This, like Mahomets Gesang
, is another heroic fragment. It was composed at about the time that Erlkönig
was first performed publicly by Vogl, and it seems that the composer was inspired by that song’s success to return to Goethe in epic mood, with a crowd-pulling virtuoso piano accompaniment to match. The subject matter is not altogether promising, but Zelter set it for chorus, and Loewe would have made something of it, unlike Schubert who lost heart quite early in the proceedings. The subtitle of Goethe’s poem reads ‘In memory of the virtuous and beautiful seventeen-year-old girl [Johanna Sebus] from the village of Bremen who, on 13 January 1809, during the freezing of the Rhine and great collapse of the dam at Claverham, died while bringing help’. This immediately brings to mind a much earlier Schubert song from 1814, the first of all the Mayrhofer settings, Am See
. That poem was written in honour of Duke Leopold of Brunswick who had lost his life in 1785 while attempting to rescue his subjects from drowning, and in Johanna Sebus
Schubert returns to the same theme of a gallant rescuer overcome by the enemy – in this case water. In terms of mood, tonality and metre (D minor in 4/4) it is strikingly reminiscent of the final pages of Der Taucher
, the gigantic Schiller ballad which occupied Schubert at the age of sixteen and which describes the bravery of an intrepid youth who eventually dives to his death. The churning semiquavers in both works are similar, as well as the idea behind them. At this point the Schiller poem reads ‘Es kommen, es kommen die Wasser all, Sie rauschen herauf, sie rauschen nieder, Doch den Jüngling bringt keines wieder’ (‘The waves keep on returning. Surging, they rise and fall; Yet not one will bring back the youth’). In any case, it would seem that Schubert, ever water-orientated, had something of a fascination with drowning, quite apart from the songs mentioned above: in Goethe’s Der Fischer
(1815) the fisherman is lured to a watery grave by the Lorelei; in Der Zwerg
(1822) the eponymous anti-hero drowns himself in the sea (like Peter Grimes); and in the final song of Die schöne Müllerin
the young protagonist dies in the millstream.
The tempo marking is ‘Schnell’ (Fast), which is relatively unusual for Schubert. The piece achieves a piano-generated thundering impetus rare in the Lieder, but it simply does not suit this composer’s style. The song begins on a melodramatic ‘high’, and in consequence it has almost nowhere to go – although it is fun while it lasts, and the repeat of the opening D minor music for ‘Der Damm zerschmilzt’ is noteworthy: this time it is transposed to E minor in an attempt to heighten tension. There is a highly-strung hysterical flavour about the piece which does not preclude comedy. There is something very funny about Johanna (whom Goethe also calls ‘Schön Suschen’) worrying about her goat! It is all good German stuff: a strong and beautiful Amazon, respectful to the older generation and kind to animals, a veritable example of the purity of country life for the instruction of the jaded city-dweller. The poem goes on to describe how Johanna, having successfully saved her mother, returns to save the neighbours and perishes in the attempt. Although the incident actually happened there is an air of unreality about the story, and Schubert no doubt abandoned the piece because not a jot of sympathy is engendered on behalf of the heroine; she fails to live as a character, at least in the way the composer has chosen to set the music here. The last thing we hear of Johanna in this song is an outburst of heroic intent: ‘Sie sollen und müssen gerettet sein!’ We are almost in the world of Brünnhilde with this, and it is here that Schubert breaks off, prudently I think. Goethe’s final lines, which point a moral in folk-like manner, would have made an embarrassing end to a song with these dramatic aspirations. Reinhard Van Hoorickx has completed the nine bars of music derived from the earlier accompaniment which bring the piece to a stormy, but inevitably peremptory, close.
Johann Reichardt also composed an accomplished and exciting version of this poem.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997