It was written for a woman whom Schubert had admired for his entire artistic life, Anna Milder. She herself was a straddler of traditions and generations. Born in Vienna in 1785 she was a pupil of Salieri and Tomaselli, and was plucky enough to demand changes from Beethoven in the role of Leonore which he wrote for her. Haydn said that her voice was 'like a house'. Her long career enabled her to take part in the first performance in modern times of Bach's St Matthew Passion, under Mendelssohn, in 1829. She retired in 1836. For Schubert, Milder was first and last an immortal Iphigénie in the Gluck opera that had seared itself into his brain in 1813. Her whole personality was that of a prima donna assoluta. He had already written the second Suleika song for her in 1824 and found that she was disappointed with its lack of drama (she was musical enough to admit its beauty). He now conceived the idea of writing (almost certainly for her) something more operatic, something with a suggestion of a plot and a little larger than life. The result was a cantata with a carefully chosen selection and combination of texts by Wilhelm Müller (the poet of Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise) and a middle movement with words by (in all probability) Helmina von Chézy. Einstein calls this concoction a scena in concertante style, and this of course refers to the crucial role of the clarinet as an obbligato instrument. As is often the case with Schubert, ideas for his songs came from the opera house. Earlier in 1828 he had written Auf dem Strom for tenor with obbligato horn which is somewhat in the Italianate cantata manner of Beethoven's Adelaide. The link between Beethoven and obbligato horn music is obviously Leonore's aria 'Abscheulicher' from Fidelio.
As far as the clarinet is concerned, the noble precedent of Sextus's aria 'Parto, Parto' in Mozart's opera seria La Clemenza di Tito may have been an influence. As early as 1815 Schubert had composed an Offertorium in C (D136) which combines the soprano voice with a clarinet obbligato. We have commented that he was already in love with how the clarinet could shadow and echo the singers in a number of his own most beautiful opera arias and duets. These factors pointed to the character of the work for Milder: something both old-fashioned and new-, partially grounded in Italian eighteenth-century bel canto, but also related to the German simplicity of the Singspiel, the whole tailored to the skills of a virtuoso clarinettist and a great German singing actress. There Milder did not let one down. She was an authoritative artist, no blushing soubrette; her voice suggested someone in charge, the right voice to imply that as soon eis winter is over the young shepherd would rush across the valley and take his shepherdess in his arms. Mozart's Sextus is a famous trouser role, and the 'Shepherd on the Rock' is a trouser cantata — it is no wilting or shy Daphne or Chloe who heralds the priapic arrival of spring. Milder, after all, created Leonore, the most famous pants part of all; in a song performance more than twenty years later her amplitude was spared the indignity of trousers (one of the merciful things about Lieder is there is no need for operatic costume). Ferdinand Schubert sent her the manuscript a year after his brother's death, and she gave the first performance of the work in Riga in 1830.
In the piano's six-bar overture (the double-dotted D's a microcosm of Handelian style) sound and sight are briefly obscured by swirling mist. Suddenly this is pierced by a sunlit beam, a single ethereal note played by the shepherd standing on his precipice. This blossoms into descending and ascending arpeggios thrown into the void, the guttural yodel of the mountain dweller transfigured into a call from the heart by the generous echo of the open spaces. Could Schubert have known that the natural notes of the alphorn, as Thea King points out, follow the shape of this tune? It is quite possible that he heard these instruments on his extended holiday in Upper Austria in 1825. Certainly the clarinet seems more appropriate to depict the rich mooing of the alphorn than the flute and oboe which are time-honoured in pastoral music as stand-ins for the reedier shepherd's pipe. In this mountain scenario the clarinet with its rich low register comes into its own — the bouche fermée muted sound of this part of the instrument when played pianissimo sound remarkably similar (as Thea King observes) to the low confidential moo of a mother cow. One should also remember that the German word 'Hirt' covers a keeper of both herds and flocks.
Somehow the music suggests the shepherd's (or cowherd's) position, high in the mountains; it is as if the melodic line itself has eyes to sweep the vista, even the rise and fall of the printed music traces the shape of mountains on the page. We can almost smell the pure sweet air in the rarefied stratosphere of the clarinet's tessitura. Sweetness and purity above, and then we follow the shepherd's glance (he both sees and feels through his clarinet) as it plunges into the chalumeau register and the valleys below. Down he looks and then up again in the ascending arpeggio of eyes sweeping the horizon; a film crew in a helicopter could get no better view. The piano throbs in sympathy, guiding his searching glance into this or that harmonie corner of the mighty picture before him. With the entry of the voice we may momentarily wonder whether instrumentalist and singer are two lovers singing to each other across the void, but it is obvious that in his loneliness the shepherd projects his own voice into the mountainous spaces and is comforted by the echo, a type of musical mirror. We hardly notice how difficult the voice part is, so natural does it seem for it to follow the clarinet up and down the wide-ranging vista. There is a beautiful excursion into G flat, a different region of the shepherd's thoughts where lives his beloved. The clarinet interlude back into B flat via D major is one of those Schubertian middle-section miracles by which the reprise can be no mere repetition, suffused as it seems to be with an added dimension of longing. The middle 'movement' is in G minor, a favourite key for Schubert to express the pain of love ever since he heard Pamina's 'Ach, ich fühl's' as a boy. The cast of the accompaniment suggests that of the famous Ständchen from Schwanengesang. This is an enormous challenge to the breath control of the singer, but a subtle one, for a perfect performance sounds easy .The modulation from G minor to major on the words 'Die Herzen es zum Himmel zieht' adds a spiritual and less self-absorbed dimension to the shepherd's devotion; it is as if he has found an answer to a long puzzling question about the nature of love. At the moment of the modulation we literally hear it dawn on him that it is the heart itself which will ever resiliently and miraculously survive the pain of separation.The last section brightens to embrace the slap-and-tickle of a young man's earthier needs. The beautiful clarinet cadenza had him lost in higher thought, but as the sap rises he descends to musings in the springtime key of B flat — the same key and time signature in which another boy in another Müller poem, Das Wandern from Die schöne Müllerin, had gone a-wandering. The pianist's fingers take a holiday here (apart from one exposed bar in suddenly slippery terrain) but it is his sense of rhythm that keeps the shepherd's thoughts and hopes dancing. After this, three lines from the first section are recapitulated (from 'je weiter meine Stimme dringt') and these words (and echoes from the first movement) intertwine with the wander-music to bring the proceedings to a joyous conclusion. Schubert had triumphantly provided Madame Milder with a show piece — high and low, slow and sustained, fast and agile — without sacrificing a jot of his integrity. Only the piano part seems somewhat denuded, as if a conscious reflection of the customary Italianate lack of invention in that sphere. Or is it because Schubert knew that he would never be there to play the piano part himself, and that singers in Madame Milder's century never allowed their accompanists to shine too brightly?
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1990
Other albums featuring this work