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In September 1828, when Schubert came to compose the slow movement of his great A major Sonata (D959), he chose to remember this song – the same key and (if allowance is made for the two-in-the-bar 6/8 of the song, and the slower 3/8 of the piano piece) a similar Bewegung – the deliberate and slightly dragging gait of the pilgrim supported by his trusty stick. This link is especially worth mentioning because that sonata movement’s middle section is a completely untypical outburst of pain and violent anger, a passage bristling with demisemiquavers and chromatic scales that seem wildly out of control. There is nothing like this expressionistic nightmare-in-sound in all Schubert; certainly Pilgerweise seems repressed in comparison. Echoes of the song, and its text, probably awoke memories of the events of the awful winter of 1822/23. Five years later in 1828, Schubert allowed himself to re-experience the panic and the desperation, and to commit them to manuscript paper – the pilgrim, no longer silent and long-suffering, was able to express his rage at last. And yet, in drawing attention to the similarities between song and sonata, Alfred Einstein writes, ‘I hope no one will accuse me of suggesting that Schubert had the text of the song in mind when he was writing this movement’.
Schober’s poem is a reworking of the idea behind the final lyric of Goethe’s harper – An die Türen. Perhaps Einstein would have thought differently if the text had been by Goethe. But by Schober? Well, yes, for the man’s limited literary gifts are a separate issue from the love felt for him by Schubert which overruled all other considerations. It is likely that these words mattered to the composer precisely because they were by Schober, even if they were not the greatest poetry. It is said that Schober had played some part in the background to Schubert’s infection (traditionally, persuading the composer to visit the ill-fated prostitute), but who knows how true this is? And who knows how many conversations and barings of the soul had preceded the writing of this poem? It is possible that it was memories of these, and other unrecorded and never-to-be-known twists to the story, which prompted the volcanic outburst in the sonata. In any case, this relationship, with all its ups and downs, was much more complex than we will ever know. In later life Schober, a normally loquacious individual keen to consort with the famous and to claim his place in history, was remarkably reticent about it. We shall never know whether this was a result of loyal discretion (somehow unlikely), simple laziness in responding to the various scholars’ questionnaires (much more likely), or a fear of re-opening closet doors containing ghosts and skeletons.
The song’s original key is F sharp minor. There is another autograph copy in D minor, and when Diabelli published it he chose E minor, an infinitely more comfortable key for singers; consequently this is the one printed in the Peters Edition. It is also the key used in this recording, although this commentary considers the song in the key in which Schubert conceived it.
There are nine strophes to the song (the last verse a repeat of the first) and the musical form is somewhat palindromic, with each verse representing a letter thus: A, B, C (adopting two lines of A, transposed), D, E (incorporating the last line of C, derived from A) D (with modified vocal line and extension), F (the heart of the pilgrim’s plaint), then B, and A plus coda. In this way the music for the first two verses act as book-ends (in reverse order at the end) for a rather more rambling structure at the heart of the song. It is as if the pilgrim returns to his starting point, having gone nowhere in particular and coming full circle. How different this is from the striding determination of the Schiller settings Der Pilgrim1 and Sehnsucht written in cantata form, where one new musical vista succeeds another.
In the eight-bar introduction the bass pivots between F sharp and E sharp, the first inversion of the dominant chord; this is one of the key similarities between the song and sonata. The melody for ‘Ich bin ein Waller auf der Erde’ is a beautiful and memorable one; at first it is built on the same harmonic plan as the Vorspiel, but it then moves from F sharp minor to A major. (The infinitely sad use of the major key is a feature of this song, bringing to much of it an air of philosophic resignation.) Another short interlude leads to the conclusion of the verse in F sharp major (the ‘gifts of love’ have a special radiance). The last phrase of this verse’s vocal line is repeated in the piano as a Zwischenspiel.
So far there has been a tranquillity in the music, but the second strophe is more imploring and needy and Schubert is not ashamed to make the music match the words. The repeated C sharps of the voice’s opening bars (‘Mit offnen’) promise a strophic repeat of what has come before, but instead there are restless, if tiny, harmonic excursions initiated by a roving bass line, and a reckless outpouring of new melody in the vocal line, like a wringing of hands in music. Eric Sams maintains that the setting of the words ‘könnt ihr dies arme Herz erquicken’ recalls Mozart’s Dove sono (at ‘mi portasse una speranza’) from Le Nozze di Figaro. Certainly the Countess is as emotionally vulnerable at this point in the opera as Schober’s pilgrim. At times this music seems like a distant variation of the first verse, but there is something more improvised than planned about this organic renewal as each rise and fall of verbal nuance is accommodated afresh. Melody is the one thing that Schubert is rich in, which, as it happens, is also the message of the song.
By the beginning of the third strophe we have settled into D major, but not for long. At the third and fourth line of this strophe (beginning ‘Ich streue nur mit Blumenkronen’) mention of the Novalis-inspired blue flower (also to be found in the 1816 Schober setting Am Bach im Frühling) occasions a recycling of the music from the corresponding passage in the first verse, this time a semitone higher in G rather than F sharp major. The same Zwischenspiel, also a semitone higher, leads the music into G major. With the reappearance of these strands of melody Schubert weaves something which seems more melodically unified than it actually is; it is the never-ceasing triplet quaver movement (a sustained crotchet in the left hand followed by two in the right) which truly binds the piece together.
The central section of the song is given over to the pilgrim’s description of his own music-making. The ear is given a rest from those undulating accompanying triplets. Instead, a rippling arpeggio figure with a zither-like drone of fifths in the bass accompanies the phrase beginning ‘Und geb’ ein Lied euch noch zur Zither’. The words ‘mit Fleiss gesungen und gespielt’ comes across as Schober’s compliment to Schubert’s unceasing musical industry; he was perhaps one of the few people in Vienna who knew how hard the composer worked, and how many pieces he composed – many more than ever saw the light of performance. The suddenly high tessitura of ‘ein leicht entbehrlich Gut euch gilt’, as well as a crescendo, registers a protest, as if the singer were gearing himself to defend the necessity of music as anything but expendable and ‘easily done without’. (We need such a tone of voice in defending music in the Britain of today.) The fifth strophe, which is joined closely to the fourth in a continuous musical construction, retreats from this aggressive position, as if the pilgrim has remembered his place and feels only entitled to state his case gently. The harmonic legerdemain on the change to ‘Mir’, a curious transition which progresses from E flat7 to G sharp minor, is the perfect analogue for an apologetic change of subject back to the narrator. Once again the final line of this section (‘was den beseligt, der entbehrt’) with its softly drooping cadence repeats the music for the closing of the first and third strophes, the song’s most identifiable musical tag.
The sixth strophe begins in much the same way as the fourth. The music is a variant of the G major music of that passage and here only the vocal line is changed to accommodate different inflections. It is the least convincing verse of a rather unconvincing poem when judged purely as literature. It is here, perhaps, that even the most ardent Schubertian may begin to complain of longueurs. The end of this strophe is differently composed from the fourth; the elongation of ‘vergrössert euren Liebesschatz’ is a bel canto treasure-chest of melisma and decoration, an analogue for the personal blessings enjoyed by others. After this evaluation of other people’s better fortune, the focus once again shifts to the protagonist with the words ‘Doch mir’.
But this time the music (verse 7) is entirely new as befits the most personal words in the poem, and those which seem most tailored to Schubert’s plight. A strong bass line turns the harmonic screw ever tighter; the words ‘Reisst in des Glückes Lustgewebe ein Faden nach dem andern ab’ are repeated, and then, as if enumerating the breaking threads one by one, a final ‘ein Faden nach dem andern ab’. This insistence betokens real desperation; the tessitura is high enough in any case, but here the music seems to climb higher with each breath, phrase by phrase, eventually insisting on a succession of phrases dominated by high Fs. Here is the reason why most singers choose to sing this song, if sung at all, in a lower key: music for the tearing of threads can sound uncomfortably like the shredding of vocal chords. It is significant that the mood of this word-setting seems more angry than regretful.
At the end of verse 7 we find ourselves in the distant key of F minor. This changes back to F sharp minor with Schubertian virtuosity as the third note of the scale (A flat) changes enharmonically to G sharp, fifth note of C sharp minor. This in turn is the dominant of the home key. A three-beat setting of the word ‘Drum’ sustained over a held C sharp presides over this change. The music for this eighth strophe goes back to that of the song’s second verse. The words propose a nice exchange of benefits between musician and sponsor, the giver of money getting pleasure, the artist happiness. The ninth strophe exactly repeats the first, both words and music. This appears in Schober’s published poems (1853); originally it may not have been so. The poet may have decided to include this because of the composer’s decision to recapitulate it; by that time the song had been published for more than twenty years. The last two lines of the poem are repeated to make a coda of entirely new musical material anchored in F sharp major. The piano postlude comprises a transposed segment of the accompaniment, music of deep sighs and a pilgrim’s humility, for the immediately preceding bars. The whole song, still something of an enigma, is a similarly curious mixture of prolific one-off invention and carefully recycled material.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000
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