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|The Songmakers' Almanac, Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)|
'After lunch Schubert came and brought a new song, Die junge Nonne; later Vogl came, and I sang it to him; it is splendidly composed.' Thus wrote the soprano Sophie Müller in her diary on 3 March 1825, and it is because of this that we are able to ascribe the song, with some certainty, to 1825; in any case it seems highly likely that Die junge Nonne was written in the same period as the other Craigher settings, Der blinde Knabe and Totengräbers Heimweh. It was a period of great songs like Pyrker's Die Allmacht and Schulze's Auf der Bruck, the time between the two great Müller cycles when there were frequent Schubertiads, and all of the newly composed Lieder seemed to be 'events'—the works of a mature master at ease with his genius. Even the fear and tension Schubert suffered because of his illness seemed to be in a state of remission. After the crucial experience of writing Die schöne Müllerin, the composer no longer seems to need 'heavenly length' in order to make his dramatic point. All the experience of concocting long ballads in the song kitchen of his earlier years has now resulted in reduction, with no loss of taste or flavour. Distillation is now the order of the day. His songs last a shorter time than before, but are more concentrated than ever; they pack a mighty punch. Sophie Müller was right: 'Splendidly composed' the song most certainly is. Indeed, it has such a symphonic feel (German musicologists term such a song a 'lyrische Szene') that Liszt orchestrated it and Schubert's brother Ferdinand arranged it, after Franz's death, for large orchestra and female chorus. The thought of this reminds one of the Nuns' Chorus from Benatzky's Casanova—or, perhaps worse, a filmed arrangement of Duparc's L'Invitation au voyage for a chorus of nuns (justified no doubt by the misinterpreted words 'ma soeur' and the flagrantly bowdlerised Baudelaire of 'luxe, calme et chasteté.'). It seems that even in those days, long before 'Climb every mountain', kitsch nunnery flummery could be the all-too-easy result of bringing drama to the cloister.
But Schubert, whatever his brother did later to his music, negotiates this fine line, as always, with great aplomb. We take this music very seriously indeed from the first ominous notes of the muffled storm. In a number of details (particularly in the rumble of the tremolando of the accompaniment and supporting octave triplets) the music is curiously reminiscent of Kolmas Klage from a decade earlier. Perhaps this is logical enough when we realise that that too was storm music written for a heroine whose soul was beset by storm-like grief. The key of F minor is established with the broadest of brushes. Howling wind and ringing bell are both introduced by a motif that is heard again and again in various guises (including the vocal line, itself a variant of this theme). The left hand beneath the rustlings of the right does its storm work, and then crosses over (a most eloquent gesture in this context) to sound the angelus. It is as if we are seeing, and hearing, the diabolical and the divine in the human condition in a Jekyll and Hyde juxtaposition of roles. The tension rises and the screw is mercilessly turned by a semitone rise to the key of F sharp minor. It is here, as Capell so aptly puts it, that 'every listener is aware that some powerful spirit is at work.' G sharp in the bass (under the first 'und finster der Nacht') pushes pitch and excitement higher (a D in the vocal line) but the voice now descends by semitones (D flat and then C, where the hollow incantation of 'wie das Grab' makes its eerie effect) on its return to F minor. At the third verse the music goes into F major, and the change of key is as if a cloud has cleared in the nun's understanding rather than in nature, for the storm continues raging outside. A miracle has taken place, however, and her prayer has been answered. She now has 'a recognition of the essential benignancy of the forces of the wild night' (Capell again, who is splendid on this song) and she carries us with her in the sweep of her conviction and new-found insight. Her fear of the storm, both nature's and life's, has been banished; instead we hear a type of visionary ecstasy that in lesser musical hands would have been maudlin. But aided by Schubert we are transfixed by the transformation; the hypnotic rhythm of the music, both repetitive and ever changing, would make us follow her anywhere. The effect of the final bell music is of the greatest imaginable romantic grandeur, at the same time as being gently moving and touching. The storm motif continues but it has forever lost its power to intimidate. What has started out as a force of potential danger and evil is now seen to be yet another facet of the workings of God.
In a few minutes, and not even helped by a poem of the first rank, Schubert has achieved a scene of Shakespearean dimensions in which confrontation and struggle finally resolve into acceptance and reconciliation. The young nun, now steadfast at last, has voyaged uneasily through spiritual tempests of doubt and temptation, and turned to heaven as her haven. The song's span and structure suggest the experiences of a lifetime rather than a single night, so powerfully does the music sonorously recreate the poetic symbolism of past passions in terms of the thunderstorm and final peace of mind as the ringing of the morning angelus. Thus a poem of neo-gothic extravagance has been transformed into a song about a real woman. No composer ever surpasses Schubert's ability to bring warmth and life to what could remain, in other hands, a cardboard cut-out of Sturm und Drang.Jacob Nikolaus Craigher De Jachelutta was an Italian by birth, but he was typical of a new breed of the multi-lingual citizens of post Napoleonic Europe who made their home in Vienna for a period. He was wealthy in his own right (he was a gifted business man and entrepreneur) and had a genuine interest in poetry and music. He was a fervent Roman Catholic (as the poem of Die junge Nonne makes clear) and as such was part of the convert Friedrich Schlegel's circle in the Vienna of the 1820's. As an original poet (as opposed to a translator) Craigher was a disciple of the already outmoded Göttingen Hainbund, a group of poets such as Klopstock, Hölty and Voss. In October 1825 Craigher had a meeting with Schubert (whom in his diary he describes as a 'splendid person') and his friend the painter Schwind. He made a agreement with Schubert that as an expert in various European languages he would provide the composer with a number of translations of French, Italian, Spanish and English classics (retaining the metre of the original language) which could be set to music and printed both in German and the original. This was a logical extension of Schubert's (for once) commercially ambitious project to print his Walter Scott settings, from earlier in the year, in both German and English. Craigher's scheme was one of the greatest Schubertian 'might have beens'—a body of song representative of the best of western literature, a forerunner of Wolf's Italian and Spanish Songbooks perhaps—and an undoubted project for the composer's late thirties or forties. As it turned out, Schubert set two of Craigher's original poems (Die junge Nonne and Totengräbers Heimweh) and only one translation, Colley Cibber's Der blinde Knabe. It is also probable that Craigher provided the Italian translation of the Goethe song Wilkommen und Abschied for publication in 1826. In his later years Craigher published a fascinating memoir, Erinnerungen aus dem Orient, of his travels in the East.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1992
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