It is more than likely that the lead tenor part was written for the same man who sang the first performance of Die Nachtigall, Josef Barth. The time signature (2/4) is the same for both songs, and a somewhat rigid rhythmic template provides the lead tenor with the stable framework he needs later to launch his embroidery of the vocal line, rich with all manner of decorative refinements. Indeed, these works are an interesting source of information about vocal ornamentation of the time; the composer has here written out the type of free ‘improvement’ of the music (for example at ‘Und künden der Liebe selige Lust’) which might have been spontaneously added as a da capo by a contemporary singer with some musical initiative, whether or not Schubert had included these capricious extras in the score. These quartets were written with an unashamed desire to cater for public taste, and in the coloratura of the first tenor line we glimpse the influence of fashionable Italian vocal pyrotechnics, something which the composer was here happy to employ.
None of this is to deny that the piece is thoroughly and delightfully Schubertian. As always when this composer launches into musical dactyls (and there can be few pieces more insistently grounded in dactylic rhythm than this) we are swept along by the irresistible momentum of it all: the music effortlessly carries us away on the wave of smiling enthusiasm. Spring is here depicted as a real life-force, like the stars (cf the similar rhythm of Die Sterne). This is the other side of the coin to the dactylic pace of death (Der Tod und das Mädchen), reminding us that extinction and rebirth are closely related. Mankind, aided by Schubert’s vision, can only regard these natural phenomena with wonder, and join in the dance.
The melody of Frühlingsgesang is a delight – a trippingly ingratiating tune eight bars long which is good enough immediately to repeat, words and all. And we hear this phrase, or variants of it, throughout the piece – never tiring of it. At ‘Begrüsset den Frühling mit heiteren Tänzen’ there is a contrasting four-bar phrase with a high-lying tessitura for the lead singer; the setting of ‘Begrüsset’, with a gentle accent placed high in the tenor line and then falling in obeisance to the triumphant new visitor. These four bars too, in the spirit of round dance, we hear more than once.
The second verse shifts into B minor at mention of winter (‘Der Winter bedroht ihn mit schauriger Kälte’), and the change is chilling. We are suddenly in the region of frozen wastes and blizzards – but not for long, as the return of spring is inevitable. At the third verse (‘Und die treue Erde mit Liebesgeberde’) there is a dreamily contemplative passage in A major, open fifths in the bass, which is hauntingly prophetic of Pause from Die schöne Müllerin. This leads us back to a final repeat of the principal melody, this time much ornamented.
The final verse (marked ‘Heiter doch nicht zu schnell’) is obviously inspired by the words ‘schaffende Kraft’ and is very effective, if somewhat disappointing after the ravishing music of the opening. As in Die Nachtigall, Schubert gives Tenor I a substantial (and technically difficult because high-lying) solo in 6/8 before introducing Tenor II in quasi canon. Bass I enters in the subdominant for his solo, a duet ensues with Bass II, and all four voices join together for the peroration which includes a reminder of the coloratura abilities of the lead tenor. The music whips itself up into a bucolic dance, but the piece ends with a coda where a significant word like ‘Liebe’ is elongated (a high B for Tenor I) to soulful effect. It is a formula that had worked before, and it seems that the quartet singers (and their audiences) expected something along these lines. The sensitivity of the first section is balanced by the manly back-slapping of the second.
There are two versions of this piece. The first, D709, is without piano accompaniment, and it was this version which was performed at the Kärntnertor Theatre on 7 April 1822. The work (sometimes known as Frühlingslied) was published in October 1823 with a piano part, but this is more or less a reduction of the vocal parts. It remains a moot point whether it was provided merely for the convenience of rehearsal, and to keep the singers in tune, or whether the composer actually preferred to hear this music accompanied. The addition of the piano adds a certain weight and colour to the piece which is not unattractive, and the question remains, probably then as now, a matter of taste and practical convenience.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997
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