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Der Alpenjäger, D524

First line:
Auf hohem Bergesrücken
January 1817; published in 1850 as part of volume 45 of the Nachlass
author of text

This huntsman is not to be confused with a song of the same title to a Schiller text recorded in Volume 1. It is a deceptively jolly piece with which to begin a year of serious composition (the song is dated January 1817). This type of genre poem had long been popular and had been employed by the greatest poets. Pastoral excursions (as in the Goethe songs Schäfers Klagelied and Jägers Abendlied) evoke an eighteenth-century nostalgia for freedom from the rigours of city life; working-class characters of every conceivable occupation and trade are assigned lyrics which, at their Shakespearean best, can be both touching and wise. The fact that the Mayrhofer poem is in the narrative third person renders it less personal than some of Goethe’s best work in this manner. Perhaps this is why Capell was not convinced: he avers that the Alpine huntsman is ‘the merry Swiss peasant of German chromolithography’. Even if this is so, who would not relish having such a colourful item in one’s collection? What Capell dismissed in 1928 as a commonplace piece of nineteenth-century kitsch (the chromolithograph, not the song) now strikes us as a picturesque souvenir of a happier and more innocent age. And it is surely Schubert’s genius that among the thousands of hearty ditties and quasi-folksongs composed around similar themes by long-forgotten composers, it is his music which endures. The opening chords are strummed in carefree manner, but they strike no false notes. If Capell finds the song ridiculous, he admits that ‘no one else would have done so irresponsible a thing half as well.’

From the muggy depths of the Viennese hothouse such an open-air life must have seemed attractive, for a moment or two at least. Certainly we feel that Mayrhofer is dreaming of a world where everything is straightforward and manly (often a preoccupation, Hemingway-like, of an inner struggle against what is perceived as unmanly – the overwhelmingly masculine poem Der Schiffer is another example of this). The subtext goes something like this: rather than the perils facing me in my own life, give me perilous mountain precipices any day; give me the emotional security of a stable relationship of picture-book normality and sweetness; give me, in short, an uncomplicated life. The repeated entreaty ‘Give me’ actually occurs in a long Mayrhofer poem which Schubert was to set in 1818 – Einsamkeit; there the poet plaintively constructs an extended shopping-list of the type of solitary, contemplative existence that he would like to live, far from the intriguing – in both senses – life of the big city.

Whether or not the Schubertians, and the composer in particular, were made for the outdoor life is another matter. The poem is prophetic of the exile of the poet Johann Senn, intimate of the Schubert circle who was unfortunate enough to be singled out and punished for his political views. In 1820 Senn was ordered back to his native Tyrol where one of his few freedoms was to contemplate life from as many mountain ridges as he pleased. It was as if he were bound to a rock like the unfortunate Prometheus. This punishment which removed him from his circle of friends, and the artistic interchange which nourishes all writers, effectively extinguished his creative abilities. When Mayrhofer wrote this poem this cruel turn of events lay in the future; but in 1817 it is clear that the huntsman’s life embodies his fantasies of physical and mental freedom – impossible dreams for the freethinker who worked as a censor for the police state. It is true that this yodelling hero may fall from a great height and break his neck (this, incidentally, was to be Mayrhofer’s choice of suicide) but at least he was surrounded by the beauties of nature; daily traversing the minefields of political chicanery must have seemed no less dangerous, and considerably less healthy.

Schubert chooses a 6/8 rhythm suitable for pastoral songs. As if influenced by thoughts of mountain air, the marking is ‘Frisch’; this is counterbalanced with the moderating ‘doch nicht zu schnell’ as if to remind us that this is no elfin song – a strapping body and muscular thighs are contained within these Lederhosen. The opening aria is simple in a manner that only Schubert can carry off. He can deliberately restrict harmonic variety without impoverishing his character; rather the reverse. The music is largely grounded in tonics and dominants, and it is no doubt this ‘oom pah pah’ aspect of the music to which Capell objected; but this in-built banality seems entirely suitable to paint a man whose eyes traverse vast vistas, but whose imagination is limited. As with Shakespeare’s stout-hearted working characters, we salute his solidity of spirit rather than his brain-power. Luckily, Schubert is easily able to differentiate between simplicity and stupidity, between lack of sophistication and philistinism: the man has a good and faithful heart. The contour of the vocal line moving up and down the stave, and occasionally plunging the octave, suggests the physical movements of a sure-footed climber, and these intervals also tell us that he can yodel into the next valley when necessary. The accompaniment employs the thirds and sixths typical of horn music. An echo is also built into the music: after ‘ins Land hinab zu blicken’ the descending F major arpeggio on that last word is mirrored a beat later by the piano, and the rollicking sixths (which begin after ‘das nebelleicht zerrinnt’) bounce back and forth between the piano’s middle and high registers as if horn fanfares were reflected back to us at different pitches. We find the same echo effect in different registers in another Mayrhofer song written in the same month – Schlaflied D529.

The middle section, marked ‘Ein wenig langsamer’, is in F minor. If the joy of the huntsman in his work is simple, so is his unhappiness; indeed it is almost childlike in its sense of desolation. At ‘Er ist der fernen Lieben, die ihm daheim geblieben’ everything in this music droops downwards with plaintive echoes between voice and piano that border on petulance. It is here, if anywhere, that we can detect an affectionate chuckle on the composer’s part. Despite all his bravery and bluster, when it comes to love the huntsman is a big baby. The emotional vulnerability of someone brave and impervious to danger is in itself something of a cliché. Before ‘Und ist er nun am Ziele’ throbbing triplets are introduced into the piano; the left hand takes up the drooping motif which has already been heard in the treble register; this takes on the character of a mournful horn obbligato resonating through the mountainous terrain. It is as if the huntsman were trying to communicate with his faraway love in the time-honoured fashion of alphorn messaging.

It is then that we hear the authentic Schubertian touch: at ‘so drängt sich in der Stille’ voice and accompaniment rise to a D flat underpinned by a diminished seventh chord; at ‘ein süsses Bild’ this changes enharmonically to a C sharp as part of a A7 chord leading to a modulation into D major. This change seems to conjure a vision of sweetness and femininity before our eyes and ears, and the singer is transformed by the radiance. It is as if a beam of healing love has ennobled this rustic soul and rendered him able to communicate in a delicate and sensitive manner. He recalls choosing his girlfriend in the valley, and Schubert conjures memories of a gathering, a village dance perhaps, where they might have met. The waltz music for the three lines of poetry beginning ‘Die Sonne goldne Strahlen’ is simple enough – the harmonies are tonic, dominant and subdominant – but the higher tessitura requires something new of the singer. The song as a whole is conceived for a healthy baritone, but here a high F sharp (on ‘im Tal erkor’) has to be limned in with a head voice which requires delicacy and tact. This successfully achieved is like seeing a rugged mountaineer execute a faultless balletic pirouette.

Poets and artists can exist in a world of dreams and fantasy (indeed Mayrhofer finishes his poem with the vision of feminine love, without the reprise which the composer deemed necessary), but real men have to work, and Schubert knows this. Pull yourself together, lad, and get on with the job. The first verse of the poem is exactly recapitulated to make a satisfying whole in conventional ternary form. After having glimpsed another, more vulnerable side of the man’s character we are happy to hear his working refrain once again. It is perhaps significant that the song is dedicated to Schubert’s old friend Josef von Spaun whose longstanding role in Schubert’s life was that of trusty and true supporter. One can somehow imagine that Spaun would have enjoyed this uncomplicated music, and that it was for this reason that the composer, when he came to publish the song in 1822, long after it was written, dedicated it to him.

The song exists in three versions of different keys. The first is in E major, and the second, even lower, in D major. The latter bass-clef version was made for Count Esterházy during Schubert’s long stay in Zseliz during 1818. When he came to publish the song Schubert chose to make a third version in F major, the one performed here. This seems to have been influenced by market considerations to do with vocal range and amateur accessibility. The other keys are lugubrious and too low for the majority of male singers. And whereas it is unlikely that many basses will be able to float a delicate high E, one has at least half a hope of finding a baritone with a soft high F sharp. As in the case of this mountaineer, dreams are sometimes reality.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000


Schubert: The Complete Songs
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Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 34
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Track 1 on CDJ33034 [2'14] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 15 on CDS44201/40 CD17 [2'14] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price) — CD temporarily out of stock

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