The knight … had brought the strings into some order and, after a short prelude, asked his host whether he would choose a sirvente in the language of oc, or a lai in the language of oui, or a virelai, or a ballad in the vulgar English.
‘A ballad – a ballad,’ said the hermit, ‘against all the ocs and ouis of France. Downright English am I, Sir Knight, and downright English was my patron St Dunstan, and scorned oc and oui, as he would have scorned the parings of the devil’s hoof; downright English alone shall be sung in this cell.’
‘I will assay, then,’ said the knight, ‘a ballad composed by a Saxon gleeman, whom I knew in Holy Land.’
It speedily appeared that, if the knight was not a complete master of the minstrel art, his taste for it had at least been cultivated under the best instructors. Art had taught him to soften the faults of a voice which had little compass, and was naturally rough rather than mellow, and, in short, had done all that culture can do in supplying natural deficiencies. His performance, therefore, might have been termed very respectable by abler judges than the hermit, especially as the knight threw into the notes now a degree of spirit, and now of plaintive enthusiasm, which gave force and energy to the verses which he sung.
… During this performance, the hermit demeaned himself much like a first-rate critic of the present day at a new opera. He reclined back upon his seat with his eyes half shut: now folding his hands and twisting his thumbs, he seemed absorbed in attention, and anon, balancing his expanded palms, he gently flourished them in time to the music.
The mention of a ‘new opera’ prophesies Scott’s own bemused attendance at a performance of Rossini’s Ivanhoe in Paris in October 1826. Scott is such a wonderful author when he is on this form, and it is unthinkable that Schubert himself had not read the rest of the story when he set this text. When performing this music the combination of spirit (the marking is ‘Mässig, doch feurig’) and ‘plaintive enthusiasm’ (Scott could not have more pithily described an essential aspect of Schubert’s art) should be present throughout – also a touch of humour considering the situation, and the cheeky deception of the king in playing at being less than his regal self.
The length of the song, however, invites performances which fail to bring out these subtleties. There is something about the moto perpetuo rhythm which can easily sound like a joust at full tilt rather than the strumming of a lute. It has long been the province of the enthusiastic amateur singer determined to ‘have a go’ in relatively unknown repertoire. As a result, the song, if sung and played at all, has been cheerily bawled and thumped in makeshift performances which can seem endless to the listener. This is why Capell refers to the song’s ‘hammered quavers’ when a glance at the music shows that those quavers are marked piano in most part, mezzo-forte from time to time, and only very rarely forte. In this amateur mode, the song is usually begun too fast and winds down to a sluggish canter as the performers tire. The notion of a king singing about his exploits during the Crusades (even at one remove, as here) implies heroism; but Reed is not correct to say that ‘Schubert is clearly content … to sustain an image of pageantry and war’. There is a also a great deal of charm, even eroticism, in the music as in the poem. Schubert is not belligerent by nature; he clearly sees this piece as a serenade first and foremost, and when it comes to wooing he is masterfully capable of using every trick in the book to suggest that charm. Stretches of military-style music (one must remember that these exploits are recounted to impress the fair Tekla – nothing to do with the Schiller heroine featured in two Schubert songs) are relieved by gallant little excursions into harmonic highways and byways in a manner which recalls the more-or-less contemporary Das Lied im Grünen.
The translator has chosen to change Scott’s iambic tetrameters into trochees; this gives the poem something of a galloping bounce which is not in the original. (If the song, when heard at its worst, seems to be rhythmically repetitive to the point of dullness, this fault goes back to this rum-ti-tum in the translation.) The poem is in five strophes which Schubert varies between minor and major. The six-bar piano introduction (with up-beat) re-appears as an interlude between verses 2 and 3 (this time adapted to the major key); it returns to the minor for its appearance between verses 3 and 4, and switches back to the major between verses 4 and 5. It is this music of quasi-fanfare that constantly reminds us of the military bearing of the narrator.
The setting of the words allows for greater variety. Verse 1 is in B minor and takes us from the battleground to the initiation of the moonlit serenade. This entreaty to the fair one at the heart of the piece is to be heard in verse 2 (‘Heil der Schönen!’ – Joy to the fair!) as well as verse 3 (which also begins with ‘Heil der Schönen!’); both of these strophes use identical music cast in a persuasive B major, eminently suitable for courting a fair damsel. Verse 4, with its reminiscences of crusading exploits, returns to B minor – it is related to the harmonic ground-plan of verse 1, although the vocal line is differently pitched; it even takes some of its melodic ideas from verses 2 and 3 in the major key. The composer here allows himself all the freedom he appropriates for modified strophic songs of this kind; a lesser composer would have been satisfied by recycling the same melody as before. Schubert cannot resist re-fashioning the rise and fall of the lines the better to fit the new words.
Verse 5 returns to B major. This begins with the familiar refrain of ‘Heil der Schönen!’, but the music changes with the words ‘darum öffne ihm die Pforte, Nachtwind streift, die Stunde naht’ which bring the knight closer than he has ever been to the fulfilment of his amorous ambitions. The pedal F sharp which underpins ‘Dort in Syriens heissen Zonen, musst’ er leicht des Nords entwohnen’ suggests exactly the right amount of pent-up sexual tension and impatience. This champing at the bit is repeated, even more meaningfully, at the repeat of ‘Darum öffne ihm die Pforte, Nachtwind streift’. The brave knight, despite any amount of seemingly upright gallantry, is more interested in horizontal possibilities: using his fame as an excuse, he asks the damsel of his choice to sacrifice her virginal modesty in his honour. This brazen yet charming effrontery must have mightily appealed to the men in the Schubert circle, particularly Schober. The postlude, a mere two bars long and as suggestive as a sly wink, implies that his wish is granted; the song ends as naughtily as Schumann’s duet Unterm Fenster where the successful serenader slips through the locked gate in order to storm the fortress, as it were, with stealthy means. After all the hustle and bustle of the knight’s approach and the petition, the clinching movement which lets him into the boudoir is quick and surreptitious. The embellishment of the final cadence in B major (an arpeggio figure in the left hand cheekily echoed an octave lower in the bass) marks the moment of ingress.
In a piece like this, Schubert is fascinated by the challenge of creating unity in diversity – a single structure made up of these various strophes (ABBA2C) which hangs together as an entity. He may have succeeded too well here in that the musical differences between the verses are not very clear on first hearing. Nevertheless this is potentially first-rate Schubert which needs affectionate help, rather than unremitting vigour, from its performers. We are familiar with the through-composed symphonic form in this type of vocal music because of such works as the Suleika lieder (the first of these is also a B minor work), Der Zwerg, Die junge Nonne and other big songs from about 1823 onwards. These pieces, usually held together by a pervasive accompanying motif, suggest the momentum and unity of orchestral music, and it is for this reason (as well as the matching tonality) that Capell thought that this song might have been adapted to make a good conclusion to the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony. This seems optimistic, but it is true enough that the Romanze des Richard Löwenherz adopts the bustle and elaborate length of a Schubert finale (cf the final movements of such big works from more or less the same period as the E flat Trio, and the violin Fantasie).
The work now seems so bound to its B minor tonality that it is strange to discover that its first version – a less developed variant of the same musical ideas – was originally conceived in B flat minor.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000