Although Schumann could not have known this setting before 1844, it is rather surprising that this is one of the songs which seems closest to his musical world. We detect here that same love of the magic of wood and forest which is part of so many Schumann songs (cf. the mood of Im Walde from the Op 39 Liederkreis [also in 6/8] and of Waldesgespräch from the same cycle which begins with a fanfare of horn-calls). Schubert did not belong to an age which was interested in authentic folk song, although he might have been fascinated by it if he had lived another twenty years. Instead he wrote his own folk songs (as Ravel once remarked of Poulenc), and there is a simplicity and directness here, combined with an air of mysterious melancholy (the title is ‘Consolation’ after all) which we find again and again in the river and forest evocations of Schumann when he set the poets Eichendorff and Kerner. The song leaves one with a sense of unease, probably due to the succession of subtle interrupted cadences where every statement, however seemingly definite, is undermined by harmonic doubt. Once again this seems more typical of the age of Schumann than of Schubert. The final cadence ‘Denn die Teure deckt das Grab’ with ominous shifts in the falling bass line is strongly reminiscent of ‘und mich schauert’s im Herzensgrunde’ from Schumann’s Im Walde (cf. the dotted minims of ‘Grab’ and ‘schauert’s’, both floating above stealthy harmonic skulduggery in the bass).
Only two verses appear in the song’s original autograph, and these make up a complete musical strophe. The repeat marks at the end imply that Schubert intended two further strophes to be sung, and the listener is only too happy to hear the music of this rare song once again.
About the poet Johann Mayrhofer, his influence on the composer’s life is literally incalculable and seeps into every aspect of Schubert research. To describe what Schubert learned from Goethe, Schiller, Schlegel and Novalis is comparatively easy as we may read the same works that were available to the composer. But Mayrhofer’s conversation and artistic advice (spoken words for ever lost to us, of course) had the greatest bearing on Schubert’s development; the poet had learned much from a lifetime of reading and was ready to share his knowledge. Important to Schubert’s development were the books in Mayrhofer’s library, the works of art – painting and sculpture – he knew about, the theatrical pieces which he had seen, the composers he admired (Gluck and Mozart above all), and his aesthetical and political viewpoints. And Schubert first met Mayrhofer at the age of seventeen before he had left home and when he was at his most impressionable. He found himself in the company of someone ten years older, cultivated and knowledgeable, who was deeply interested in all the arts (he had a fine ear for music, Spaun tells us), who admired Schubert’s songs and who was a fine, if unusual poet – a friend, adviser and collaborator united in one person. Schubert must have been like a sponge soaking up the intellectual stimulation lacking from his own home and not yet evident from the circle of his school contemporaries.
Mayrhofer had originally been destined for the priesthood. He studied theology at the monastery of St Florian but then followed legal studies at Vienna University. Like countless other Viennese men of similar background and training, and who fitted in nowhere else in particular, he was drawn into the vast and ramshackle Austrian civil service. He was considered literary enough to be appointed book censor which was one of the major paradoxes of his life: he made his living enforcing illiberal, repressive and petty laws when in political sympathy he was a liberal and free spirit. At times he must have felt himself to be a time-bomb within the establishment, sharing the mole-like state of Antony Blunt or Guy Burgess, although he lacked any of the ideologically tempting espionage opportunities enjoyed by those highly educated misfits. The stringent censorship of which he passionately disapproved must have added to the burdens of an intrinsically gloomy and pessimistic nature. He was an acknowledged misogynist and, although there is no proof, it seems likely that he was homosexual by nature. There are certain songs based on Classical literature such as Memnon and Atys which seem to be the product of a ‘gay’ temperament, proud of his tribulations on an intellectual level because they made him unusual, and yet guilt-ridden and secretive because of the repressive attitudes of those times. It is above all the long ballad Uraniens Flucht, based on the imaginary trials of the persecuted Venus-Urania (who appears in Plato’s Symposium as the patron goddess of love between men), which is most revealing of Mayrhofer’s sympathies. He attempted to model his life on the classics and Platonic philosophy, and it is highly unlikely that he was an uninhibited and licentious sensualist. The highest standards of love and affection in his eyes might have included sexual abstinence or, at the very least, high-minded reticence. If sexual love for him was a responsibility and trial rather than a celebration, it is possible that he sublimated his feelings and rejoiced in the possibility of playing a father-figure role to young Schubert’s ephebe. We shall never know. But it is certain that there were other influences in Schubert’s life, heterosexual ones, which encouraged a more permissive lifestyle than anything officially countenanced by Mayrhofer the self-controlled ascetic. One can imagine the poet as possessive, controlling and punctilious – almost over-aware of a responsibility to nurture and protect the young genius. It is perhaps for this reason that the composer moved out of Mayrhofer’s claustrophobic apartment in the Wipplingerstrasse at the beginning of 1821 and decided to live on his own.
Schubert first met Mayrhofer through Josef von Spaun who later described the poet as his oldest friend. Mayrhofer had been part of the Freundeskreis from Linz which also numbered Anton von Spaun and Johann Senn among its members. Spaun had persuaded the young composer to set the poem Am See in 1814, and soon afterwards Schubert was taken to meet Mayrhofer himself. The circumstances of that meeting, and the appearance of the room as described by the poet, can be read in the introductory essay to this volume. Schubert was probably mightily impressed by being able to talk to a fellow creator of some standing who was nearer his own age than Salieri and his other teachers. By 1814 he had set the work of dead poets like Schiller and Hölty, of distinguished German writers such as Matthisson and Fouqué, and of course of that distant literary god, Goethe. But Mayrhofer was the first Viennese resident that Schubert had set to music, and meeting him was his first experience of a real live poet. The majority of the Mayrhofer settings date from 1816/7, but who is to say how much Mayrhofer was responsible for the width and depth of the reading in 1815 that led to the miracle of that great song year? And surely his influence can be detected in some of the diary entries that Schubert made in 1816, one of which reads ‘to a free man, matrimony is a terrifying thought … he exchanges it either for melancholy, or for crude sensuality’. We are grateful to Mayrhofer, above all, for introducing Schubert to the world of Greek antiquity. Not only did the composer set all the Mayrhofer poems on Greek-influenced texts listed below, but the poet was no doubt responsible for pointing out Goethe’s Ganymed to Schubert; Die Götter Griechenlands is a fragment of a much longer poem by Schiller, and its selection for setting also has the hallmarks of such a recommendation. The fact that Schubert discovered Frühlingsglaube (Mayrhofer wrote a complementary poem called Lenzglaube) reflects the poet’s admiration for Ludwig Uhland.
When Schubert moved out of the Wipplingerstrasse he continued to set Mayrhofer’s poetry from time to time; he even dedicated to him the songs of Op 21 – three of the poet’s poems. Mayrhofer was present at a Schubertiad at Bruchmann’s in 1823 and also at the famous Schubertiad at Josef von Spaun’s on 15 December 1826. Between those dates it has always been thought that poet and composer fell out for some reason; the fact that Schubert failed to subscribe to the 1824 printing of Mayrhofer’s poems has been taken as evidence of this by a number of scholars. The poet explained it thus: ‘The course of events, social attachments, illness and change in our attitudes to life kept us apart in later years.’ Throughout these years it is agreed that Mayrhofer retained his enthusiasm for Schubert’s music and his veneration for his friend’s genius. Schubert’s premature death apparently depressed him mightily. He attempted suicide in 1831 and finally succeeded in 1836 when he jumped from a high window in the Censorship office and died some forty hours later. With him perished some of the most detailed first-hand memories of Schubert and his music. Only Franz von Schober knew as much about Schubert as Mayrhofer, but although Schober lived to be an old man, he too was remarkably reticent in speaking in any personal detail about his former friend.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997
Other albums featuring this work