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Capell observes that Schubert’s flexibility in matching grammatical and musical style was ‘before him unknown in music’. It is very unusual, even in the German language with its notoriously difficult word-order, for a song lyric to begin with a clause which starts in mid-air – ‘That the east wind breathes fragrance…’. (We may observe, however, that if a clause describes the permeation of fragrance, mid-air is a very logical place for it to start.) Richard Wigmore’s translation avoids opening with a clumsy ‘That’, but the fact is that here a subordinate clause precedes the information at the heart of the meaning – ‘you have been here’. Something indefinite comes before concrete information; in the same way, an indefinable female fragrance carried by the east wind precedes the realisation that ‘she’ has recently been there in person.
To put this idea to music, Schubert starts in harmonic mid-air with diminished sevenths decorated with accented passing-notes. In these, the emotions of sexual longing are squeezed and pressed like perfume atomizers. The chords are phrased away in the same delicate, sighing-swooning way that we have encountered in Geheimes (there the crotchet+quaver figure rises toward the quaver rest; here it falls). It is clear that Schubert has imagined the wind as coming from the East, as much as simply from the east: this is no merry sea breeze but something heavy with the fragrance of ‘östliche Rosen’. The opening vocal phrase (‘Dass der Ostwind’) contains an exotic diminished interval – C sharp-F; this falls to E and, after a gap of a quaver rest, to D and C sharp on ‘Düfte’. We thus have a fragmented melody, a tentative tune spiced with a flavour of the orient. The phrase ‘hauchet in die Lüfte’ (where the first syllable is elongated by the exhalation of the singer’s breath) is doubled in both hands of the accompaniment. The music feels its way as if depicting the blind, the awe-struck, those who are emotionally isolated or in the deepest thought. The straining eye or ear are relatively common in lieder, but here, uniquely in song, we have the quivering nostril. At ‘dadurch tut er kund’ the haze of harmony turning around on itself and stopping the music in its tracks seems confused, the lack of harmonic orientation a metaphor for something in the air, something not yet identified. The halting gait of the word-setting depicts the effort involved in identifying the intruder. And suddenly, oh sweet delight, the scents make sense.
It is miraculous that Schubert has found a means to find a musical analogue for something as nebulous, yet emotionally engaging, as the fragrance of the beloved. Yes, of course, it is her, for she smells like no other. Now that the mystery is solved, the world of chromaticism is temporarily abandoned in favour of the diatonic lyricism of C major; the arrival on the long-awaited tonic chord at ‘gewesen’ is prepared by a bar of G7 harmony. The phrase ‘Dass du hier gewesen’, a dreamy descent followed by a rapturous rise, is repeated like a magic incantation. After that, the vocal line is complemented by the accompaniment which imitates it at a distance of two bars. The lover and the object of his love are still separated; the piano interlude stops in its tracks, interrupted by a whole bar’s rest, as if the singer has been struck by another thought; his delight in his perfumed discovery has made him forget his disturbed state of mind.
The second verse is an exact musical repeat of the first. Now the returning diminished harmonies represent anguish; he realises that his tears can have no fragrance and that the beloved will never know that he has been there after her. There is no reciprocity in this one-way olfactory experience, and that poignant realisation is the subject of this verse. We also realise that it is possible that this lover has been abandoned, and all that remains to him of his inamorata are memories reinforced by his straining senses. If the music does not seem quite as tailor-made for the words as in the extraordinary opening strophe, it nevertheless does good expressive service. And then Schubert modifies and extends the imitative piano interlude. This does not fade away as before; instead it grows and climbs, a sequence of quavers in octaves beginning first on C, then E, then G – an eloquent crescendo in the pianist’s right hand. The beginning of the poem’s third verse is set as part of an interlude rather than as a new musical verse. Now it is the turn of the voice to imitate the piano in those eloquent descending scales, each one beginning higher than the one before as emotion piles on emotion. The entry of the voice (‘Schönheit oder Liebe’) creates between voice and piano the cosseting and caressing thirds and sixths which approximate a lover’s touch, a four-bar phrase which ends with a questioning cadence on ‘bliebe?’. In this bridge passage heartfelt longing seems to leap out of the breast, but it is held in check by the repetitive chords based on G7 which root the singer to the spot.
This unchanging harmony (the expressive melodic decoration, for all its ardency, goes nowhere) perfectly paints the idea of feelings and fragrances trapped and contained in one place. But no, in answer to the singer’s tearful question, these emotions cannot be hidden for long; fragrance seeps under doors and floats out into the world, and tears too have their expressive resonance. There is a sense of release and new openness in the new seventh chords, gentler and no longer in diminished harmony, which begin the next section (beginning ‘Düfte tun es und Tränen’), a final musical verse fashioned out of the poem’s two final lines. From G7 we have slipped into C7 with its inevitable pull to F major. The extraordinarily elongated setting of ‘Düfte’ (five-and-a-half beats) sends the fragrances wafting out into the world, and at ‘Tränen’ (tears) the sighing motif of crotchet+quaver in the accompaniment is darkened into the minor – a real moment of Lachen und Weinen this – made more eloquent by an expressive vocal mordent on ‘Tränen’, the only one in the piece.
In Du bist die Ru’ Schubert saves up his biggest harmonic surprise for the last verse, and here too, at almost the last moment, he lifts the song into new heights by harmonic sleight of hand. When the words ‘Dass sie hier gewesen’ occur there is no comfortable return to C major. F minor leads to intimations of B flat minor, and from there E flat7 harmony now underpins the outburst of these words where, instead of beatific calm, we hear a lover’s passionate desperation. The direction of the melody is now in reverse: ‘dass sie hier’ is upwardly inflected, and ‘gewesen’ droops. For the first time we hear that past participle ‘has been’ as indicative of a love affair that was, and is no longer. But Schubert, the lover-in-song, is an eternal optimist and memories of love nourish him almost as much as the real thing, a noticeable trait of some of the songs of Winterreise which look back to past happiness. A tiny interlude, two bars of those sighing chords, a flat turning into a natural, and suddenly we find ourselves, as if by magic, back where we began: the same fragmented tune supported by diminished chords, and the same C major ‘Dass sie hier gewesen’ with the piano imitating the voice at a distance of two bars. This time, the echo of the melody is completed with a feminine cadence of the utmost delicacy. The use of ‘sie’ (she) rather than the more immediate ‘du’ (you) of the first strophe emphasises the valedictory nature of the poem’s ending.
Schubert has somehow spun a song out of air. Not even in Winterreise do we encounter such deep expression conjured by such slender and economical means, and yet the song remains neglected. Singers who sniff at it should be encouraged to inhale deeply. Mention should also be made of another setting of this poem which is not as important as Schubert’s, but nevertheless enchanting: Meyerbeer’s Sie und Ich – also sung in French as Elle et moi.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000
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