In the commentary on Bei dem Grabe meines Vaters (Volume 23), I suggested that the work might have been written to mark the death of a friend’s father; we know that Schubert wrote Grablied für die Mutter (1816) on the occasion of the death of the mother of his schoolfriend, Josef von Streinsberg. As tempted as we may be to connect this song with Schubert’s own memories (in June 1816 the composer noted in his diary that his brother Karl and he had walked by a graveyard ‘which had reminded us of our dear mother’) it is probably associated with a more recent bereavement. At this point in his life Schubert was close to Franz von Bruchmann and his family, and the most likely candidate for elegies of this kind is Franz’s sister Sybille who had died in 1820. We have already noted that the song Sei mir gegrüsst! might be interpreted in this light, and that it was dedicated to Bruchmann’s mother who no doubt continued to suffer for some years on account of the early death of her daughter. It is surely possible that Ihr Grab also relates to Sybille. As a one-off setting of a poem from an almanac (belonging to Frau Bruchmann?) entitled Taschenbuch zum geselligen Vergnügen (‘Pocket-book of sociable pleasures’), the venture has very much the air of a pièce d’occasion, a song composed to please, or comfort, someone else. There is another connection with Sei mir gegrüsst! in that the constant repetition of ‘Dort ist ihr Grab’ (it stands at the beginning of each verse) puts us in mind of the Orient-inspired ghasel form favoured by Rückert and Platen.
The very opening of the song is perhaps its most arresting feature – a G major chord slides upwards to a keening A flat passing note while deep in the bass four quavers growl in something of the manner of Schubert’s ominous bass trills which signify the ephemeral nature of mankind. This bar of music, wonderfully expressive of an inward stab of pain, returns to G major in the third bar. From here it is a short distance to the home key; the left-hand thumb moves up a semitone, and the right-hand thumb moves down a semitone, and we are in the first inversion of E flat major as the voice sings ‘Dort ist ihr Grab’. This avoidance of the tonic in root position gives an other-worldly feel to this announcement. One also notices that, as in An die untergehende Sonne, yet another song in E flat major, the vocal line seems always to be falling as if to show, in the wilting shape of the melody, that the poor girl’s life has bent to the forces of nature like a drooping flower, or had its day – like the setting sun. Schubert leads us through a number of keys during the song, the chromatic inflections always serving the expressiveness of the plaint. The first strophe ends in D flat major, the second passes through C flat major, E flat minor and G flat major, the third begins in B flat major, and the last verse is in E flat major with the tune of the opening supported by flowing quavers rather than statuesque minim chords. Even here the chord of E flat major in root position is avoided almost entirely. It is only in the final two bars of postlude that the song is allowed to come to rest in the security and warmth of the bass clef, as if to say ‘home at last, deep in the earth’.
The continual repetition of the word ‘dort’ throughout the song implies a tearful graveside visit, as if the significance of the loss can still not be properly grasped; the singer has to keep on reminding himself that there she lies, under the ground. The unsettled harmonic world of this song, the repetitive rehearsal of the sad story, leading to eventual resolution, is a perfect musical metaphor for a struggle in coming to terms with the death of a loved one. Those painful, exploratory left-hand quavers which have underpinned the clash of discords in the opening bars are tamed into acceptance only at the postlude where they fit into the harmonic scheme of the home key. The sadness and misery is relatively muted, however, as the expression of grief is kept firmly under control – a characteristic of this composer’s songs of bereavement, which are never hysterical.
Karl August Engelhardt wrote under the pseudonym Richard Roos. He was a friend and contemporary of Theodor Winkler who wrote under the pseudonym Theodor Hell, and also Friedrich Kind. All three poets lived and worked in Dresden and, by strange coincidence, each contributed only one song to the Schubert canon (the Winkler/Hell song is Das Heimweh, the Kind, Hänflings Liebeswerbung). Engelhardt studied as a theologian but worked most of his life as a librarian and civil servant. He was also editor for some years of the Dresden Abendzeitung.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997
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