The Songmakers' Almanac, Dame Felicity Lott (soprano), Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), Richard Jackson (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano)
There is no reference in the documents to the date of the first performance of this work, but it must have been heard sometime in the winter of 1827, or in early 1828. (Deutsch in his original catalogue mentions a performance circa 1 January 1828, but nowhere can this be substantiated.) By February 1828 Schubert felt able to offer the ‘Komische Terzett’ to the publisher Schott in Mainz with the assurance that it had already been ‘performed with applause’. Perhaps it had started life as a one-off, a pièce d’occasion in the same way as the various playlets and literary party-pieces (to be found in the documentary biography) written by members of the circle like Bauernfeld. Perhaps someone in the Schubert circle was getting married and this piece, both text and music, was cooked up in his honour; what began as a joke might have been so well received (‘mit Beyfall ausgeführt’ as Schubert wrote to Schott) that its commercial possibilities became apparent. Or the composition of this piece may have had something to do with Schubert’s other comic cantata for three singers – Die Advokaten D3712 for two tenors and bass which had been published in May 1827 as Opus 74. This work from 1812 by the fifteen-year-old Schubert is not even entirely original, having been modelled on a work by Anton Fischer; it is another pleasant jeu d’esprit in the early Schubert style, very probably taken up by Diabelli because the publisher believed that it would appeal to the music-buying public. The same business considerations may have been behind the writing of Der Hochzeitsbraten which may have been conceived as a sequel, although it took some time to reach the printer. The trio was eventually published only in 1829 with the vignette by Moritz von Schwind.
The composer and his poet ascribe names to the three characters of Der Hochzeitsbraten. Therese (soprano) is the fiancée of Theobald (tenor); the gamekeeper who comes on stage only in the middle of the piece is Kaspar (baritone). The setting is presumably in some rural part of Austria where the only way a young couple could afford a wedding roast is to poach a hare, risking imprisonment and even death in doing so; but Schober as librettist is hardly interested in realistic background details.
The opening of this cantata is in G major – something which instantly recalls the bustle and energy of the G major duet which at the beginning of Mozart’s Figaro, a duet incidentally which is also sung by two characters soon to be married. This ‘Allegro moderato’ episode in 2/4 takes up a full ten pages in the old Gesamtausgabe and is a miracle of Schubertian invention and dramatic pacing. The melody of Therese’s opening vocal line (‘Ach, liebes Herz, ach Theobald’) is announced in the piano prelude which is made up of dancing quavers and bustling semiquavers in the manner of a tiny overture. The vocal writing is in mock-folksong style; these lovebirds are country folk fit to be laughed at by sophisticated townies. The accompaniment ducks and weaves to suggest any number of things – the pouting soubrette whimsy of Therese, the busy Theobald cleaning his gun (his sharp stone – ‘Stein’ – is here an abbreviation of ‘Feuerstein’ for flint) and the girl’s Susanna-like determination to have her own way. In this section weaving right-hand semiquavers embark on many a tonal excursion as the pianist struggles to avoid tripping over his own fingers. There is a marvellous little argument between the two lovers (‘Ich bitt’ dich Schatz’ – ‘Ich geh allein’ and so on) where her fears that he will be hanged for poaching (‘Sie hängen dich’) prompt a piano figuration which unfurls down the stave like a dangling piece of rope. Theobald’s determination to go out alone is eventually worn down by Therese’s insistence. The exasperated ‘Nun gut’ which succumbs to her wheedling strikes a familiar chord with all victims of nagging who say ‘anything for a quiet life’. Theobald agrees that Therese should come with him in search of game, but only if she makes herself useful by beating the hare out of the undergrowth.
Suddenly we are in the woods; there is no need to allow any time for this scene-change, and we notice that Schubert is infinitely happier with this type of ‘opera’ where such considerations of the unities do not have to be taken into account. The piano writing now evokes breathless suspense with pregnant gaps in the music’s flow, and measured trills in suspenseful adjacent semitones in the accompaniment. The mood here is sheer comic-opera melodrama – note the rise of a semitone in the piano figurations after ‘Hier ist der Ort’ denoting that dirty work is afoot. This turning of the harmonic screw in stages is a continuing feature of this piece which is surely the nearest the Schubertian lied ever comes to the high jinks of pantomime.
What now follows is unlike anything else in this composer’s vocal music. Therese encourages the hare out of hiding by beating the ground (the onomatopoeic ‘gsch! gsch!’ is spoken in rhythm) at the same time as making encouraging noises as one might to a pet (‘prr, prr’, sung on various notes). (Those with knowledge of hunting, and who would know what ghillies say to grouse, might aver that Schober had some first-hand experience of hunting hare.) The combined effect of these sounds, together with the piano accompaniment chugging away in various patterns of semiquavers, sounds for all the world like an impression of an early steam train. The modulations in this section are masterfully handled to suggest the couple’s roving through various different parts of the forest. The long crescendo over the inappropriate words ‘nur nicht so laut!’ (‘only not so loud!’) is in the tradition of Rossinian comedy.
Suddenly we hear (as if offstage) a third voice – the gamekeeper Kaspar whose interjections of ‘Horch! Horch!’ seem suitable for a Captain Hook spoiling the innocent fun of Wendy and Peter. The music now lifts another semitone, from D major (the dominant of the home key of G major) to E flat major. Kaspar now becomes the hunter of humans, and his music combines with Therese’s hare-beating noises and Theobald’s cautionary admonitions. A complex trio is built up in this way between the three characters, two of whom are unaware of Kaspar’s presence. There is little in all Schubert’s operas which is as witty and effective as this where each of the three characters has a separate emotion: the gamekeeper’s outrage as he swears to bag the criminals, Theobald’s dogged determination to bag his hare amidst his suspicions that he has heard another voice (it must have been the wind, he thinks), and Therese’s premature exaltation in the fun of it all. When Theobald first fancies he hears another voice (‘Da sprach ja wer?’) the tonal axis of the music moves from the flat keys (E flat and B flat) to the sharp (B major as the dominant of E minor). When the hare is actually shot (at ‘ein Has, ein Has!’) the music shifts from broken octaves on B to the triumphal key of C major a semitone higher. In this way the composer builds into the music a real sense of mounting melodramatic suspense.
A C major arpeggio high in the keyboard followed by a solitary low staccato C in the bass represents a gunshot and the thump of a carcass. (In various modern-day Schubertiads in which I have taken part, a toy rabbit is thrown into the performing circle in time with these pianistic gestures, much to the amusement of the audience.) It is in C major that the hunting scene comes to its climax: the gamekeeper prepares to pounce, Theobald is mightily pleased with his skill at having shot his hare successfully, and Therese is overjoyed with the prospect of cooking the hare for the wedding feast. The gamekeeper’s insults for Theobald, his prospective prey, include the curious word ‘Enakssohn’. This is a reference to the legendarily tall sons of the biblical character named Anak in the Authorized Version (Numbers 13:33). This makes one wonder whether the role of Theobald was originally conceived for a tall tenor, perhaps Josef Barth who seems from his portrait to have been much taller than Ludwig Titze.
The piano interlude, five bars in tip-toe quavers on rising semitones implies Kaspar’s approach as he surprises the couple and arrests them. At the vivid change of musical mood at ‘Halt Diebsgepack!’ (a switch of key to A minor and 6/8 as the new time signature) we can almost feel Kaspar’s grip and the tightening noose around poor Theobald’s neck. In this tumultuous passage (now marked ‘Allegro’ rather than ‘Allegro moderato’), by far the most dramatic of the piece, Kaspar threatens jail for the man, and the workhouse for the girl, but they tearfully appeal to his better nature with the news that they are going to get married. The musical style quickly changes into a seductive barcarolle (at ‘Herr Jäger, seid doch nicht von Stein’) reminiscent of Das Fischermädchen from Schwanengesang. At first Kaspar dismisses these entreaties (‘Was kümmert’s mich!’, accompanied by an insouciant arpeggio). The pair are now reduced to bribery of various kinds, the most effective of which is mention of ‘Dieser Taler weiss und blank’. It seems rather unlikely that Therese and Theobald should have enough money on them to bribe the gamekeeper. If they had, why on earth would they have had to poach their wedding feast in the first place? No, these white round coins are currency of a different kind – Therese’s breasts, and a live performance which took place far from the censor’s eyes could have made this clear by gesture or visual innuendo. Kaspar’s determination that the couple should pay the price for their actions has now softened, although he seems to have hardened elsewhere: he observes that the girl is ‘verzweifelt schön’ – deuced pretty. Compromise and corruption are clearly in the air. This section which has veered between A minor and major, ends on the dominant – a chord of E major.
There is now a short Allegretto section in 2/4 (beginning ‘Ach! statt den Hasenrücken’) where all the characters reflect separately on the options open to them. This is cast in the form of a canon in the key of E minor. First Therese acknowledges that she has no choice but to grease up to the gamekeeper rather than greasing the hare; three-and-a-half bars later Theobald ruefully agrees that this is what she will have to do; Kaspar’s entry is appropriately lascivious. He is now prepared to turn a blind eye to the crime, and as the music moves into recitative mode he agrees, with the greatest pomposity, and as if he were judge and jury rolled into one, that the marriage should go ahead. Therese and Theobald chortle their thanks as if they were Susanna and Figaro paying lip-service to the Count, but it is clear that there is a price to be paid: the phrase ‘ich komme morgen, für’n Braten will ich sorgen’ is full of oily menace and is crowned by a suggestive trill on ‘sorgen’ which veritably shakes with lust. He makes clear, without saying as much (and we always have to remember the hand of the censor) that on the morrow he will not hesitate to exercise his newly exacted droit de seigneur. His importunate impatience to get his hands on Therese is brilliantly, and subtly, emphasised by the fact that his final ‘Lebt wohl’ is held longer than anything sung by the bridal couple – it thus sounds both more suggestive and more ominous. One recalls Josef Kenner’s remarks about the ‘completely unscrupulous’ Schober having ‘no respect for Mine and Thine in marriage’.
The final movement in 3/4 – an Andantino in G major – is the musical high point of the work. The preceding sections have been masterfully written, and Schubert’s narrative technique, when he does not have to worry about stagecraft as such, is exemplary. But here we have the only example of the Tyrolean yodel built into a Schubertian vocal line, and what he does with it is marvellous. The audience’s laughter, in my experience, is now replaced by the sort of seraphic smiles which are reserved for genuine Schubertian felicities. The couple sing of being let off the hook in duple rhythm while the gamekeeper embroiders leering triplets around them which rise suggestively from the bottom of the stave like an obligato for an out-of-control organ. With the open-hearted yodel-like ‘La la la’ figurations Therese and Theobald also move into triplet rhythm; these artlessly delightful undulations are mocked by the gun-wielding lecher (the marking in the music is ‘spottend’) who imagines himself at the morrow’s wedding as the bridegroom rather than the guest. As three-part writing for voices, mellifluous but enlivened by the cutting edge of the bass line, this music is beyond praise; it is folk-like while simultaneously displaying the greatest sophistication. And as the composer so rarely combines voices in a piano-accompanied context it is all the more remarkable for being unique in his output.
By the end of the piece nothing has been truly resolved. We are reminded that there are moments in Figaro where the Count is certain that he is about to have his way with Susanna and she always manages to escape him. Presumably Therese and Theobald will have to be similarly resourceful, but it seems that the librettist takes pleasure in the fact that she will have to deliver the goods to her fiancé’s humiliation. But Kaspar has been such a ridiculously pompous and corrupt figure that one would be delighted to see him trounced. In any case, a discreet Biedermeier veil is drawn over the final outcome of this arresting little drama. What remains is Schubert’s geniality and his unique ability to touch us deeply even in the middle of a barrage of nonsense such as this.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000