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Schulze penned this poem on 25 July 1814 at a lookout point on a hilltop overlooking Göttingen known as 'die Bruck'. It was the final stop on a three-day journey through the Eichsfeld which he undertook that summer. Two days before he had written a poem in Bodungen near Nordheim. These two places lie some distance apart and the poet may have conceived the second poem as the hooves of his 'gutes Ross' galloped through the wild country terrain; the strong iambic rhythm suggests not only grim determination (all those strong downbeats thundering through the undergrowth) but a certain march-like exhilaration as he nears Göttingen where his beloved Adelheid lives.
This song is one of the most famous warhorses in the Schubert canon. Gerald Moore used to say that the repeated quavers in the pianist's right hand (some 150 bars of them) were more tiring to play than the notorious triplets of Erlkönig. Auf der Bruck is of course superficially related to this equestrian masterpiece as well as to the other famous Schubertian horse-ride, the tempestuous Wilkommen und Abschied. In that song Goethe was speeding on horseback to see Friederike Brion in Sesenheim; we know that Schulze had no real hope of being similarly well received by Adelheid Thychsen; in a moment of frankness at the end of the second verse he confesses that he is returning not to joy but to sorrow—'zurück zu meinem Leide'. With his almost infallible instinct for empathising with the deeper resonances of poetry, Schubert understands that this 'gutes Ross' and its rider will forever journey in a fruitless quest for peace. In Auf der Bruck there is no sense of starting at one point, and arriving at another. Compare the night ride in Erlkönig and how the music moves us forward with it towards the inevitable conclusion. In the Schulze song the singer is trapped in time like the Flying Dutchman; he does his best to muster courage of a Dutch, or any other variety, but the composer was not deceived by the bluster and bravado, and neither should we be.
Schulze's journey takes place in the mind, and Schubert fixes it in a repetitive strophic form which goes round in circles and matches the obsessive nature of the words. No matter what route the rider tries, he finds himself back at the piano ritornello which is followed by a vocal line on a rising A flat arpeggio which appears to try to fight its way out of a straitjacket. In this modified strophic form, each one of the four verses begins with the same music for the first four lines of poetry; admittedly there is a minor key adaption of this music in Verse 3, but this appropriate to an eclipse of sun and stars. Various excursions lead us hither and thither, but we always return to more or less the same place and the grim, forced jollity of the ritornello. Despite the legendary difficulty of the piano's right hand repetitions, it is the left which holds the reins of power: in a quasi-canon at the half bar it echoes the vocal line obsessively or seems to nudge, stalk, drive the singer forward with staccato spurs. Indeed it is this left hand which is the song's driving force, not only in its obviously impressive octaves which thunder out the interludes between verses, but in the subtle way in which it makes a commentary (the voice of the poet's unconscious pehaps) which undermines the superficial optimism of the top line. Thus it is seldom in Schubert's songs that you will find a bass as deep and ominous as at 'Dehnt auch der Wald sich tief und dicht' (Verse 1). At 'manch Auge lacht mir traulich zu und beut mir Frieden' (Verse 2) the low G flat which clouds the A flat tonality leads the singer on as if inviting him into the forbidden territory of another key and then erupts into a rumble of warning. Such trills are to be heard in the first movement of the late B flat Sonata. Schulze's propensity for womanizing (we know he seduced someone even as his Cäcilie lay dying) leads us to believe that the 'peace' of a one-night stand is what is on offer here. We also know the bitter outcome of Schubert's experience of such friendly offers two years before he composed this song, and the heavy price he paid; there are no cheap trills in Schubert. The music seems to waver here, half pulled into D flat, but the obsession for the girl in Göttingen is stronger (though an erotomania equally doomed) and we turn our gaze once more to the enforced purity of the tonic. Tiny word-setting felicities abound which do honour to the text; thus the implicitly violent implication of 'bald zerrissen' is followed by a bar's interlude where the piano writing is torn (the leap costs pianists some trouble) from one tessitura to another, and with it the voice. The last line of this verse ('Und ach, die Freude musst' ich missen') dispels any illusion that this is a jolly song; the music pushes its way through a thicket of flats and double flats, and this, combined with the high-lying vocal line, powerfully suggests the cry for help of a lost soul. The stormy interlude between verses 3 and 4, different from the others, struggles to take new directions, but governed by a fixation stronger than its longing for freedom, it returns to the home key for the final verse. For this, Schubert reverses the order of Schulze's last two quatrains, presumably because he relishes the chance to play with the imagery of 'Der Sehnsucht helles Auge wacht' in extended and repetitive musical peroration. The word 'Ahnen' provides a beautiful vowel for two elongated vocal cadences. The optimistic note struck here, coming after such recent confessions of despair, is unconvincing, but poet and singer are allowed to persist in their belief that all will work out for the best. The composer and pianist know better. The postlude proves we are in the same old place of self-delusion; like Alice in Wonderland we have to run in order to stay in the same place. Ominous staccatos falling in sequences deep in the bass seem to take a grim glee in sounding the knell of Schulze's hopes. The horse called Obsession, which throughout the song has been more rider than ridden, does not come to a halt here; two final chords, in tempo, tell us that we have merely lost sight of him over the horizon.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993
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