Lachen und Weinen D777 [1'50]
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|Geraldine McGreevy (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)|
This is certainly the most famous, as well as the most pithy, of Schubert’s philosophical songs. (Compare the length and complexity of Schwestergruss later on this disc). It has always been loved by Schubertians because of its easy, winsome charm, but also because the title and text encapsulate the composer’s own special ability to depict two emotions simultaneously. Much of Schubert’s music is poised between major and minor, between the dark and the light. A silver lining is to be found hidden in his thickest clouds and, just as potently, the happiest phrase is liable to conceal a shower of tears which are visible (and audible) just over the edge of the horizon. In another composer’s hands happiness is a simple thing, uncomplicated and unalloyed, but Schubert’s major-key music is often suffused with an undercurrent of sadness: he is painfully aware that the blessed state of joy must end all too soon. On the other hand, he is far from being a depressed and self-pitying composer: in the darkest tragedy there is always a consoling beam of light, in the midst of the coldest season there is always a ‘Frühlingsglaube’ – a belief that the consoling spring breezes will soon soothe the frozen ravages of winter.
Of course, the Uhland setting Frühlingsglaube is a song of much deeper emotion, or rather of greater longing and vulnerability than Lachen und Weinen. In the first song the singer hopes for a sign of change, and that may include a prospect of reciprocated love. In the second we guess that we are hearing of a love affair in full flight, and we have no fears for the eventual happiness of the protagonist. If introspection is momentarily built into the music, it is a seriousness that is built only to be knocked down seconds later; there is certainly no sign of loneliness. Friedrich Rückert, in writing his collection entitled Östliche Rosen, was deeply influenced by Goethe’s sybaritic West-Östlicher Divan, and the song Lachen und Weinen has much in common with Schubert’s Goethe setting Geheimes24. Both songs are in A flat major, and both pulsate with the ardent energy of youthful love; they both seem to suggest a world of wooing and lovemaking where courtly formality is underscored by complex amatory intrigue (an eastern version of Verlaine’s Fêtes galantes perhaps). Sexual licence lies close to the surface, under the veneer of pudeur.
Lachen und Weinen, which consists of a teasingly capricious game of feelings somewhat akin to ‘he loves me; he loves me not’, is also distantly related to Seit ich ihn gesehen from Schumann’s Frauenliebe und -leben (a girl so in love as to feel herself struck blind, and who withdraws from the world to nurse her grieving happiness). Transfer Schumann’s suffering lover to a Persian setting, a perfumed seraglio perhaps, and relieve her of her German earnestness, and you have the singer of Schubert’s song. Private emotions reserved for the Biedermeier bedchamber in Schumann’s cycle are more frankly displayed in Lachen und Weinen, and the oriental body language of arched eyebrow or pouting lip seem built into the music. The two songs, utterly different in mood and means, have one important thing in common: they are about being so much in love that the singer does not know whether to laugh or cry.
The composer uses the poem’s first words as a title. In a later edition of Rückert’s poems (which Schubert never saw) the poet titles it Lachens und Weinens Grund (‘The reason for laughter and tears’). Although there is nothing in Rückert’s text which confines this song to a female singer (and it is sometimes sung by male artists) there is something about Schubert’s music which suggests feminine capriciousness, the characteristics perhaps of an imagined eastern girl, younger sister to Suleika. (Richard Capell writes of ‘the fling of some tempestuous petticoat’.) The nimble piano introduction contains a pair of little turns, challenging figurations which are executed by the accompanist’s fingers like pirouettes on point. This alone suggests femininity. The weaving of this music, where each note of these little roulades has to be clearly heard, the pianistic equivalent of a dancer turning on the head of a pin (particularly tricky for accompanists with large hands), is superbly descriptive of emotions darting back and forth, in and out of a lovers’ maze. The third and fourth bars are a repeat of the first two; this encapsulates the ‘either/or’ mood of the singer’s dilemma as first one emotion is tried out and then another, albeit with exactly the same music. The perfection in the part-writing is also notable: the left hand is made up of a gentle little melody which is singable in its own right; the two staves, which delicately intermesh as if they were gears of the tiniest watch mechanism, might have been scored for clarinet and bassoon, winds tenderly blowing in the same direction. In the fifth full bar (which leads back to the cadence in the home key) there is a piquant use of a miniature upper pedal: beneath a roof of mezzo staccato E flats, the ascending scale in thirds between the hands suggests something deliciously clandestine – the nursing of a lover’s secret emotions. It is also not the only time in the song that E flat is a pivot of ambivalence.
The melody of the opening four-bar phrase (‘Lachen und Weinen zu jeglicher Stunde’) is a Schubertian miracle, the memorability of which knows no explanation; it rolls gently down the stave (incorporating an upward inflection for ‘Lachen’ and a downward one for ‘Weinen’). The most elegant and spare three-part writing between voice and piano momentarily moves into four to include a touch of minor-key harmony on ‘jeglicher’. This touch reminds us of the song’s oriental background, and of Schubert’s delight in such gentle yet exotic colour. Indeed, the composer likes this music so much that the next line of the poem is set to four bars of exactly the same music and accompaniment. This repetition is typical of the delightful symmetry built everywhere into the song’s plan: laughter and tears are weighed, one against the other, and found to be, on balance, of equal importance.
With talk of sunrise and sunset (‘Morgens lacht’ ich vor Lust’) Schubert introduces the dactylic rhythm which is how he sometimes depicts things that are cosmic; he reserves this rhythm (long-short-short) for such pre-ordained things as starlight and the turning of the world, the immutable aspects of living and dying. The use of the dactyl usually implies something serious (as in Der Tod und das Mädchen11 and Der Wanderer32 for example) but here, apart from the progress of day into night in measured degrees, it paints the dynamic nature of love itself and the perky character of the singer whose ‘Lust’ is set as a merry melisma which jumps a fourth (B flat to E flat) and holds the note over the bar line. Suddenly, that suspended E flat changes colour as the accompanying chord slips from A flat major to A flat minor. Another song from the same period – the Stolberg setting Auf dem Wasser zu singen19 – is built on exactly this conjunction of harmony and on the same device of a held E flat in the vocal line which seems to change colour and mood by the intervention of the piano’s harmonies. In Auf dem Wasser zu singen with its interplay of A flat major and A flat minor, the singer muses about the contrast between his joy in the beauty of his surroundings, and his sadness at the passing of time and his own mortality. The singer in Lachen und Weinen similarly muses, if not in the same manner as befits a friend and colleague of Goethe, then in a way that suggests a young person in love.
The next line of poetry and the following vocal phrase (‘Und warum ich nun weine’) stays poised on E flat (with the exception of an expressive appoggiatura which pushes ‘weine’ up to an exotic F flat). Underneath this, the piano pulsates for some five bars on chords in dactylic rhythm which remain rooted on E flat7, as if to emphasise that here is an open question awaiting an answer. The result is a cleverly engineered pause in the harmonic content of the music, despite its continuing rhythmic impetus. The following phrase is something of great beauty; the singer who has struck us as pert now reveals her uncertainty and humility. At the opposite end of the day she no longer feels like laughing; now being in love makes her weep. This new-found insecurity (to the words ‘Bei des Abendes Scheine’) takes place over the accompanist’s’ descent in minim chords (F flat major – C flat major – D flat minor – A flat minor) which slips down the stave in a way that suggests sunset, an impression of a slow slide which is visually strengthened by sweeping phrase marks which link one minim chord with another. The lack of any propulsion from the piano – no dancing quavers or dactylic rhythm in this passage – adds to the power of a sudden note of seriousness. With the final word of the line we find ourselves once more in A flat minor. This in turn is soon to be contradicted.
The singer gives herself a crotchet rest (plus a fermata) to ponder this anomaly – why is she happy in the morning, and sad at night? Just when we might be expecting a soulful Schubertian answer, we get instead one of the most remarkable shrugs in song literature. In major-key music which is once again animated by snappy dactylic rhythm she tells us twice that she does not know the answer to the question (‘Ist mir selb’ nicht bewusst’). There is something about the setting of these words (‘quick and voluble … light and girlish’ as Capell puts it) which suggests that she no longer cares about the answer, that prolonged introspection is not her forte. And generations of listeners have loved her all the more for her inability to search her soul. A German lover might have reflected further with brow-knitting intensity, but this singer, let us not forget, is supposed to be oriental, and she does not forget that love, for all its complexity and paradoxes, should be more enchantment than burden. The piano echoes the vocal line’s repetition of ‘Ist mir selb’ nicht bewusst’ and, following this, the music of the ritornello which served as Vorspiel is now the interlude which bridges the two halves of the song.
The second verse, and what Schubert does with it, reinforces the impression that Lachen und Weinen has a unique shape for a song: one may say that this cleverly modified strophic song is constructed as an exquisite palindrome, a palindrome of exquisite construction where the song is strophic and modified cleverly. The text of the second verse reverses the word-order to ‘Weinen und Lachen’ and although for eight bars the music is the same as for the corresponding eight bars in the first verse, the dactylic section begins this time in A flat minor. ‘Abends weint’ ich vor Schmerz’ is, not surprisingly, sung in the minor key, and this time it is the word ‘Schmerz’ which leaps up a fourth and holds on to the E flat tied across the bar line. Underneath this it is once again the piano’s role to be contradictory: this time, underneath that ambiguous E flat, it insists on A flat major to cancel out the minor key mood of ‘Schmerz’. The most important difference between the first and second strophes is at ‘Und warum du erwachen kannst am Morgen mit Lachen’ where the music now has to be lively enough to mirror the idea of morning laughter. To achieve this, Schubert lifts the tessitura of the vocal line and underpins it by tightening the harmonic screw: E flat7 is followed by A flat7, and the music arrives in the key of D flat major for the highest, brightest phrase in the piece – ‘Morgen mit Lachen’. This is followed by a whole bar’s rest, as well as a fermata. Once again this time to ponder proves more than long enough for the patience of the singer. Her question to her heart (‘Muss ich dich fragen, o Herz’) receives no reply; and nor is she expecting one. She is prepared to write the whole thing off as one of those inscrutable mysteries of life best left with a question mark hanging over them … ‘Oh well. Heigh ho.’
Once again the piano echoes the music of what has just been sung before repeating the enchanting ritornello (we hear those dancing ornamental turns for the third time in less that number of minutes) which leads the song to its conclusion. The final impression is not one of deep introspection. But we are left with the experience of an intricate and perfect musical mechanism which is totally at the service of the poet and the poem’s simple paradox. The mood of the words is ideally matched by the musical means without any waste of resource. At this stage of his life Schubert knew exactly how much (or how little) it was necessary to do in order to match the poet’s intention. It is also a perfect character piece of a lover who glimpses, if only for a moment, the seriousness of being in love. But the moment is not enough to deflect her from her joyful enjoyment of living in the present. Let others analyse, she refuses to let the darker clouds intimidate her for more than a passing moment. But in that moment is the song’s greatness.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000
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