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The four-part song in question, Gebet by Fouqué, was composed by Schubert in Zseliz, in September 1824, as I can prove from the manuscript, which I have. In order to tell the not uninteresting history of this piece of music, I must first explain that every member of the very musical Esterhazy family sang. The count sang bass, the countess and the younger daughter, Karoline, sang contralto; the latter’s voice was charming but weak and so, when there was general music-making, she occupied herself solely with accompanying, at which she excelled. The elder daughter, Marie, sang soprano most beautifully, as I have already mentioned. My humble self, for I was frequently at the Esterhazy’s, completed the quartet, as a high baritone …
One morning in September 1824, in which year I once again spent some weeks in Zseliz with my friends, Countess Esterhazy invited Meister Schubert during breakfast, which we all took together, to set to music for our four voices a poem of which she was particularly fond; it was the above-mentioned Gebet. Schubert read it, smiled inwardly, as he usually did when something appealed to him, took the book and retired forthwith, in order to compose. In the evening of the same day we were already trying through the finished song at the piano from the manuscript. Schubert accompanied it himself. If our joy and delight over the Master’s splendid work were already great that evening, these feelings were still further enhanced the next evening, when it was possible to perform the splendid song with greater assurance and certainty from the vocal parts, which had now been written out by Schubert himself, the whole thereby gaining in intelligibility. It is understandable that anyone familiar with this opus and its not exactly small dimensions will feel sceptical of the truth of what I have said, when he realizes, in addition, that Schubert produced this work in barely ten hours. It certainly seems incredible, but it is nevertheless true. After all, Schubert was the man for that kind of thing, this heaven-inspired clairvoyant who, as it were, simply shook his most glorious things out of his sleeve (to use a colloquial expression). The composition was unknown to the public at that time, as it was written for the E. family, and the manuscript was acquired from Schubert on the condition that it was not to be published.
Although one wonders whether Schubert was ever actually addressed as ‘Meister’ when he was at Zseliz (he was unknown in 1824, world-famous by the time Schönstein wrote this), it is unsurprising that people were astounded that he had finished this rather substantial work – fifteen pages long in the old Gesamtausgabe – in the course of a single day’s work. The poem is a long one, and it must have taken the composer some time even to work out how he should best subdivide and allocate it between the voices. One can hardly imagine him selecting this text himself. (The mature Schubert was no admirer of religious patriotism which linked war with the Church; we know this from his reactions to the site of a religious battle which he came across during his summer holiday of 1825.) But once the request had been made, that ‘inward smile’ discerned by Schönstein must have been the realisation that he could make something out of the poem appropriate to the circumstances.
As it turned out, a court composer like Haydn could hardly have been more brilliantly accommodating; every decision concerning this setting was taken in relation to the social and musical hierarchies of Count and Countess, the daughter of the household (one of them at least) and their singing guest. For example, the passage where the poet hopes that he will be found to be worthy of his ancestors was naturally allocated to the noble pater familias. The piece is hard enough to have challenged the Esterhazys and Schönstein without tripping them up. And Schubert was kind enough to have played the piano himself, sparing Karoline the task of sight-reading a score of some difficulty (those ever-recurring left-hand semiquaver triplets are very tricky). It is curious that the performance of the best documented work to be composed in Zseliz should exclude only one member of the family, the very one with whom Schubert was said to be deeply in love.
In the Schubertian world of tonality the key of A flat major is appropriate for prayers and meditations – one thinks of the Kyrie, Benedictus (both wonderfully beatific) and the radiant closing pages of the relatively recently composed Mass in A flat. Also in this key are the vocal quartet Der 23. Psalm31, and the songs Im Abendrot31 and Auf dem Wasser zu singen19. The introduction sets the scene where noble tranquillity is combined with a frisson of movement in the bass line, a figure as appropriate for the bubbling brook of the ‘Urquell’ in a piano dynamic, as for the forte rolling of battle-drums. One wonders whether it was those insinuating semiquaver triplets in the left hand, at first gentle and then military, which made Schönstein say that Schubert ‘shook his most glorious things out of his sleeve’. In playing this music the pianist has that very sensation.
The poem’s first verse is given over to music for all four voices combined; at first this is gentle and pious, but to illustrate the two-sided aspect of God’s powers, ‘Güte’ (goodness) and ‘Macht’ (power), it progresses to a broad pomposo section for the imagery of battles and feasts. The middle section of the verse begins quietly but it climbs to a forte dynamic, and then ends with a hushed repetition of the strophe’s two opening lines (a touching moment this).
Now comes the time to introduce the singers one by one, and Schubert uses the poem’s next two strophes to do so, each singer allocated four lines of the poem as a solo. Of the three singers of the Esterhazy family, the young countess Marie had the greatest vocal virtuosity, a voice with a dramatic edge to it. Accordingly she is given a twelve-bar solo (beginning ‘Du siehst in dies mein Herze’) replete with an ornamented vocal line and a sustained high B flat. Piano triplets nicely depict the flickering of candles at ‘Mild winkt der Heimat Kerze’. Elsewhere the accompaniment in dotted rhythms suggests Italian opera; certainly these fervent words are worthy of a ‘Giovanna d’Arco’. Obviously Marie, aged twenty-two, was a figure of some temperament who expected the composer-in-residence to arrange for her to shine in this line-up. Marie’s passage ends on D flat major and is followed by a much gentler solo for her mother in B flat minor (beginning ‘Mit mir in eins zusammen schlingt’); again the change of tessitura exactly caters for the Countess’s expressive but not particularly wide-ranged alto voice.
An interlude of drumrolls announces the Count whose words, and the martial manner of their setting, suggests an experienced man of war (‘Bereit bin ich zu sterben’). The ‘Weib und Kind’ (wife and child) of whom he speaks are standing next to him in the quartet line-up, and one can imagine the smiles of complicity exchanged in this piece of family music-making. Finally it is time for the honoured guest, Baron von Schönstein, whose abilities are practically in the professional class. He called himself a ‘high baritone’, a term which can also be a euphemism for a tenor without much of a top. Schubert knows this and keeps his part, strictly speaking the tenor line, within the bounds of his range – no higher than a G. But Schönstein was an accomplished musician, and the rhythm he is made to tackle is more complex, and the ornamentation of his part more profuse than that of the others. (Some of this may have stemmed from the singer himself as it was Schönstein who handed his copy of the autograph over for publication in 1840.) His passage is heroic within limits, but does not upstage the grandeur of Count Esterhazy’s simpler and more stoic utterances. The return of the opening left-hand triplet rhythms in this section shows the hand of the composer at work as he cleverly crafts this disparate cantata into a convincing unity.
The poem’s fourth verse is a varied repetition of the first; it is here that Schubert, hard pressed to finish his task, saved himself a little time. Fortunately the new words fit the music extremely well. The gentle A flat music of the quartet’s opening suits the text’s references to peace and calm, and the second half of the strophe, in contrast, is ideal for ‘Licht in Sturmesnacht’ and descriptions of the Almighty’s love and strength (Lieb’ und Stärke’). Once again the verses’ final lines are repeated in the hushed echo of a transitional passage (including a tiny solo passage for the Count) but Schubert so arranges it that this ends in the key of E flat major, enabling the final movement to begin in the home key of A flat.
So far the music has all been in duple time but, for the last verse of the poem, Schubert changes to 3/4 with a new tempo marking of ‘Andantino’. Here the lead is taken by the tenor voice – Baron von Schönstein. That he should have been given this discreetly starring role at the conclusion of the piece once again shows Schubert’s sense of social niceties. The Baron was after all the guest of the house, and it was acknowledged that his links with the musical world were the strongest. The three other singers echo each of his phrases, sometimes joining him in four-part harmony, but mostly allowing him a moment of glory. This strophe is then enjambed with a repeat of Fouqué’s opening verse set in a grandly Baroque-oratorio manner with all the trappings: a pile-up of voices, churning semiquaver accompaniment, and a touch of imitative part-writing. A lesser composer might have ended here in a blaze of glory, but not Schubert, even if he was in a hurry to get the piece ready by dinner time. We return to the poem’s closing verse for a gently lyrical soprano solo (Schubert’s singing pupil Marie has been a little neglected since the opening) and now it is the other three parts which echo her musical phrases. The accompaniment is now in amiably purling semiquavers. This leads to the quartet’s final page, and perhaps its most beautiful – a repeat of the words ‘Ruh’ ich auf alle Weise doch einst im Himmel aus’. The mood here is reminiscent of a gentle cantilena from an Italian bel canto opera. The piano writing becomes simpler, slower and more transparent; An A flat major arpeggio wafts first up, then down both piano staves. The vocal lines at last settle, every one, on different notes in an A flat major chord, the words slowed down to muted dotted minims. ‘Mezzo staccato’ chords in the piano magically convey the ascension of souls, reaching the top of the keyboard with the singer’s dying breath. We are reminded of the postlude to Ganymed.
Although Schönstein found the speed of writing exceptional, it seems to have been all in a day’s work for Schubert. If we knew the exact timetable of many of his greater compositions (he had written as many as seven single songs in a day in 1815) we should probably find ourselves even more surprised.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000
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