast between the poet’s gloomy earthly plight and the serene, infinite heavens.
Several new friends were especially important to Schubert after he made his first bid for independence outside the family home at the end of 1816. One was the gregarious dilettante Franz von Schober, who throughout his long life (he outlived Schubert by fifty-four years!) dabbled at everything and stuck at nothing. Another was the opera star Johann Michael Vogl, who quickly became a fervent champion of Schubert’s songs and did more than anyone to spread his name in Vienna. A third crucial figure at this period was the melancholy, taciturn Johann Mayrhofer, by far the most talented poet in the Schubert circle, whose verses, often on classical themes, inspired no fewer than forty-seven Schubert songs, more than any writer except Goethe.
Florian Boesch and Roger Vignoles have chosen five Mayrhofer songs, beginning with the pair drawn from a sequence of poems—probably written expressly for Schubert to set—entitled ‘Heliopolis’: the ancient Egyptian city of the sun as a symbol of the saturnine Mayrhofer’s longing for an unattainable world of light and peace. Both songs date from April 1822, when, not least thanks to Vogl, Schubert’s reputation was rapidly spreading in and around Vienna. Aus ‘Heliopolis’ I paints the ‘cold, harsh north’ in bleak, bardic unisons, then slips magically into the major key as the poet turns to ‘the flower chosen by Helios’ (‘Zur Blume, die sich Helios erkoren’). In the second ‘Heliopolis’ song (Aus ‘Heliopolis’ II) Mayrhofer seeks to triumph over his depressive temperament by embracing the rugged majesty of nature: cue for a song of frantic, obsessive energy that culminates in a ringing, quasi-operatic peroration.
In Auf der Donau (1817) the beauty of the natural world prompts contemplation of the ruin of all earthly things: typical of the fatalism that colours so much of Mayrhofer’s poetry. Schubert’s song opens as a mellifluous, rippling barcarolle, but from the shudder of ‘Tannenwälder rauschen’ it quickly grows disturbed, with unquiet syncopations and a repeated ominous trilling motif in the bass. In the final verse (‘Trauriges Gestrüppe wuchert fort’) the opening music returns, distorted, in a minor key far distant from the relaxed opening; and as the singer chants the single word ‘Untergang’, the piano bass sinks by chromatic steps into the abyss.
Originally published, by accident or publisher’s design, as Auf der Brücke (‘On the bridge’), Auf der Bruck is one of a group of songs Schubert composed in 1825–6 to verses by the short-lived Saxon poet Ernst Schulze. Something of a philandering fantasist, Schulze penned this poem on a hilltop near Göttingen known as ‘die Bruck’ on a journey to his beloved Adelheid Tychsen. The song, with its notoriously taxing repeated-quaver accompaniment, is in Schubert’s exhilarating equestrian vein, though the buoyant mood evoked by the vaulting arpeggios of the opening is repeatedly undermined by both poem (the prospect of seeing Adelheid inspires more sorrow than joy) and music. Again Schubert inventively varies the regular strophic plan, with the two middle verses taking a new harmonic direction, and telling details like the deep piano trills at ‘Frieden, Lieb’ und Freude’ to underline the dangerous enticement of the girls’ smiling eyes.
The Mayrhofer song Der Schiffer was published in 1823 in a group of three Fischerlieder. Here the physically frail poet is indulging in a spot of macho wish-fulfilment; and Schubert responds with one of his most bracing water pieces whose unremitting dactylic (long-short-short) rhythms are a perfect musical emblem for the oarsman’s powerful strokes.
A solitary exile’s yearning for ‘der Heimat Frieden’—the peace of my native land—is the theme of Das Heimweh, derived from verses by the Dresden poet and journalist Theodor Hell, nom de plume of Karl Gottfried Winkler. Like so much that Schubert wrote in 1816, this little-known song, in strophic form (i.e. with the same music for each verse), combines a chaste, Classical grace with a Romantic sensibility, its mood of unassuaged longing set by the chromatically oblique piano introduction.
Dating from November 1827, the month Schubert completed Winterreise, Der Kreuzzug sets verses by the Styrian poet Karl Gottfried von Leitner in which a monk contemplates a band of idealistic crusaders. Marked ‘calmly and devoutly’, the song unfolds as a solemn chorale, with a magical dissolving modulation to suggest the ship fading from view at the line ‘Ist bald nur wie ein Schwan’. Der Kreuzzug was one of five songs sung by Vogl at Schubert’s triumphantly successful benefit concert on 26 March 1828.
In similar vein is Abschied, to a poem which Mayrhofer probably penned during a walking tour in Lower Austria (its original title is ‘Lunz’, after a village of that name). Reputedly based on an old pilgrims’ chant, the song is framed by a sequence of slow, ethereal piano chords, and charmingly punctuated by evocations of an alpenhorn echoing around the mountains.
With his two Wandrers Nachtlied songs, Schubert miraculously matched the exalted simplicity of Goethe’s epigrammatic poems. ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’ (1815), the young Goethe’s prayer for inner peace (dedicated to his lover, Charlotte von Stein), mingles Classical poise with a mysterious contemplative ecstasy. Melodic and harmonic equilibrium is momentarily ruffled at the line ‘Ach, ich bin des Treibens müde!’, before the exquisite twofold invocation ‘Süsser Friede, Komm, ach komm in meine Brust!’
Goethe famously wrote the second of his ‘Wandrers Nachtlieder’, ‘Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’’, on the wall of a hunting chalet in the Thuringian hills while contemplating a late-summer sunset. The poem moves majestically from inanimate nature, through the vegetable and animal worlds, to the human. Schubert’s song of circa 1822 (as so often, the composer’s manuscript is lost) catches Goethe’s sublime poignancy and directness in a mere fourteen bars. The piano’s barely palpable syncopations at ‘Spürest du Kaum einen Hauch’ suggest the faintest stirring in the treetops before the soft, transfigured horn calls of the close.
No one knows why Schubert omitted the bleak, windswept Herbst (April 1828) from his collection of Rellstab songs, eventually published posthumously in the Schwanengesang anthology. It yields to few late Schubert songs in its evocation of atmosphere—you can almost feel the chill gusts stripping the sparsely foliated trees—and the mingled strength and pathos of its melody, intensified by the yearning ‘Neapolitan’ harmonies at the end of each verse. It comes as no surprise to learn that Brahms was a particular admirer of this haunting song.
In the midst of his first, rapturous encounter with the poetry of Goethe, the eighteen-year-old Schubert set two versions of Meeres Stille on successive days in June 1815. The poem (paired by Goethe with Glückliche Fahrt—‘Prosperous Voyage’) was inspired by the eerie calm at the start of a voyage from Naples to Sicily in 1787; and in his second setting Schubert—who never saw the sea—responds with a miniature tone poem of impressionistic subtlety.
The lofty and (to us) slightly chilly poetry of Friedrich von Schiller made a particular appeal to the young Schubert in the years 1815–17. Among a mere handful of later Schiller settings is Der Pilgrim (1823), charting an ultimately futile quest for the ‘golden gate’ where ‘earthly things become immortal’. With its characteristic ‘tramping’ rhythm, Schubert’s melody suggests both a folksong and an old chorale. The mountains and raging torrents (‘Berge lagen mir im Wege’) provoke a giddy swirl of modulations, while the pilgrim’s final disillusionment is emphasized by a change of tempo and metre, and almost brutal equivocations between major and minor. With two implacable hammer blows, the minor mode has the last word.
The yearning for the vanished glories of antiquity—and, by association, for an ideal world of the Romantic imagination—is a recurrent motif in the poetry of Schiller, who in turn influenced Schubert’s friend Johann Mayrhofer. Die Götter Griechenlands (1819) sets a single verse from Schiller’s epic Hellenic Ode of 1788. The desolate minor-keyed refrain (later used by Schubert in the minuet of his ‘Rosamunde’ Quartet, D804), to the words ‘Schöne Welt, wo bist du?’, twice yields to a vision of illusory bliss in the tonic major: one of the simplest and most piercing instances in all Schubert of his favourite major-minor contrasts.
In the years 1819–20, especially, Schubert was frequently drawn to the early poetry of Friedrich von Schlegel, who by middle age had morphed from Romantic pantheist to conservative (some would say bigoted) éminence grise in Viennese literary circles. Im Walde (which appeared after Schubert’s death under the title ‘Waldesnacht’) is a darkly ecstatic paean to the numinous powers of the forest. Filled with mysterious rustlings and murmurings (the ‘Forest Murmurs’ of Wagner’s Siegfried are already in view) and picturesque details—say, the lightning flashes and growling thunder in verse two—this torrential outpouring is Schubert at his most exalted and visionary. As Richard Capell wrote in his classic study of Schubert’s songs (Duckworth, 1928): ‘It is as though the spirit of music had whirled [Schubert], breathless and half-conscious, into some supernatural state.’
Florian Boesch and Roger Vignoles close their recital with a Schubertian rarity: Die Mutter Erde, written in April 1823, when the composer was suffering from the first symptoms of syphilis. It is tempting, perhaps too tempting, to link Schubert’s choice of poem—a contemplation of mortality by the pre-Romantic versifier Count Friedrich Leopold Stolberg—with his own personal crisis. Whatever, this beautiful song, marked Sehr langsam, has a mellow, ritualistic solemnity, with the opposing images of sultry, oppressive day and cool, easeful death painted by Schubert’s beloved contrasts of minor and major.
Richard Wigmore © 2014