Mention of Goethe’s Hatem is apposite. In choosing the key of B minor for this song, Schubert perhaps conceived it as a companion piece for the first Suleika setting (‘Was bedeutet die Bewegung?’) in the same key. There was perhaps something about this tonality which struck the composer as oriental or exotic; in the same way, the afterlife is an exotic and unknown region. John Reed, commenting on Schubert’s use of B minor/major, says that ‘many songs associated with the idea of death move towards a climax in B major, as in Grablied für die Mutter, Vor meiner Wiege and An die untergehende Sonne signifying an apotheosis of ‘das mildre Land’. Here, if the old man is near death, all signs of commiseration in the minor key are contradicted by the life-enhancing answering phrases in B major: death is not the pathway to his paradise, and he relishes his ability to cherish memories of earthly pleasures. Not for him the pessimism of Der greise Kopf from Winterreise where the singer whose head is covered in snow is bitterly disappointed not to be white-haired as it means that life still has to be endured for a long time. Instead, this old man tells us that his heart is still in good working order –as far as his emotions are concerned at least. Far from being a depressive figure, he has a philosophy and radiates mental health.
The introduction consists of portentous forte chords, first in minims and then quickening into crotchets, all marked ben marcato. The tempo is ‘Alla breve’, so this makes a surprisingly active, even vigorous, introduction; this man is a fighter and has no intention of fading away. Fischer-Dieskau finds this prelude ‘surprisingly severe and rather loud for the text’. A possible explanation is that Schubert sees this old man as no ordinary individual and wishes to introduce him to the listener with a touch of oriental pomp, as if he were a prince or king. We know that Anton von Spaun heard the baritone Johann Michael Vogl sing this song at the monastery of St Florian in June 1823 during a holiday break in Upper Austria that was arranged for Schubert by his friends in the wake of his sickness. If the song was conceived for Vogl in the first place (it seems likely that it was) we must take into account the singer’s well-known sense of self-importance, and his taste (surely the characteristic of an opera performer accustomed to singing heroic parts) for music which cast him in a dramatic light. And so the curtain rises on this ‘ageing amorist’ (as Capell calls him) with a certain majesty. It also crosses our mind that in writing this song Schubert must have been aware that, because of his illness, he himself was very unlikely to make old bones. Vogl, on the other hand, was still a bachelor when he sang this song, and had the experiences of late marriage and fatherhood still in front of him.
The opening vocal melody is determined without being exactly agile. This tune is accompanied in octave unisons in the lower reaches of the piano which expand into unusually low-lying harmonies at the end of the phrase. This unison device is prophetic of another celebrated Schubert song about an old man – Totengräbers Heimwehe from 1825. In the middle of that song there is a similar shape to the vocal line (also accompanied in octaves between the hands in a similar tessitura) with the words ‘Von allen verlassen, dem Tod nur verwandt’ (By all forsaken, kin to death alone). This is near enough to Greisengesang with its imagery of frost and winter, and the final season of a man’s life, for us to see the parallels in the composer’s unique language of tonal analogues. Here it is not the words themselves which summon the similar music, but the situations, as well as the ages of the protagonists at the edge of the grave. Such portentous unisons represent the inexorable workings of fate, loneliness, and perhaps more mundanely, the creaking of old limbs,. We also hear traces of this ominous music in the first movement of the A minor Piano Sonata D845 (also 1825). In the case of Greisengesang such dark doubts are only set up to be knocked down.
The drooping phrase with which the song opened is immediately mirrored by an answer, this time in the major key, and rising to D sharp, more or less the top of the singer’s range when he is required to use a mezzo voce (he is, after all, a bass). Thus the song’s form throughout, following the words, is ‘first the bad news, then the good.’ As in all these Rückert settings, repeats play a vital part in the architecture. Thus the poem’s second verse (beginning ‘Der Winter hat die Scheitel’) is an exact repeat of the music that has gone before.
The poem’s third and fourth verses are harnessed to make a less lyrical middle section (beginning ‘Der Jugendflor der Wangen’) which begins firmly in B minor with unison octaves once again, this time ornamented with acciacciaturas which slightly drag behind the vocal line suggesting doddering or stuttering. After ‘Gegangen, all gegangen einander nach’ there is a brief piano interlude which plunges deeper into the bass clef with funeral music in solemn octaves for fading bloom and withered stem. In this brief interlude we reach an F sharp major semibreve chord, the dominant of B minor. The ensuing stillness adds to the grandeur of the song and the majesty of its protagonist engrossed in the deepest thought. Another semibreve follows where the bass note changes from F sharp to G; this small but dramatic shift initiates a brief recitative. ‘Where have youth’s roses gone’ the singer asks in a phrase – ‘Wo sind sie hingegangen?’ – that would not have been out of place in the celebrated Der Wanderer32. There is anguish in this question which climbs the stave in slow semitones. The cadence settles on ‘hingegangen?’ – two minims suspended over a pair of tied semibreves. For a moment there is stasis; the answer to the conundrum lies poised just beyond us in a held chord on the first inversion of F sharp major. What follows is inevitable enough, for we are expecting a resolution on a chord of B of some kind. But when the answer comes supported by a B major chord under the emotive word ‘Herz’ it comes as the gentlest balm. Yes of course, we think, the workings of the heart lie at the centre of all the great Schubert songs. The full answer is ‘Ins Herz hinab’ (down into my heart) and true to the meaning of the words the vocal line descends in semibreves and dotted minims arriving on a chord of G sharp minor.
This interrupted cadence also comes as a surprise, for we would have been quite satisfied for the strophe to end on a beatific B major chord. But no, there is life in the old boy yet. What follows is extraordinary. From the stony earth of G sharp minor both the voice and the piano open outwards and upwards and reach towards the kinder, milder reaches of B major. It is as if these dying roses, in going down into the heart of the singer, have received miraculous new nourishment, and what has been a barren garden becomes, in a matter of moments, a riot of blossoming tendrils and stems waving in the breeze, and rising to meet sunlight. This, of course, exactly reflects the meaning of the poem, for these imaginary flowers grow instantly, and the name of the wizard gardener is Memory. The contrast between the sturdy and slightly plodding crotchets of reality, and these vibrant phrases of the past in dreamy coloratura quavers is extremely moving. The fact that this requires of the bass voice an unusual mobility and delicacy adds to the impression of youthful fantasy being re-created in a context where no-one would suspect it could flourish.
One of the miracles of Greisengesang is that it is a proper strophic song. In the year of Die schöne Müllerin where the form reached its apotheosis in Schubert’s hands we should perhaps not be surprised by its mastery. The composer simply uses Rückert’s next four strophes and sets them in almost identical manner. (This means of course that he had to dispense with two further strophes, eight lines of poetry, which were redundant to his needs.) The introduction returns as an interlude. The sombre B minor passages are just as effective with new words, and mention of silent stream and singing nightingale grace the B major passages. The nightingale’s extended advice to the old man (the seventh and eighth strophes of the poem) is in anything but the manner, or tessitura, of birdsong, but this detail can be overlooked. The insubstantial floating of dreams is perfectly caught in the ornate roulade setting of ‘Träume’ despite the fact that the most extended use of coloratura occurs on the inessential word ‘und’.
For this reason, not everyone admires this passage. Mandyczewski disliked the fact that in both the first and second musical verses unimportant words were accorded such emphatic melismatic extravagance. As late as the 1960s another version of the manuscript came to light; this is considered the first version and published as such in the Neue Schubert Ausgabe. Here the vibrant blossoming of the vocal line does not take place – all is unornamented semibreves and minims, the last section of the song as we usually know it seems reduced to a simpler form, as if schrunk by Schenkerian analysis. On the other hand, the second version, a copy in the Spaun-Cornaro collection, has all the coloratura additions we have already described, and then some. This was doubtless Vogl’s copy (as we may guess by these extra grace notes and mordents) which not only paint the rose, but also the lily.
When Schubert came to publish the song himself in June 1826 he chose a compromise. He rejected Vogl’s extra variants (the so-called ‘second version’) but the coloratura passage which concludes each of the two musical verses is retained. It seems that, at first, he had envisaged the song without them. My guess would be that Vogl first encountered the song in this simpler version and began to insert his own ornaments to replace those arguably noble and phlegmatic semibreves. Vogl’s ‘improvements’ were probably not very good, and Schubert decided to write in the ornamentation of these passages (though not the others) himself, rising to the challenge, making a virtue out of a necessity, and coming to like his revisions for the very reasons outlined above – the extra movement and vitality of those wafting quavers seem to rejuvenate the old man before our very ears. There seems no reason to doubt that the song as published represents Schubert’s final thoughts.
In 1834 Rückert titled his poem ‘Vom künftigen Alter’ (‘A prospect of old age’) and it is under this title that Richard Strauss (a major Rückert composer) wrote a setting of these words in 1929, using all ten strophes of the poem. But he seems to have been influenced by Schubert nevertheless: the Strauss song is written for exactly the same type of bass voice with similar demands in terms of flexibility and mezza voce. Strauss does allow himself a bird-like trill and flourish in the piano part however, to introduce the nightingale’s homily. He was in his middle sixties when he wrote this song, and still had twenty more years to live. Schubert, in his late twenties, only had five.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000