The music is in what Capell amusingly calls Schubert’s evensong style. The mood is solemn and elevated in manner – the marking is ‘Ruhig und fromm’. The piano introduction is a fragment of melody, related to the vocal line without being identical with it, which also serves as an interlude between the second and third verses and as a postlude. This moves from D major to B minor and back to D major via a bar of quavers which are phrased in pairs, wafting gently in the middle of the keyboard until they climb at the last moment to the high D of the baritone tessitura. This figuration is never taken up by the voice (as a similar phrase it is in Das Weinen) but it nicely illustrates the Crusaders’ silk penant flying aloft at the end of verse 2, as well as the soul’s ascension to a better place after a life of religious contemplation at the end of the song.
When the voice enters, the piano doubles the voice part. For once there is a very special reason for this, as we shall discover later. This music, which might at first hearing seem to come from the pages of a hymn book, manages a turn of phrase which is still thoroughly Schubertian: the earnest sense of purpose of these crusaders is combined with an elegiac wistfulness appropriate to the monk’s subjective view – his life could have been so much more eventful if he had opted for a different path. The protagonist is clearly not one of those provincial priests whom the composer is known to have loathed because of their cant and hypocrisy (this was his reaction to the clergy in Zseliz during his Hungarian summers); Schubert also accepts Leitner’s notion that the soldiers in the processional are not the normal bunch of adventurers and ruffians but rather a group of young idealists motivated by the most radiant belief in their divine mission. In the composer’s mind these knights must have come from a better and more noble place than Vienna – but we have already pointed out that the Graz seems infinitely greener in the Leitner settings. The whole scene is fit to be painted in glowing colours by an artist of the Nazarene school, each of the crusaders a fresh-faced would-be saint. The shift into the plagal reaches of G major at ‘Sie singen Lieder frommer Art’ emphasises the holy nature of the songs. Sudden mention of the crusaders’ pennant is musically painted by a touch of chromatic colour in the harmony as A sharps are introduced into chords which, from ‘von Seide zart’, move into the key of B minor.
After a repeat of the four-bar introductory music there is completely new music for the poem’s third verse. These are the harmonies of change and departure. Thus at ‘Sie steigen an dem Seegestad / Das hohe Schiff hinan’ both melody and harmony rise a number of steps up the stave, as if climbing a gangplank; the sudden shift to B flat major for ‘es läuft hinweg auf grünem Pfad’ cuts the music momentarily adrift from the D major jetty for this magical journey, a medieval version of L’embarquement pour Cythère. The way that B flat major recedes into A major in the course of the words ‘ist bald nur wie ein Schwan’ is once again Schubert at his masterly best – within this decrescendo the ship becomes a tiny swan-like shape on the horizon as the singer’s line rises in exploratory semitones as if straining to catch sight of the distant vessel. The music for ‘bald nur wie ein Schwan’ (Leitner’s unwitting prophecy of Lohengrin) is repeated as a one-bar interlude.
And now for the song’s masterstroke: the pious pilgrims’ march continues to resonate in the air after the crusaders’ departure (they are heard in the piano, exactly the music which has accompanied the first verse) while the monk hums only the ghost of the melody. Of course the words of the poem’s fifth strophe tells us he is lost in contemplation about the dangers the soldiers will face, and how he himself is also on a journey of a different kind. But by the brilliant device of allowing the piano to take over the main melody while the monk ‘sings along’, as it were, in the bass line, the composer tells us everything about both the pain and the joy of having to play a background role. The singer supports the crusaders with his prayers, and the solid bass line tells us that he will always be there for them, he is after all a rock of faith. But we are also aware that there is a large element of renunciation in this song, and that he has been prepared to put aside the melodies of life in exchange for spiritual harmony. In the bare bones of that bass line (which stays at home as much as the monk himself) there is nothing so luxurious as a memorable tune to be heard; this also emphasises the austerity of his vocation. There could be no more simple, nor more obvious, way of making this point in music, but as always with the best inspirations, no one but a great composer would have thought of doing so in this manner. The piano postlude is identical to the introduction. After having heard the whole piece, those wafting quavers in the second-last bar seem especially affecting – the song finishes with the monk’s tear-filled eyes turned heavenward (how we wish we could have seen Vogl’s assumption of this role!). That we are similarly touched by this sentimental, and potentially embarrassing, scenario is a tribute to the composer’s genius.
The life and career of Karl Gottfried Ritter von Leitner (1800-1890) were inextricably bound up with his native Styria. He was born into a distinguished family from the Steiermark and spent his long life serving almost every aspect of the administrative, judicial and cultural life of his region. When Schubert first heard his name (with the composition of Drang in die Ferne) the poet was a promising 23-year-old who had not yet published his own work. The encouragement of Julius Schneller, one of his university professors in Graz, was decisive to his career. Schneller was a former teacher of Josef von Spaun, an admirer of Schubert’s songs (he published a poem on the subject in 1826), and a close friend of Marie Pachler (see the commentary for Heimliches Lieben) which explains her interest in the young poet at the time of Schubert’s visit to Styria. Leitner was only 27 when Schubert took his volume of verse (Gedichte, published in 1825) back with him to Vienna. (In the autumn of 1827 the poet was working as a teacher at the Gymnasium in Cilli – now Celje in Slovenia – and as a result Schubert and Leitner never met.)
The poet achieved great local renown as an editor, librarian, historian, lecturer and curator – all posts which benefited from his vast knowledge of the history and cultural traditions of the Steiermark. He is acknowledged as the most significant Styrian poet of the Biedermeier epoch, and he was nicknamed the ‘Austrian Uhland’, an indication of his debt to the Swabian school of poetry (including such figures as Mörike) whose work is also built around local legends and culture. In 1846, at a relatively late age, Leitner married Karoline Beyer and enjoyed travelling with her in his holiday periods as far afield as Belgium and London. In 1854 he journeyed with her to Italy in the hope of an improvement in her health. She died in Pisa and he insisted on accompanying her body every step of the way back on the long journey to Graz. His devotion to Karoline was almost legendary, and her death made him withdraw into isolation. (The introspection of the widower had been prophesied years before by the poem Der Winterabend which Schubert turned into a very great song.) A timely invitation from the Archduke Johann to be one of the curators of the newly founded Joanneum brought him back into public life. He died a very old man honoured on every side.
Leitner’s memoirs concerning his peripheral relationship to Schubert are a model of accuracy, probity and modesty. As late as 1881 the poet was expressing his appreciation of Schubert’s musical settings of his poems, saying that on hearing the music he re-experienced the emotions he felt when first writing the texts. Schubert’s friends Franz Lachner and Anselm Hüttenbrenner also set Leitner, and the poet provided the latter composer with a libretto for his opera Lenore.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000