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After those opening two bars we hear that the tonality is F sharp minor, rather an unusual key for Schubert. A melody doubled in the alto and bass voices slips under the shelter of those tolling C sharp dactyls (one of Schubert’s inspired upper pedal points.) The melancholy lilt of the music seems strangely familiar, and Beethoven comes to mind: in the Allegretto of the Seventh Symphony (bar 27) the viola, in similar fashion, insinuates a counter-melody under the second violins’ upper pedal in dactylic rhythm. And then, as we return to Schwestergruss we hear that this inner melody, a mournful tune with rising sequences, as a minor-key variant of the ‘Eroica’ theme which Beethoven used in the last movement of the Third Symphony, in a ballet (Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus), and a set of variations for piano (Op 35).
We shall never know whether it was a conscious decision to bow to Beethoven in this song, or whether the similarities are merely coincidental. Beethoven was still alive, but he had become such a divine being in Vienna that Schubert, a fervent admirer, must sometimes have had the impression that the spirit of the older composer was at his shoulder giving him advice. In any case, for Schubert, Beethoven mostly meant ‘symphony’, and here we have one of Schubert’s most developed symphonic songs, a companion piece to such immortal works as Der Zwerg2, Suleika I19 and Die junge Nonne15. After five bars of introduction, and with the moonlit entry of the voice, we first hear the quaver triplets which pervade the song throughout—mostly in the right hand, sometimes in the left, occasionally in the inner voices of a texture which, from time to time, approximates that of a string quartet.
Schubert has it in mind to compose a continuous song—not strophic in any sense—but bound together by motifs, and once we have embarked on this journey, the musical momentum keeps going in an amazing manner, always propelled forward, albeit gently, by those ceaseless triplets. Richard Capell and Fischer-Dieskau here observe a similarity to the triplets of Erlkönig; it is true that both songs have a supernatural theme, but there is nothing in the gliding mood of Schwestergruss to remind us of thundering horses’ hooves. 1. The restless movement implied by ‘wall’ ich auf und ab’ (I wander up and down) is caught wonderfully by the Bewegung which manages to be both still—as if awestruck by the moonlit graveyard—and turbulent.
Here is the self-tormenting Bruchmann in search of a faith, and we hear the inner turmoil of someone seeking for an answer to life’s (and death’s) mysteries. After the vocal announcement of the ‘Eroica’ theme, Schubert uses every aspect of harmonic technique available to him: the crunch between the glacial stillness of ‘Totenbein’ und stilles Grab’ (repeated Ds in the voice part) and the chromatic descent in the accompaniment to these words is a perfect analogue for an inner shudder. We know we are in for one of the ‘heavenly length’ songs when the composer sets the words twice; the long melody alternates between stasis (as a pedal note) or shadowing the exceptionally inventive and eloquent bass line in thirds and sixths. This strophe ends in F sharp major (a cadence on ‘stilles Grab’) which introduces a four-bar interlude. Here the right hand sings in beatific melody, first with a major inflection (again that ‘Eroica’ theme), then with a minor, while the triplet motif is assigned to the viola tessitura—this is one of the song’s several string quartet-like passages.
2-6. Once he has set the mood in expansive manner, the composer uses words at a much faster rate; the poet’s verses are made to run together as if in continuous narrative. The move from F sharp major into D, and thence to A major, announces a new section: Sybilla von Bruchmann’s ghost floats into the music. For this supernatural moment the accompaniment abandons the treble clef entirely, and the piano writing sinks to the bottom of the instrument. This distance between the tessitura of voice and piano enhances the mystery of this spellbound nocturne, as in Nacht und Träume3. Caught in the magic web of this music which develops organically one phrase from the next, one scarcely notices that there is no tune to speak of in this song: rather is its melody derived and evolved from various cells, chief of which is the ‘Eroica’ theme which is exploited for its rhythm as much as for its melody. Schubert incorporates the first half of Bruchmann’s sixth strophe into this section, reserving the change of key signature for the first words of the singing wraith.
6-9. This is the last of Schubert’s various depictions of ghostly voices from the dead. The two versions of Schiller’s Thekla: eine Geisterstimme1,9 D73 and D595 come to mind, as do the exquisite passages for the disembodied Vinvela in Cronnan22. Something unusual has to happen here, and for only the second time in his Lieder (the other occasion is for another night piece, Die Mondnacht8 D238) the composer goes into a key signature of six sharps. We have touched on this key of F sharp major already, but now we find ourselves officially ‘on the other side’, glimpsing heaven through the portals of an exotic tonality bristling with accidentals. Here there is a bass pedal for six bars (perpetually gently pulsating quavers) on C sharp. The right hand contents itself with spread chords as the voice of the angel is accompanied by a harp. Schubert does not allow her to sing with the freedom of a living person: the dynamic is ppp and the repetitive melody, anchored around a pivotal A sharp has a very small range as if her appearance takes place within the breadth of a single beam of light (cf the second Thekla setting, D595). The whole of this passage is deliberately unsophisticated, as if heaven equates with child-like innocence and utterance. There is a tiny but significant shift in harmony for the finger-pointing ‘du’ (‘Wenn du nicht lässt den Erdengott’); mention of this ‘god of this earth’ is an all-embracing euphemism for whatever aspect of the poet’s own life was making him increasingly guilty. The threatened retribution—‘Der grause Tod’—calls for the only diminished harmonies in the piece.
10-12. The main ‘Eroica’ motif provides the melody for an ominous two-bar interlude. Now that the spirit has delivered her message, the singer is released from fear and awe and able to express the ecstasy of revelation; we notice that the vocal line moves into a higher tessitura, and stays there. It is this page which provides the real technical challenges to the singer with its constant excursions to F sharps. At ‘So tönt die Luft, so saust der Wind’ an accompaniment descending in semitones against a held vocal line magically evokes the moan and sweep of the wind (the C sharp/D clash that we have already heard earlier in the piece). Otherwise the harmonic direction of this music is ever upward; sometimes the accompanying triplets remind us of the introduction to Nähe des Geliebten1 where the movement of triplets opens one harmonic vista after another. Sybilla is first encircled with flowers and then floats aloft; it takes a genius to deal convincingly with a divine ascension—that is hard enough in a genuinely religious work—but Schubert is a genius and he manages it. He expects a great deal of his singer who must be suffused with joy at this point—a tall order when the phrase ‘zu der Engel Chor’, with its long melisma on ‘Engel’, is among the hardest he ever wrote: it only rises to an F sharp, but because of the placement of the preceding phrase this line, from the singer’s viewpoint, seems to ascend into the stratosphere.
13. The song’s coda is solemn, lyrical and transfigured—everything that such a piece needs to make it believable. For the first time canonic imitation is used between voice and piano, as if the singer is responding to the divine message—having heard it he will make it part of his life. The postlude goes on singing the tune of the vocal line as if to illustrate the zeal of the poet who now claims to be ‘filled with God’ and who resolves to ‘sing the word’. As the song comes to its end, even staunch unbelievers feel raised to a higher power.
Bruchmann’s poetry, unlike that of other Schubert intimates (Schober, Schlechta, Senn, Mayrhofer and so on) was never published. Even if it had been, his self-importance in casting himself as a minor prophet and his sister as a sybil, in the biblical sense, seems more than a little out of proportion. Although this is an unquestioned masterpiece from the musical point of view, one of Schubert’s great symphonic achievements in song, nowhere else in the composer’s output is such an important and lofty piece of music wedded to such an execrable text. Richard Capell called this German churchyard poetry ‘intolerably vulgar’. Was Schubert really ‘oblivious’ to the weaknesses of this poem (as Capell opines) or was it a case of friendship overriding his literary taste? It almost certainly made a difference that he was a close friend of the Bruchmann family. We do not really know when Schubert first met the poet, but it was certainly some time before the composition of this song, and it may have been as early as his schooldays. Schubert would probably have known Sybilla von Bruchmann (who died on 18 July 1820, aged 21) and was possibly able to sympathise with her brother’s obvious belief in her goodness and purity. Schubert also knew Justine von Bruchmann (1774-1840) the mother of the family; the songs of Op 20, published in April 1823, were dedicated to her, which shows that he felt he owed her a measure of gratitude for hospitality at many a reading party and Schubertiad. Schwestergruss, performed among friends, would have pleased the bereaved relatives, the poet and his siblings as well as his mother; and it would have honoured the dead girl’s memory, albeit in a way that seems rather bizarre to our century. Imagine a community of artists and thinkers fascinated by Novalis and Friedrich von Schlegel’s excursions into pantheism, magnetism and spiritualism, and it makes rather more sense. It seems that Schubert was prepared to treat the composition of this text as pièce d’occasion.
The emergence of biographical detail in songs and their performance seems not to have been as unusual in the circle as we might suppose; the composer was able to set Mayrhofer’s Geheimnis (which praises his musical genius) without embarrassment. Schober’s Pilgerweise on this disc seems to have taken as its theme the tragedy of Schubert’s sickness and struggle to survive. The composer was able to regard this element of self-dramatization as part and parcel of being part of a group of artists who brought their own works to their gatherings, works inspired by the events that affected them all and which were the subject of discussion and even gossip.
But even taking all this into account, this impossibly mawkish poem has in it the very seeds which would cause an irreparable rift between Bruchmann and the rest of the Schubertians, including the composer. When the poet discovered that his other sister, Justina, was secretly engaged to Franz von Schober, he broke the relationship up, much to the dismay of Schwind and Schubert who sided with Schober in the most dramatic rift the circle was ever to experience. Bruchmann was always searching for the ‘meaning of life’, even travelling to Erlangen (such journeys were forbidden to students by Austrian law) to hear the lectures of Schelling where he attracted the attention of the great poet August von Platen. (Kupelwieser’s drawings of Bruchmann show a good-looking, rather pretty young man, and Platen would have been smitten). We thus owe two Platen settings to Schubert’s friendship with Bruchmann, as well as the four important songs (apart from Schwestergruss) from this period of 1822/23:
An die Leier, Im Haine, Am See, and Der zürnende Barde. It is also possible that Bruchmann played a large part in introducing Schubert to the poetry of Friedrich Schlegel. But religious conversion and renunciation were in the air, and Bruchmann’s relationship with his closest friend, the exiled Johann Senn, was also severed in the interest of holiness. Much of Bruchmann’s tussle with the enigmatic ‘Erdengott’ mentioned in the song seems likely to have been a struggle to control, and then eradicate, homosexual feelings. All this intensity and self-examination was anathema to Schubert, who probably found any proselytising boring, particularly moralising based on guilt; but it is possible that his own despair at discovering his illness put him in the mood for a lyric threatening divine retribution.
Once Bruchmann renounced his former life and returned to Catholicism he had nothing more to do with the Schubertians. He was married for a short time, but his wife died. He then became a Redemptorist priest in 1833, going on to a life in the church where he held several important positions in the hierarchy. A late photograph of him shows a sumptuously dressed and rather sour-looking prelate.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000
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