Such is the power of Schubert’s music, however, that a poem which would have proved an insuperable handicap to any other composer here seems to make perfect sense. Such is the effect of this music that we are grateful to Craigher for writing lyrics, however divorced from reality, which inspired these flights of musical genius. As a translator and poet he had a neat line in the bathetic: his blind boy (Der blinde Knabe), young nun (Die junge Nonne) and gravedigger are all cardboard stereotypes which shamelessly seek to manipulate the emotions. Fortunately he wrote them at a time when Schubert was in full Shakespearean flight. And in each of these three songs Craigher provides stagey characters, but strong characters nevertheless. These tear-jerkers were a real departure from the innig world of Die Schöne Müllerin, the cycle which, to Schubert’s bitter disappointment, was scarcely noticed when it was published. The Craigher settings seem calculated to be sentimental enough to appeal to a wider market; this was also surely the reason that a collaboration with a hack like Craigher seemed to make sense. The ambition to unite great art with an unashamedly populist streak surfaces from time to time in Schubert’s career, and the results are always disappointing, if only from the point of view of commercial reward. If 1825 was the year of the large canvas – the ‘Great’ Symphony, the long holiday, and the wide vistas of the Lady of the Lake cycle, it is also the year of big songs – not necessarily in terms of length, but certainly in terms of emotional weight. And we cannot complain that the Craigher songs are less than masterpieces: we all allow ourselves a tear for the blind boy (as Hummel did when he heard the Der blinde Knabe performed by Schubert and Vogl); in Die junge Nonne we follow the young nun in each phase of her struggle and are uplifted by her ‘Alleluias’ whatever our religion (or lack of it); and we take the gravedigger very seriously. And this despite the fact that at one moment he is a sour-tempered old codger working himself to a mud-stained frenzy, and at the next a visionary whose ascension to heaven might have been envied by Ganymede and the Virgin Mary. Here is a perfect illustration to Oscar Wilde’s observation: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’.
These 1825 songs represent a crucial bridge between Schubert’s two great cycles – Die schöne Müllerin of 1823 and Winterreise of 1827; the winter traveller, with the enormous depth and pity of his plight, needed a prototype. In Totengräbers Heimwehe we encounter a monumental, even lofty, dimension to the protagonist’s angst which is not to be found in the earlier Müller cycle: here the anger and disdain of Gute Nacht and Die Wetterfahne, the drained death-wish of Der greise Kopf, and the visionary longing of Das Wirtshaus (all from Winterreise) are prophesied.
The key is F minor, and the marking is ‘Unruhige Bewegung, doch nicht schnell’ (‘Restless movement, though not fast’). The first feature we detect in the heavily chordal accompaniment is a fragment of left-hand melody, a four-note cell of quavers, an ascent of the stave from tonic to mediant, and then a drop back to the tonic. This circular figuration in octaves, repeated on various pitches and in various keys, dominates the accompaniment of much of the song’s first section. The music seethes with physical activity: the accents on the first and third beats of the bar denote the connecting crunch between one surface with another, in this case spade with gravel. The harmonic movement is restless but all within a tightly circumscribed area: it is clear that this hard work is taking place at a fixed point, although the contrasting images of ‘Dig out’ and ‘Fill in’ are also depicted in the two contrasting groups of four quavers, one higher in pitch than the other within each bar. The vocal line comes in short gasps, as if out of breath, and its truculent tone hardly comes as a surprise: Schubert’s gruff introduction has somehow prepared us for a misanthrope.
From ‘O Menschheit’ until ‘Grabe aus, scharre zu’ the singer’s line slowly ascends the stave one note at a time. This is hardly original and scarcely melodically interesting, but it is indicative of a mounting sense of emotion. Within these four bars we realise we are in the presence of a towering figure – if not in actual stature, then in terms of emotion. This page does not have a tune to speak of; it is an example of Schubert’s arioso at its greatest, word-setting so compelling that we simply fail to notice the absence of real melody. Schubertian recitative has become so melodic, and Schubertian melody so attuned to the rise and fall of textual nuance, that the boundaries are blurred in the interests of a type of symphonic unity – a Wagnerian achievement avant la lettre. The second two lines of the first strophe are set to almost the same music – the gravedigger’s job is necessarily repetitive – although the words ‘tief hinab!’ occasion a descent to the bottom of the stave. ‘Tag and Nacht keine Ruh’!’ he complains. Does he work both day and night, or are his nights sleepless and ruined by nightmare? It is as if the whole of society is dying around him (a flu epidemic, or even the plague) and his unseen masters are driving him ever onwards. His job could be taken as a metaphor for the stress of any Sisyphean task – indeed for the pressures and exigencies of life itself.
The music of the second strophe lifts us from the soil and gruesome tasks at hand into the mind and heart of the gravedigger. Here is a surprise for the student baritone who has read through this music for the first time and found the first page agreeably impressive and eminently singable. The shift of tessitura and the occurrence of weaving semiquavers placed awkwardly high in the vocal line immediately weed out the men from the boys: this passage requires a flexible control of mezzo voce and coloratura in the passaggio. Here, instead of outbursts of huffing and puffing, there is a plaintive legato counter-melody to those pervasive accompanying quavers, now marked piano, and more pleading than thrusting. Everything is higher-pitched, including the piano writing, and the effect is infinitely more vulnerable, tearful even. This is underlined by the ever-restless bass line which rises a semitone every few bars and tightens the screws of tension until the climactic point of ‘O Tod! komm und drücke die Augen mir zu!’ After this there is a Zwischenspiel looking back to the introduction and continuing the symphonic momentum which binds the work together.
This moment of reflection has undermined the gravedigger’s lust for work. At the start of the third strophe the familiar F minor motor-rhythm of the accompaniment begins in the bass, but it sticks in its tracks, as if freeze-framed on a video. A musical shudder – a motif of three bass notes, something refusing to develop into its former completeness – provides a convulsive memory of that backbreaking toil. Similarly fixed on F minor the setting of ‘Im Leben, da ist’s ach! so schwül’ is all on a single note (C) with the word ‘schwül’ set to a wailing sharpened sixth (D natural). The effect of this unresolved phrase is eerie and other-worldly, a musical moonscape. The left-hand silences, sudden rests in the bass clef, yawn like the open grave – dug, but not yet filled in. What follows, the phrase ‘Im Grabe so friedlich, so kühl’, superbly counterbalances this address to a dark void. (The imagery of schwül/kühl for life/death is also to be found in the Stolberg setting Die Mutter Erde, and of course in the Heine poem Der Tod dass ist die kühle Nacht set by Brahms.) Here is the first note of comfort and sweetness heard in the whole song. And how powerful it is that for the first time the left hand abandons its restless quavers in favour of cool and restful minims. But the repose is brief, dreamed-of rather than attained. This phrase has brought the music into E flat major and we are set for another rising sequence (beginning ‘Doch ach, wer legt mich hinein?’) where the bass is continually punctuated by that three-note motif. The gravedigger fears that he, who has buried so many, will have no one left to see him into his final resting-place. The vocal line rises in anguished semitones between B natural and D while the harmony shifts in stages from E flat major to settle on G major, the dominant of C minor, where it stays for six bars; all pretence at melody has been abandoned in these obsessive, chant-like phrases. After the second ‘wer legt mich hinein?’ a roof of repeated Gs in the piano covers ominous stirrings in the bass, the ghost of that twitching three-note motif.
When this composer prepares as long an upbeat phrase as this, a questioning dominant if ever there was one, we know that he has something special up his sleeve. There is a change of tempo (‘Noch langsamer’ – still slower) and a new key signature – C minor, a tonality associated in Schubert with tragedy and sinister events. The words ‘Von allen verlassen, dem Tod nur verwandt’ initiate an extraordinarily sombre passage where the voice, falling in a long melodic sigh over four bars, is doubled in both hands by the piano. All is lassitude and infinite weariness. This mournful tune also features mordents which add a shudder to the piano writing. We hear something very like this ominous phrase quoted in a work that is almost contemporary – the first movement of the Piano Sonata in A minor, D845. And we cannot fail to be reminded also of Der greise Kopf, that great and hugely pessimistic song, also in C minor, which lies at the heart of Winterreise. There the phrase ‘Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre!’ (‘How far it is still to the grave’) is similarly accompanied in double octaves, and the accompaniment is similarly overlaid with shakes of fear. The connection between the plights of gravedigger and winter traveller are clear – both long for release into another world. No such luck for Müller’s hero; his creator was the better poet. The gravedigger’s wish, however, is about to be granted. Fiercely wielding a mean shovel a few minutes ago, he is suddenly weak enough to give up the ghost. As in Die junge Nonne an entire lifetime is lived in the progress of a single song. The second phrase in this section (beginning ‘und starre mit sehnendem Blick’) seems to be a repeat of the first, but Schubert allows the vocal line to drop unexpectedly to a low A natural, and it is this note that proves to be the portal to heaven.
It is as if the composer has turned a key which opens a door into another realm. Everything so far has been deeply felt, but nothing has prepared us for the musical glory which follows. The voice’s bare A on ‘Grab’, poised over the edge of the grave/stave, is echoed deeply in the piano bass by an octave on the same note; this is followed by a gentle and sumptuous A major chord. From this foundation a new melody spirals, simple but unaccountably affecting, beginning its stately ascent in the inner voice of the accompaniment, like a stately cello line. This is a new, slower, symphonic Bewegung which replaces the one that has gone before. Above it, in the first and second violins, dactylic rhythm echoes the Allegretto movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, a favourite Schubertian source of inspiration. This interlude ends in F major, but at the entry of the voice (‘O Heimat des Friedens, der Seligen Land’) the music returns to A major and begins what is effectively a vocal re-run of the wonderful phrase we have just heard in the piano. The vocal line now climbs a ninth in the course of three bars, making the setting of ‘an dich knüpft die Seele ein magisches Band’ one of the most technically testing phrases for a baritone in the Lieder repertoire. The sense of longing and aspiration which floods this hushed music, if properly sung, is awe-inspiring. The change to D major for ‘Du winkst mir von ferne’, and the circular progression which returns to F major for the repeat of ‘ewiges Licht’ is even more magical. This slow dance, the nature of which is emphasised by the mezzo-staccato articulation of the accompanying figuration, a metaphor for the blinking of starlight, is a pavane of transformation, truly music of the spheres.
These stars now disappear in their courses as the natural world fades from the dying man’s sight. As diminished chords throb in the piano’s right hand, the words ‘Es schwinden … die Sterne’ are set to two dipping diminished fifths, phrases which are separated by a void where the pianist’s left hand provides an answering rising diminished fifth. The old man, like ET lost on an unfriendly planet, wants to dial home, and we hear the light-years between him and his heavenly destination. The piano’s gestures are now his, and his voice describes the stars in their courses. As he raises his gaze, as if stretching upward, the stars bend sympathetically down towards him. The enormity of these celestial galaxies of 1825 can be clearly discerned through music, and 2001 – a Space Odyssey provides no more impressive picture than this. A modulation takes the phrase ‘das Auge schon bricht’ into B minor. Another diminished seventh is broached from this distant key, and the colloquy of diminished intervals is repeated a tone lower. This eerie conversation between earth and the distant stars suspends the music in outer space. Then the words ‘Ich sinke’ are harmonised to another diminished seventh, a tone lower still, as the piano’s left hand echoes their two-stage descent with ever lower bass notes throbbing in quavers. This is part of the hidden counterpoint in this music, moving inner parts which give it a sense of unearthly lightness, each voice like a planet moving inexorably within its orbit. The repetition of those words allows the vocal line to reach its lowest point before it changes direction and moves upwards.
On ‘Ihr Lieben, ich komme!’ (the first of six repetitions of these words) Schubert has imagined that the gravedigger, already in a transfigured state, has glimpsed the faces of loved ones ‘on the other side’. His soul rises from his now redundant body to greet them. The ascent up this arpeggio is both harmonically (F major and C7) and melodically simple, but in this context its effect is radiant and grandiose. No one is laughing at the ridiculous poem of the old gravedigger now. There is another appearance of the repeated falling intervals set to ‘ich sinke’, but this is a case of reculer pour mieux sauter: Once again the singer is required to touch on high Fs on the top of the stave, a vocal feat the perilous difficulty of which plays its part in the suspense of the music, and in the depiction of a goal rapturously attained. As in the Mayrhofer setting Nachstück, the old man on his death becomes subsumed into the body of the music. With the repeated calls of ‘ich komme, ich komm’!’ (Craigher’s poem breaks off deliberately and implies we lose his sentence in mid-flight) the vocal line trails away in the middle of the texture. Above it and below it the piano-writing throbs with the rhythm to which the stars might dance in their eternal round. At no point hitherto in the piece, and rarely in his songs, does Schubert use the extremes of the keyboard in this dazzling way. The wide gap between the lowest bass note and the highest chord seems symbolic of the distance between the mire of the graveyard and the starlit galaxies which has to be traversed by that troubled soul. As a pious afterthought Craigher had placed (verse 3) a crucifix in the old man’s hand as a vade-mecum for the journey, but it is not this which permits his ascent. In this case, Schubert’s immortal music has enabled even pigs to fly, and the old ham has been blessed with a lucky escape.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000