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|Christine Brewer (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)|
Despite its simple strophic form, this remarkable little song in metaphysical mode is one of Schubert’s most potent single-page settings. It perhaps lacks the concision and clarity of the great Goethe miniatures from 1815 (Meeres Stille, Erster Verlust, Wandrers Nachtlied I) but the poem is hardly the product of a great classical mind. To match the ecstatic ramblings of Silbert, Schubert writes a song which is half hymn and half romantic effusion, clothed in a chromatic musical language where longing borders on eroticism. There could be nothing more suitable than this music – it is as if a Bach chorale is transfigured by the Romantic Zeitgeist – to illustrate Silbert’s claim that his whole being is overcome ‘In wundersüssem Ach’. The opening phrase mentions the breath of God, and we are wafted into a world where His presence floats in the musical ether much in the manner of the fragrance of the beloved in Dass sie hier gewesen. With different words, the music of Himmelsfunken could easily be a love song, swooning for an earthly rather than a heavenly love. Similarly, some of Schubert’s love music (Du bist die Ruh’ for example) would not be out of place if metaphysical poems were to be grafted in the place of the existing texts (heaven forbid!). It is in this border country between the sacred and the profane where this composer is most at home, for his natural inclination is to acknowledge the God-like in all things beautiful. Thus it is that Schubert never writes convincingly sexy songs unless the emotion behind the sexual desire is touched with the awe of worshipful devotion. It is this ambivalence which raises the first song of Suleika to the all-embracing masterpiece of the most mature and deep emotion that Brahms recognized it to be. At this time in particular it seems that Schubert (no doubt much encouraged by the readings and discussions of the Bildung circle and the earnest aspirations of friends like Senn, Bruchmann and Spaun to embrace the true, good and beautiful) attempted to reconcile distrust of religious hypocrisy and empty ceremonial with an innate yearning to comprehend the great issues of life, death and the Infinite.
God moves in mysterious ways, and a feature of this song is the subtlety of the harmonies which gently shift beneath its surface, which is to say in the searching progress of the inner voices which glide into every chromatic nook and cranny. This is apparent from the Vorspiel where the top and bottom notes of the chords are in unison two octaves apart but where the alto and tenor voices of the hymn-like chords add ethereal and piquant accidentals which immediately suggest an improvisation where the organist’s fingers are searching for that elusive lost chord, key to the ‘great Amen’. The harmonic changes that occur under ‘Still wird die Sehnsucht wach’ (the word ‘wird’ is elongated to five beats) are remarkably illustrative of the stirrings of the deepest aspirations of the soul. (This passage works much less well with the words of the subsequent verses.)
There is a great temptation for many performers to take this song too slowly; although marked ‘Langsam’, it seems lugubrious and endless when three slow crotchets are deliberately measured out in each bar. The breath and air mentioned in the song are fluid mediums, and despite its rather solid look on the printed page this song can also be surprisingly fluid if not bogged down in portentousness. The spirit of the words calls for a celestial dance, and a gliding dotted minim counted more or less one-in-a-bar. The loping gait of the music (for this is one of Schubert’s moto perpetuo songs where everything is dominated by one rhythm) is quite hypnotic if a tempo is found which enables the singer to negotiate the long phrases without sounding laboured.
Himmelsfunken has always been known in the key of G major. It was first published as such by Diabelli (and thus by Friedländer in the Peters Edition). Mandyczewski in the Gesamtausgabe also published the song in G major, and the first edition of the Deutsch catalogue also lists the song in this key. The second edition of Deutsch chooses, however, to follow the tonality of a copy of the song made by Schubert’s brother Ferdinand. This is in B flat, and this version of Himmelsfunken has recently (1996) been published in Volume 12 of the song series of the Neue Schubert Ausgabe. In this key, a minor third higher, the song seems light and ethereal and more closely related to the visionary Mayrhofer setting Die Sternennächte which was composed in the same period. The editors of this new edition point out that it is possible that Schubert envisaged that only the first verse of the poem should be performed. If this were so it would explain why only this strophe seems perfectly tailored to the music (in later verses long note-values fall on obviously inessential words like ‘zu’ and ‘wie’).
Johann Silbert was born in Kolmar in Alsace and studied in Mainz. He spent some years as a high-school teacher in the Hungarian towns of Klausenberg and Kronstadt, but he moved to Vienna where he was Professor of French at the Polytechnisches Institut. He was an avid theologian and a friend of the celebrated Redemptorist pastor Clemens Maria Hofbauer who was canonized at the beginning of the twentieth century as Patron Saint of Vienna. Indeed, at the time that Silbert wrote the collection entitled Die heilige Lyra (from which Schubert chose his two settings) Hofbauer was coming to the end of his life, having established his own monastery. Silbert was obviously a devout follower of Hofbauer and one of a large number of essentially amateur poets who elaborated at length on religious issues popular with the reading public. It is likely that the Bildung circle, of which Schubert was a part, discussed recently-published books, and that Silbert’s collection (essentially modest in comparison to the ground-breaking writings of Novalis) came to the composer’s notice in this way.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997
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