The reasons for this seem more understandable when scanning the poem, which is unusual to say the least. Walter Dürr has rightly called it a ‘hymn to friendship’, something which is also true, as we shall see, of Schiffers Scheidelied. This hunter, a Biedermeier Clint Eastwood, hardly paints himself as a sympathetic character – although there is more than a touch of macho pride in a self-portrait that might have been inspired by one of the Fennimore Cooper novels popular in Vienna at the time; details like battling with wolves and the sweat-soaked hat are images worthy of frontier-land. Capell takes a thorough dislike to this seemingly hard and aggressive man for ‘shooting at every living thing he sets eye on’. And yet the hunter is susceptible to love. He wonders whether the shepherd (the lovesick swain of the Goethe setting Schäfers Klagelied perhaps) feels anything like the same thing. This is a moot point. The fourth strophe mentions a ‘Lichtgestalt’, literally a shape, or being, of light, but here translated as ‘its radiance’ – i.e. the radiance of love itself. We are not told anything about the object of the hunter’s affection.
The fifth verse in this translation introduces the word ‘she’ to the poem, not entirely with justification; ‘sie’ usually means ‘she’ of course, but it seems here to refer back to the feminine noun ‘Gestalt’, the presence of love itself which looks down on upon the hunter, burning him through with unaccustomed emotion. He is disturbed by the feeling, and confesses as much, feeling as cornered as one of the animals on which he preys. If this ambiguity of gender seems intentional, the crucial ‘sie’ ensures a respectability to the first half of the strophe that allows the song to end with a vision of a male friends’ embrace: there are two types of love in this man’s life, and close male friendship seems safer and more familiar to him than the frightening new emotion he now experiences. Why it should be so alarming is another matter for consideration.
One can see in these things as much, or as little, as one feels inclined. There was, after all, a whole generation of soldiers who felt that Housman’s Shrophire lad spoke for their feelings of comradeship without even noticing the words’ erotic overtones and the poet’s scarcely hidden rage at the sexual injustices of the time. In something like the same way Jägers Liebeslied was later incorporated into a students’ songbook and became quite well known in its own right to the hearties of the time. Even if one delves deeper into the words, it can be written off as a not particularly distinguished attempt to praise the ideal of platonic friendship. Nevertheless, this poem, as well as Schiffers Scheidelied, confirm that Schubert and Schober were very special friends at a time when the label of friendship could safely encompass a generous margin of affection between men before thorny questions of sexual desire were addressed or brought into question. That Schober was sexually interested in women is beyond doubt (though he never married, he had been secretly engaged to Justina von Bruchmann, an episode that ended badly) and it seems hugely likely that Schubert’s devotion to Therese Grob and Karoline Esterhazy were real and central to his emotions.
But this is obviously not the whole story. In the comic trio Der Hochzeitsbraten Schober delights in the concept of the poacher’s girl who becomes the gamekeeper’s booty. In Jägers Liebeslied there are similar metaphors of the chase. Schober could well be referring to himself as someone who has, in Capell’s words, shot ‘at every living thing he sets eye on’, a wide-ranging Don Giovanni hunting for a succession of sexual partners (both stag and roe the poem says) whilst acknowledging that there now is something more important to him than all these encounters. He has been the heartless seducer, used to rampaging through the forests and taking what he wishes; now he finds himself more vulnerable. And he loves this new person so much, he says, that it feels as good as if he were being embraced by his special friend. There is no doubt that poet and composer regarded each other as that ‘special friend’. After all, at the time this song was composed, Schubert found himself living at a better address, and in more comfortable circumstances, than he ever had before; and all thanks to Schober.
In my opinion, one of the special links between these two men was that they were both unselfconsciously bisexual, and that their friendship was an association of free spirits which may or may not have included a physical component; if it ever did so, it was probably not for long, but the resonances of that closeness endured for the composer’s lifetime. For Schober, Schubert was the genius that he could never be; he had limited gifts as a poet but he was musical, genuinely so, and he knew that his composer friend possessed gifts that not only delighted and moved him, but which marked Schubert out for immortality. If Schober was fascinated by the inner Schubert, the composer was equally fascinated by the outer Schober. In Schubert’s eyes, Schober was everything he could not be: elegant, good-looking, charming and affably articulate, sophisticated and a target for the ladies. They both longed to be the other, if only for a moment – to explore each other’s destinies, to experience what the other lacked. From this sprang a genuine devotion and affection that was as incomprehensible to some of the composer’s other friends as it has seemed to later generations who fancy they can see through the charlatan that Schober to some degree undoubtedly was. The friendship was subject to strain, and waxed and waned with the years; but in 1827 they seem to have come to a point when a re-affirmation of their bond seemed appropriate. The new love described in the poem is unlikely to have been Schubert himself, but the message is that old friendship matters a good deal, that the hunter’s new feelings of love are so beautiful as to be comparable to being held in the arms of ‘der allerbeste Freund’. Schubert returns the compliment by setting poems (this and Schiffers Scheidelied) which cast the poet in two very gallant and dramatic roles and allowing them to be published by the Lithographic Institute of which Schober was now in charge.
As if to emphasise the unadorned and truthful nature of the affection described (both the new love and the old friendship) the song is almost entirely strophic, with some changes for the fifth verse. The music is cast in a barcarolle rhythm in 6/8; the key is D major and the introspective dynamic markings suggest a lovelorn serenade more than a celebration of the outdoor life, although the distant sound of hunting-horns is built into the rise and fall of the music. This, with its slightly restless, utterly Schubertian modulations is reminiscent of the contemporary Rochlitz setting Alinde and Heine’s Das Fischermädchen of 1828, both wistful love songs cast in the same wafting 6/8 rhythm which suggests unstilled longing. The introduction begins with unisons in D major; in the second bar these are filled out into B flat major chords which rock to F major and back, followed by the same pattern on G minor/D minor. This in turn leads to A major/D minor and back to the home key of D major. This descending sequence is a lovely one and, simple as it is, only Schubert could have written it. Heartfelt simplicity is always the order of the day whenever he writes music for working-class characters – fishermen, ploughmen, farmers, shepherds or what have you. And the old-fashioned form of the music allows the words to be heard, and concentrated upon, with admirable clarity.
This is one of those songs which needs sympathetic performance. Like Romanze des Richard Löwenherz it can be made to appear as banal as the performer believes it to be, or as touching. There has always been a separate class of Schubert songs the personal significance of which outweighs their importance in terms of absolute music – the Schober setting discussed in Volume 35, Pilgerweise, is also one of these, and Jägers Liebeslied too belongs in this category. If the music seems not to be entirely successfully addressed to posterity, we should feel ourselves to be privileged eavesdroppers at a moment of musical tenderness that clearly meant much at the time. And there are certain turns of phrase in the music, gracefully fitting the words of different verses with the practised skill of this master of strophic songs, which will give the true Schubertian moments of gentle delight.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000