John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Jamie MacDougall (tenor), Simon Keenlyside (baritone), Michael George (bass), Graham Johnson (piano)
These four were a mixture of professional and semi-professional artists; two were already in their forties, and two were more or less contemporaries of Schubert’s. Like the composer’s parents they had all been born in the Bohemian or Moravian regions of the empire, and had come to Vienna to make their fortunes with varying success. Josef Barth (1781-1865) had been an official of the Schwarzenberg household and became a tenor in the court chapel. When Das Dörfchen was published, Schubert dedicated the work to him; it is clear that the quartet owed its enthusiastic reception in part to the skills of the first tenor. The second tenor was Johann Karl Umlauff (1796-1861), a singing student of Vogl. He apparently received an offer of an engagement at the Kärntnertor Theatre in 1821 but turned it down in favour of pursuing his career as a lawyer. This eventually led to financial success and his ennoblement. (He claimed to have argued with Schubert over the prosody of Der Wanderer, and seems to have been surprised when the composer was unwilling to submit to suggestions for improvements.) The second bass was Wenzel Nejebse (1796-1865), who was an amateur singer but a dedicated one; he worked first in the censor’s office, and then the treasury, but he took part in a number of Schubert first performances. Nejebse was one of the subscribers to the first edition of Schwanengesang, and was a founder member of the Wiener Männergesang-Verein.
From the biographical point of view, the first bass, also something of a composer, was perhaps the most fascinating of the four. Like his younger colleague Umlauff, Josef Götz (1787-1822) also studied law, and like Barth was a member of the Schwarzenberg household. He decided to embark on an operatic career and became a well-liked Bartolo in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Sadly, his career as a professional singer was very short-lived. Due to a deterioration in his health, he had to give up singing some six months after the Kärntnertor performance of Das Dörfchen. He died in early 1822 of venereal disease, Deutsch tells us. This was a sad end for a handsome young man of thirty-five, and it must have been distressing for Schubert who knew Götz quite well: the bass had given the first performance of Sehnsucht (Schiller, D636) in February 1821, and taken part in other pieces such as the lost cantata Prometheus D451 and, of course, Die Nachtigall. When Schubert discovered that he himself had syphilis at the end of 1822 or early in 1823, Götz’s demise must have been fresh in his mind, and a grisly reminder of what he might expect to be in store for him.
Another male quartet took up Das Dörfchen for a performance on 4 April 1821, a group of wind-players moonlighting as singers. The piece was by then all the rage. Then a quartet with two members of the original team, Barth and Götz, sang it another performance on 24 April; on this occasion another bass replaced Nejebse, someone who was to become almost as famous as Schubert in his own right – Johann Nepomuk Nestroy (1801-1862). Nestroy had been a younger fellow-pupil of the composer at the Imperial Konvikt. After failing in an attempt to follow the law, he made his way as a singer with considerable success, and performed in a number of the composer’s male-voice quartets as first bass. He also took part in performances of Fidelio and Meyerbeer’s Il crociato in Egitto when Schubert was in the audience. But singing was only one of Nestroy’s skills. Schubert’s was never to know him at the height of his success as a comedian, playwright and wit; he became renowned for his sarcastic word-play and farces based on the old Viennese traditions of Volkskomödie. Nestroy became acknowledged as the greatest satirist of the age, and wrote pieces making fun of such writers as Grillparzer and Hebbel.
Some time before Das Dörfchen came to be published in June 1822, Schubert added a piano part – this is the version performed here; the first is unaccompanied and very similar (though not identical) vocally. The piano part, almost as if it were conceived for rehearsal purposes, is seldom other than a doubling of the vocal lines; the piano plays little part in the setting of musical atmosphere which depends on the shape and sweep of the melody. Like some other extended vocal quartets, this piece is in three movements. This first of these (‘Allegretto’) is an ABA construction where the generous, open-hearted tune of the opening returns at ‘So nenn’ ich meine geliebte / Meine kleine Einsiedelei’. In music of this kind, Schubert is in his element: the bright key of D major is made to resound to a melody that progresses in a rolling 3/4, full of health and countrified happiness. But at the same time it is tinged with the authentic Schubertian ache (as at the suspension at ‘ringsumher die Blicke schauen’) which betokens a moment so fragile that it is inevitable that it will pass in the manner of a perfect spring day. (‘Go not happy day’ is Tennyson’s plea in similar spirit.) ‘May time never destroy you’ says Bürger at the end of the song, but time, and the Industrial Revolution, would change all this landscape irrevocably. And it is if Schubert knew and wept, even as he smiled. The panorama described by the eighteenth-century German poet is of picture-book perfection. But Schubert writes music for the jaded city-dweller idealising country life, and his exaggeration is understandable. The music seems simple, but in the way that the sophisticated musician would wish it to be – which is not really simple at all. The line for the first tenor at ‘dem blaue Wälder die Grenze zieh’n’ slips into upper regions of the treble clef, a tessitura characteristic of this medium where a lack of soprano voice means that the first tenor must rise to the challenge of giving the piece lightness and brightness. This playful vocal line, touching at high As, is a secular version of ‘I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills’ (with a change: ‘from whence cometh my delight’) as the singer scans the landscape and sees the sheep-farm and his ‘Sorgenfrei’, his cottage retreat draped in vine and elm leaves. The word ‘Einsiedelei’ reminds us of the title of an earlier track on this disc, and the concept of hermitage so beloved of the poets of an earlier generation.
The second section (‘Andante con moto’) changes gear: the key signature is A major, and the time signature is 2/4. The dotted rhythms of the first tenor seem as decorative as so many tendrils of greenery, or as flexible as so many poplars gently bending in the breeze. And now Schubert has his chance, never refused when proffered, to write water-music. First of all we see the limpid brook from the point of view of the observer: smooth and gliding thirds and sixths of the two tenors entwine with a bass line which moves at the bottom of the stave in contrary motion. This is genial play with the idea of a mirror effect (‘Lässt bald im Spiegel den grünen Hügel’) where the frisking lambs and green hillside are visible on the river-bed. This optical illusion is given a musical analogue by the distance between the parts (to this end the composer silences the first bass for twelve bars) where broad vistas of sky are separated from expanses of water, the whole effect accentuated by the reflecting stream. When we are allowed to glimpse within the water (from ‘Da gleiten Schmerlen’) the first tenor, at last free from the piano doubling his every note, begins his aquatic acrobatics, where all is flashing fin and glinting scales. The other voices are allowed to join in to an extent; the second tenor attaches himself, limpet-like, to his colleague for the hocketing ascent in thirds up the stave at ‘und bald herauf zur Fläche wieder’; the basses are also allowed their own flourish at the repeat of these words. Schubert is having such a good time, like a child gurgling with happiness as it splashes around in a paddling-pool, that these water features are presented for a second time.
The final section (‘Andante con moto’) heralds a return to the home key of D major and the tempo is a flowing two-in-a-bar. There was something of a tradition in male quartets that in this peroration mode, soulful music is banished in favour of something more rousing. Schubert makes of this a bracing exercise in canon where each singer is allowed a separate appearance, as if standing in a spotlight for a curtain call. The lead tenor goes first, unencumbered by the other singers, the piano providing an accompaniment in burbling quavers which are prophetic of the sturdy semiquavers of Das Wandern from Die schöne Müllerin. The second tenor takes his turn, followed in order down the staves by the two basses. The fourth singer has to do battle with the other three in order to be heard, but sings for only eight bars before a new tempo (‘Adagio’) marks the beginning of a four-bar coda. This is an elongated setting of the address to bliss which has opened the song’s final section – ‘O Seligkeit’ in broad and soulful fashion; there is nothing exceptional about the dominant-seventh harmony but, once again, the tessitura of the first tenor part adds the expressive (and vocally perilous) edge to the sort of sentimental coda that became one of the clichés of the barbershop quartet.
Gottfried August Bürger was a talented and fluent writer in the field of the narrative ballad and lyric. He was a distinguished teacher and became professor at Göttingen. But Bürger’s career was ruined by personal scandals, particularly in connection with his third marriage: the writer Elise Hahn proposed to him by means of a poem, but the ensuing relationship was catastrophic. This, and Schiller’s scathing review of Bürger’s Gedichte, was said to have contributed to the poet’s early death. Schubert was very free in his selection of lines from Bürger’s much longer poem. There are 137 of these in the original, of which the composer selected only 50 (more in the first, unaccompanied, version of the song). It is the only lyric by this poet set to music by Schubert, although other composers (Beethoven, Cornelius, Strauss and particularly Pfitzner) have found much to their purposes. Both Liszt and Duparc were drawn to his long narrative poem Lenore (1773).
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000