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|Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano)|
Schubert never saw the sea (his water music is largely about brooks, rivers and lakes anyway) and much less did he have the opportunity to visit Venice in the footsteps of so many other German-speaking artists. There were never the financial means in Schubert's life to travel to foreign parts, although Venice, politically speaking at least, was part of his own country. The Queen of Cities had been conquered by Napoleon and had lost its independence in the year of Schubert's birth. Subsequently it came into the hands of Bonaparte's vanquishers (Alfred de Musset wrote a poem, Venise, set by Gounod, which bemoans the injustice of this) and the city was only to break free of this hated domination in 1866 when it became part of a united Italy. In Schubert's time Venice was reduced to being a province of the Hapsburg Empire, and was filled with German-speaking administrative staff, and even clergy. The composer, not renowned for his sympathy with priests, was deeply impressed (according to Schindler, even inspired) by Ladislaus Pyrker (1772–1847) whom he first met in 1820. At this time Pyrker had just been appointed Patriarch of Venice and seems to have valued Schubert's music highly (The Op 4 songs are dedicated to him). In return, Schubert admired Pyrker's poetry, and the celebrated Die Allmacht, a setting of Pyrker from 1825 is perhaps the composer's most imposing religious song.
Gondelfahrer however is resolutely secular and was composed without even so much as an invitation to stay with Pyrker in the Doge's palace. It is one of three songs of 1824 to texts of Johann Mayrhofer in which the composer bids his farewell to the poet whose work, intellectual influence and possibly love had meant so much to him in his late teens and early twenties. The other two of these songs, Abendstern and Auflösung, are magnificent creations, the one shining with translucent light, the other bristling with fiery energy. Both are worthy musical reflections of the poet's loneliness and ecstatic pessimism.
The solo setting of Gondelfahrer is not as merry as the version for four men's voices and piano (D809) written at the same time, but on first hearing, in marked contrast to the other 1824 Mayrhofer songs, it seems to paint a lighthearted enough tourist's picture—a musical postcard from the Adriatic. The harmonic blueprint of the introduction, undulating between C major and A flat major is perhaps, from the point of view of harmony textbooks, more Neapolitan than Venetian; from far away Vienna this must have seemed near enough—an all-purpose Italianate introduction. The tune dances in 6/8 as charmingly as the reflection of moonlight on water, but this water is darker and deeper than a rippling German brook. One hears throughout the murky depth of a bass line which underlines the age-old mystery of Venice and which doubles and hugs the voice part for long stretches. The occasional mordent in the piano's left hand suggests a touch of Italian capriciousness to the proceedings, or is this simply to add to the vocal line the guttural break in a gondolier's voice? Schubert could not resist mirroring the sound image of the campanile of St Mark's as it strikes midnight. We hear twelve rolled A flat major chords, after which the music magically slips back into the C major of peaceful dreams ('sie schlummern friedlich') and the suitably extended long watch of the gondolier represented by the drawn-out E on 'Wacht' resolving eventually on to an F. This is one of the very few Schubert songs (Nacht und Träume is another—and the two songs are related in atmosphere) where the accompaniment throughout is in the bass clef for both hands. This creates a large distance between voice and piano—as high as the night sky—and gives a certain sombre majesty to the proceedings, although the tune is light and graceful enough.
In actual fact Mayrhofer's gondola is perhaps a more ominous vessel than Schubert chose to take on board. Perhaps the truculent gondolier, the figure of death who rows a floating coffin in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, is prefigured here, and Mayrhofer's waiting gondolier is also waiting to ferry his charges across the Styx? The words 'aller Schranken los' suggest death as a release from the cares of the world. This mines a different oar from the more traditional symbolism for sexual license represented by gondola and bell-tower, imagery later deployed by A E Housman who was Mayrhofer's equal in the ambiguity of his dark moods and repressed desires. In any case Mayrhofer is a master of writing poems which are multi-layered in their meaning, yielding their secrets only to those who choose to look beneath the surface of the lagoon.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1992
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