Schubert is pretty well already. He says that after a few days of the new treatment he felt how his complaint broke up and everything was different. He still lives one day on panada [bread boiled to a pulp in water and flavoured] and the next on cutlets, and lavishly drinks tea, goes bathing a good deal besides and is superhumanly industrious. A new Quartet is to be performed at Schuppanzigh’s, who is very enthusiastic and is said to have rehearsed particularly well. He has now long been at work on an Octet, with the greatest zeal. If you go to see him during the day, he says, ‘Hello, how are you? – Good!’ and goes on writing, whereupon you depart. Of Müller’s poems he has set two very beautifully, and three by Mayrhofer, whose poems have already appeared, Gondelfahrt [sic], Abendstern and Sieg. The last, indeed, I never knew well, but I always remember it as a rich, teeming, almost fable-like song [‘ein reiches blühendes fast märchenhaftes Lied’], but now it is serious, ponderously Egyptian and yet so warm and round, very grand and genuine.
There are a number of interesting points raised by this letter, one of the few on-the-spot reports of Schubert’s concentrated way of working, oblivious to social distractions when he wished to be. Which numbers from Müller’s Die schöne Müllerin particularly appealed to Schwind we shall never know; it seems that these songs from 1823 had been relatively slow to filter through to members of the circle. The puzzled reference to Der Sieg may refer to two different performances of the same new song, each of which emphasised different aspects of the same work, as can often happen. In describing Der Sieg as ‘Egyptian’ Deutsch suggests that Schwind is comparing the noble tone and tempo of the work with a much earlier Mayrhofer setting, Memnon, about the ancient legend ascribed to the statue of the great pharaoh on Luxor’s west bank. But it is just as likely that he is referring to the song’s similarity (with the same low F) to Sarastro’s O Isis und Osiris from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte.
Der Sieg is one of the most neglected of the Mayrhofer songs, and also one of the most revealing. Schwind’s description of it as ‘warm and round, very grand and genuine’ is exactly right in musical terms, but he appears to have paid little attention to the gruesome aspect of the words in the song’s middle section. (It is amazing what some listeners will overlook in the presence of a good tune.) Written in the bass clef, like quite a number of the lieder of this period, it might well have been conceived for Vogl, although at this period Schubert was also in touch with his sometime employer Count Esterhazy who was also a bass. It has the mood of a solemn chorale (the ‘St Antoni’ theme used by Brahms comes to mind) and mention of a saint is appropriate, for this is Mayrhofer’s vision of an afterlife, free from the shackles of earthly existence. His victory is that he has chosen when and how to pass away from life – in fact he has had the courage to commit suicide. Here is evidence enough that this drastic step had been the poet’s intention long before he killed himself in 1836. Unlike the nightmare vision of his own Fahrt zum Hades, he finds himself in heaven rather than hell. Mention of Eden, and Schubert’s response to it (the organ-accompanied tone of the song’s opening and close) implies that the poet has the Christian heaven in mind, notwithstanding a suicide’s ineligibility to enter therein. The composer has musically arranged the transfiguration of the poet in such a way as to make of this singing angel a patriarchal figure of enormous understanding and benignity, not unlike the eastern magus who sings Greisengesang.
The first verse is a noble melody in F major. ‘Age-old dreams’ sink to the bottom of the stave as if going back to their roots, and flowers bloom higher on the stave with the gracious ornamentation of the word ‘wunderbar’. After this hymn-like strophe, the middle section is a flashback to the events which led to this heavenly state. This begins in C major and is less melodic and heavy with portentous dotted rhythms appropriate to the image of ‘des Körpers träges Blei’. This is the music of moral struggle, oratorio-like arioso, that we find in such songs as the Schiller setting Der Kampf. What the poet meant by ‘Der alte Fluch’ (the ancient curse) we shall never know: if meant in a Christian context, its conjunction with images of Eden and the snake might refer to original sin and God’s curse on the serpent in Genesis 3:14. But Mayrhofer’s Eden also seems to owe something to Greek mythology: the line could have been spoken by a benighted Orestes, one of the poet’s favourite characters. In the context of suicide, it seems to refer to everything that made the poet’s life a misery on earth, and one cannot help but think that it referred to the poet’s sexuality. The sense of sustained heroism on the dotted minim of ‘gestillet mein Verlangen’, sung fortissimo, is truly majestic. The verse about the ‘Musen’ and the ‘Schlange’ implies that Mayrhofer’s art made it possible for him to appease and control the serpent of sin. The low tessitura of this phrase is eerily effective. The sudden self-inflicted blow of ‘und meine Hand, sie traf’ is a truly dramatic moment, the vocal line climbing the stave as rising to the ultimate challenge. Once the suicidal blow has been dealt, the music seems suspended in mid-air as four dotted minim chords in the accompaniment go through various transformations from sharps to flats and then naturals: D flat7 slips into the second inversion of F sharp minor; this in turn changes to A7 in first inversion and then, with a miraculous slip of a semitone in the bass, the C7 chord which prepares a return to the F major of the opening. Here, before our ears, we can trace the journey of the transfigured soul as it prepares itself for another existence.
The last verse is an exact repetition of the first. As with Pilgerweise this recapitulation is in the original poem and not simply the composer’s own idea. It sets the seal on a song of deceptive simplicity – a bombshell in a flower to reverse what Victor Hugo said of Verlaine’s La bonne chanson. Another possibility is that Schubert treated this song about a transition into a new life as a type of ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’ – a hymn of thanks for what he took to be his recovery from syphilis (see the first two sentences quoted in the Schwind letter above). Life in March 1824 must have seemed ‘unclouded’ in comparison to the nightmare of 1823, and the self-destruction of the middle verse might be taken to refer to the destruction of a disease raging within. If this was so it was an optimism at the beginning of the month which seems not to have lasted. At the end of March Schubert penned his famous letter to his friend Kupelwieser in Rome where he compared himself to the inconsolable character of Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust, his life shattered and in ruins.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000