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|The Songmakers' Almanac, Dame Felicity Lott (soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)» More|
This by common consent is one of Schubert’s great songs, much loved and often performed (though not always well). It is his only setting of the important Swabian poet Ludwig Uhland, and although these lines are famous and adequate to Schubert’s needs, they are not the poet’s greatest literary achievement. The song however shines with the inner glow, a rhapsodic Innigkeit, which we have come to recognize as an inherently Schubertian quality. The quiet and gentle optimism that life will surely get better, that happiness lies just around the corner, seems appropriate to what we know of the composer’s own stoicism in the face of failed hopes and personal tragedy. Even when he wrote, in the years of his illness, of his disappointment and desperation, the music continued to flow, unadulterated by bitterness and rancour. The belief, expressed in this song, that springtime will soon come, has the bright-eyed radiance of a dying child – Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop, or Beth in Little Women. The essential goodness of these characters does not seem all that far away from Schubert himself as we have come to perceive him through his music. When Nell, Beth or Franz speak or sing of a better, sunnier life the reader, or the listener, knows that these hopes will never come to fruition – at least not on this side of the grave.
There is danger in this bittersweet mixture of emotions. Like all songs where we sense the narrator has suffered a great deal, Frühlingsglaube teeters precariously on the borders of sentimentality and, if performers are determined to milk it for all its possibilities of pathetic expression, it can easily take on the characteristics of a lachrymose Victorian ballad. The secret of a truly moving performance lies in the tempo. Schubert’s marking ‘Ziemlich langsam’ means ‘rather slow’, and it is the interpretation of the ‘rather’ which is the nub. The time signature is 2/4 and it is the crotchet, not the quaver, which is the main beat. Performers who favour four slow quavers in the bar rather than the two crotchets may seem to gain something in terms of emotional import, but the ‘linden Lüfte’ which ‘säuseln und weben’ lose their fragrant lightness, and the song becomes leaden and sad rather than a floating vision of hope eternal.
There can be little argument, however, that Frühlingsglaube is indeed, in the final reckoning, a sad song, but it is not for the performers to actively promote the work’s inherent pathos. This shines through the music of its own accord, together with an in-built awareness of the frailty of human hopes, and of life itself. If an actor has to play a tragic figure, the power of that role is that the character is not yet aware of a tragic outcome, even if the audience is. Similarly the emotional power of this song is engendered by the difference in viewpoint between the performer who is confident that everything will change for the better (‘Nun muss sich Alles, Alles wenden’) and those listening who know that spring will not come for this singer, or for Schubert for that matter. Thus the singer and the text rejoice while the music itself leads the listener to another conclusion entirely: we hear so much gratitude for so little reward, and all of it so soon to be betrayed, and the effect is almost unbearably poignant. How different this is from Mendelssohn’s breezy and energetic song (Op 9 No 8, 1830) which reflects Uhland’s words perfectly – but on only one level. This was a twenty-one-year-old composer who had not yet known a significant setback. And there is no clue in the music that Mendelssohn knew Schubert’s setting, although the printed song would have been available to him.
Of course there is a temptation to interpret a number of songs within the context of Schubert’s biography, but even those sceptical of this practice would allow that this song and Die Taubenpost seem especially linked to Schubert the man, and his understanding, almost unique among musicians, that pain and melancholy, and the unflinching acceptance of them as part of life’s costs, are indispensable ingredients of joy and happiness. Die Taubenpost was written right at the end of the composer’s life, Frühlingsglaube long before his illness and final years. No matter, for the nature of songs is formed by the deep inner character of a composer rather than by outside events. This song reflects the composer’s astonishing and humbling ability to rejoice in the beauty of the world, in the here and now. He gave out love (in both musical and personal terms) and expected little, if anything, in return. The greatest of the Schubert songs seem to incorporate an element of the man himself: naive sophistication, charming directness, graceful earthiness, unsparing, even painful, honesty – a simple joy in being alive now. These things animate Frühlingsglaube with a breath of life; why a seemingly simple work like this can vibrate with humanity when grander works by lesser composers remain lumps of musical clay, is one of the mysteries of music.
Of the many great German poets who have lived and worked in the beautiful university town of Tübingen (among them Hölderlin and Mörike) Ludwig Uhland was the only one to have been born there. He showed precocious gifts and studied law from the age of fourteen. His friendship with Justinus Kerner (set by Schumann in his Op 35) dates from these early years, as does Uhland’s love of folk song and medieval poetry. He was soon regarded as a leading member of the so-called Swabian School of the Romantic movement. He made a visit to Paris as a young man in order to study the Code Napoléon, and also researched medieval manuscripts in the Bibliothèque Nationale. His Gedichte were published in 1815 and the bulk of his creative work dates from his early years. For example, his Wanderlieder (1813) were much admired by Wilhelm Müller and thus influenced the Schubert of the great cycles, and not only poetically. It is highly likely that Schubert knew Frühlingslieder and Wanderlieder, the two Uhland cycles of Conradin Kreutzer (1780-1849) written sometime before 1818. The Wanderlieder seem to have played a significant part as models for the shape and mood of Winterreise.
Uhland had a distinguished career as a lawyer, and also as a politician representing both Tübingen and Stuttgart as a member of parliament. He combined this work with that of an ever more highly regarded literary scholar. Although he wrote a volume of patriotic verses in 1817, his reputation was as a liberal (he was unpopular with many conservatives), and he was shocked by the repressive measures taken against students and intellectuals. He was briefly a member of the new German parliament in Frankfurt (1848/9) which was the outcome of the revolutions of 1848.
The poetry of Uhland was much admired by Mayrhofer (who would have been aware of the poet’s liberal anti-demagogic sympathies, and it was probably Mayrhofer who showed Frühlingsglaube to Schubert. Walter Dürr has pointed out that the poem itself may have had political implications: Uhland wrote it in 1812 when a new political spring, and freedom from Napoleonic domination, was around the corner. Perhaps Mayrhofer read the text and imagined a political Utopia in Vienna without censorship and police repression. In any case Schubert’s interpretation seems personal rather than political. When he published the song (as part of his Op 20) he grouped it together with Sei mir gegrüsst! and Hänflings Liebeswerbung. These songs were dedicated to Justine von Bruchmann, the mother of his friend Franz von Bruchmann, who was recovering from bereavement – her daughter Sybille had died in 1820. The commentary on Sei mir gegrüsst! suggests the elegiac possibilities of that song, and it is likely that Frühlingsglaube would also have been taken as a consolatory gesture, a decent interval after Sybille’s death, by its dedicatee. Schumann, Brahms and Richard Strauss later all set Uhland’s verse with enthusiasm.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997
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