Nearly twenty years earlier, Schubert was less troubled by questions of literary or musical aesthetics, but the message of Die Gebüsche seems to have been immediately grasped by him; indeed it was specifically this poem which seems to have attracted the composer to the work of the younger Schlegel in the first place. Of course, he was more interested than Schumann in the pantheism of Schlegel's verses; in 1819 the young Schubertians saw this philosophy as an alternative to organised religion. This nocturne is a sequel to the aubade of Goethe's Ganymed, the breeze blowing through the meadows here a counterpart to that poem's 'lieblicher Morgenwind', where Zeus is omnipresent in each manifestation of nature. But Schumann's sense of the poem as a charter for secret initiates could not have been lost on Schubert either. He too believed in drawing close to him a group of friends in the manner of a Davidsbund, a band against the Philistines. This even extended to a secret (if harmless and ineffective) resistance to the repressive Metternich regime, and in 1820 the composer would find himself in trouble with the police alongside some of his other friends, including Johann Senn who was banished from Vienna. In a town of secret societies and secret liaisons, Schlegel's words had an urgent significance at least equal to the role they were later to play in Schumann's life.
Both Einstein and Reed have commented on the music's similarity to the Impromptu [D899 No 3] in G flat (an autograph in G major - the original key of Die Gebüsche - also exists). The song opens in similar tempo, and with a similar accompaniment of flowing arpeggios. The Vorspiel begins with two beats of sextuplets in the tonic key and in all simplicity; in the second bar, the introduction of a D sharp as the bass note, as well as in the right hand, produces the augmented chord which we also find in the second bar of Die Sterne and elsewhere in the Schlegel settings, not to mention elsewhere in this song. This leads to a bar in E minor and a return to the tonic chord before the entry of the voice. In some ways this is a fairly conventional introduction, but it already has a harmonic quirkiness difficult to define, and somehow immediately unlike other Schubert songs - an impression that intensifies, to say the least, as the song progresses. (The augmented chord mentioned above seems to imply the opening of a door into a secret harmonic world; in Die Gebüsche doors seem to open, one after another, on to a dazzling succession of vistas.) As in other Schlegel settings, there is more than a suggestion of Italianate melismata for the singer, and the depiction of the cooling breezes is depicted by the delightful wafting of the vocal line across the stave. A feature of these opening lines is the piano's left hand where a small arpeggio figuration fills the gap between the right hand's arpeggios and those of the vocal line. This gives the impression of one thing in nature setting off another, an overlay of different voices, each a constituent thread of the whole tapestry.
And thus we are launched on an extraordinary journey which takes us over hill and dale in a way that can only be compared to the deceptive technique of Fauré one hundred and seventy years later: seemingly calm and beatific, but seething with harmonic invention in the inner voices. The piquant word-setting and restless series of modulations leave the listener puzzled, delighted and elated, reactions that are utterly appropriate to the poem and the passionate mood behind it. Unlike Der Strom however (which is perhaps the nearest Schubert song to this in terms of restless harmony), there is not a trace of storminess here, and no change of dynamic; the hushed nocturne achieves its impact by other means. There are countless beautiful touches, and each line deserves a comment: for example, the rising and brightening sequence of 'Und nur der Himmel lächelt'; the way that 'tausend hellen Augen' is underpinned by the augmented chord and pricks out its starry brightness with a D sharp ornamenting an A minor arpeggio; in the second strophe the setting of 'Es regt nur eine Seele' is full of longing as if in search of a soul-mate, and a weird and wonderful harmonic journey takes us from the second inversion of D minor at these words to the E major at the end of the verse ('die Blätter rauschen') via B flat7, C minor, B flat minor, A flat major, E flat minor and C flat major. The melodic line of the third strophe is much more static, four variants of nearly the same tune, harmonised somewhat differently it is true, but providing a moment of relative stasis to the structure. This admirably illustrates the repetitiveness of nature, and the idea of wave echoing wave, word following word.
The third strophe ends in D flat major. In a Zwischenspiel, the right hand changes only one note and we slip imperceptibly into C sharp minor, then also by changing only one note, into the first inversion of A major, and so on. This metamorphosis of tonality is positively Goethean in its subtlety, each newly minted arpeggio unfolding like a freshly opening bud as in the Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen ('A new one at once links to the circle that's closed / That the chain may extend into the ages for ever / And the whole be infused amply with life, like the part'). The first words of the final strophe produce a moment of absolute magic: 'Durch alle' is supported by an A7 chord in first inversion; the left hand slips up a semitone and we find ourselves at 'Töne tönet' in the second inversion of G major, a tantalising sideways glance at the home key. Instead of leading us to repose, this simply opens another of those doors into realms ever more heady. Nothing has prepared us for the spectacular setting of 'Ein, nur ein leiser Ton gezogen'. Here Schubert has added the word 'nur', but a glance at Schlegel's poem shows that the poet meant to emphasise the word (it reads 'E i n' in the German manner of printed emphasis) and Schubert obeys the spirit of the poet's demand, despite the disruption of the verse-form. Indeed Schlegel's iambic trimeter is overwhelmed and lost in this lovely flood of music. The setting of 'ein' is on an F, elongated to three-and-a-half beats, and underpinned by a descending scale of crotchets. This is followed by Schubert's 'nur' still on the same F, as loving an anacrusis as he ever wrote. Underneath, we pass through a succession of diminished-seventh chords in flat keys to emerge radiantly from darkness on the second 'ein', an F sharp high in the voice and harmonised by a D major chord in second inversion. We seem here to have entered ethereal spheres, so magical is this music, so completely in tune with Schlegel's imagery. The words rapturously repeated, which refer to the chosen listener - 'Für den, für den' - are excused chromatic inflection, and accorded the almost religious aura of the subdominant (C major) as if the truly understanding soul has been finally encountered in a holy moment. The intrusion of gently leaning accidentals in the vocal line at 'heimlich lauschet' are prophetic of Der Fluss (earlier in the cycle as heard here, but actually composed later) where similar chromatic distortion at 'die Hörer ewig lauschen' makes the ears prick up during the act of intent listening, as if trying to break a code. The song's postlude is an exact repeat of its introduction.
Die Gebüsche is without doubt a very great song. It is not easy to sing, particularly at the quiet dynamic and slow speed (Langsam) requested by the composer, but it repays close study and is one of the high points of what might be termed Schubert's 'experimental' years. It is the magical quality of this piece, as well as of the equally visionary song Abendröte, the twin pillars which enclose the cycle, which prompts the performer of today to attempt to make a unity of the Schlegel songs. An added incentive is to be able to introduce listener to the rapturous world of Friedrich von Schlegel's earlier poetry, one of those special links which binds together the work of Schubert and Schumann, and not altogether by chance.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996
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