It is well known that Count Esterházy (1777-1834) was extremely interested in music; also that he was quite a gifted singer with a bass voice, and that his wife, Countess Rosine, sang alto. Quite naturally they also wanted their daughters to sing competently, and the encouragement of their talents in this direction had, in all probability, been Schubert’s responsibility from the spring of 1818 when it is likely that he visited the girls in their Stadtpalais in Vienna. (He earned a precious two Gulden an hour for his work.) One may conjecture that Schubert had asked his colleague, Johann Michael Vogl, himself a famous singing teacher, for some pointers in this regard. But one must not forget that the boys of the Hofkapelle, students at the Imperial Konvikt where Schubert received his education, had also had singing tuition, and that the composer counted himself a singer of sorts. This did not stop him from setting impossible vocal tasks in some of the early ballads, but by the middle of 1818 (and in stark contrast to the early works written before 1814) Schubert was well tuned-in to matters of vocal range and comfort.
Nevertheless, in writing these singing exercises (the plural description of something which is, in fact, one continuous piece of music) Schubert set his two charges a very difficult task. Either they struggled with this piece and found it too difficult, or the standard of singing among teenage girls was of a thoroughly professional standard, much higher than might be found today among a similar age group. It is true that singers of the epoch began their careers on the stage much earlier than is the present custom, but we do not hear of the Esterházy girls pursuing virtuoso careers (not that women of their station would have been allowed to do so), and neither do we have any documentary evidence that the Sing-Übungen became a ‘party piece’, something which surely would have happened if it had been a success with its dedicatees.
From the casting of the vocal quartet Gebet (which dates from Schubert’s second visit to Zseliz in 1824) we know that Marie Esterházy sang soprano, and that her sister Caroline, like her mother, was an alto. And yet, at first glance, this piece is definitely written for two sopranos of equal range. A second look brings an interesting perspective: the second part visits the same high Gs we hear from the first singer, but less often, and when they occur it is never quite in the same exposed way. Both parts visit the middle and the top of the stave (the piece is a thorough work-out for both singers), but it seems that Schubert is intending to encourage young Caroline to work on her top by making her follow, and imitate, her elder sister who had more of a natural ability in that register. The exquisite tact inherent in a piece written for sisters (who no doubt were subject to all the usual rivalries and sensitivities of siblings, whereby the younger might feel slighted by the older) is that in no way does Schubert make the younger singer feel any less challenged. As a result, however, the long flowing four-bar phrases (one relentlessly succeeding the other, and requiring great breath control), as well as the coloratura passages, with all they require of the diaphragm, would have been too much, certainly for the younger countess. But the fact that the composer defended and encouraged Caroline in a special way, even at this age, seems undeniable.
The piece is written on three staves: two vocal staves with figured bass. And here we have a clear illustration of Schubert’s wonderful ability to write an interesting bass line, something on which all of his songs depend. (We would notice this more often if our minds and ears were not usually diverted by the felicities of the right-hand piano part, something which was usually the last to be composed.) The interchange of bass-line triplets with the twists and turns of the girls’ vocal lines is masterful, the one bouncing off the other like some demanding three-sided ball game. And the bass line is, of course, the one played by the composer himself. It is as if he were dancing with the young countesses, playing with them and leading them on; his enjoyment at this prospect, tinged with the erotic musical symbolism of such entwining interchange, is obvious. It is this which probably accounts for the piece’s length and complexity.
The plural title, ‘Singing Exercises’, is a puzzle. But this is surely linked with the question of how one may perform this wordless piece. Sometimes such exercises are sung merely to ‘la’, but we are not told anything to help us. If there is more than one exercise contained in this piece of music, it must be to do with the fact that the mastering and matching of the vowel sounds in the various registers is one of a singer’s first tasks. Accordingly, in this performance the two sopranos vary the vowels throughout the piece, changing from ‘ah’ to ‘ee’ and ‘oo’, and so on.
Incidentally, the idea of a music-master to two high-born (and rather unmusical) sisters, each trying to outdo the other, and trying to hide the fact in a barrage of arch dissembling, is brilliantly caught by E T A Hoffmann in one of his Kreisler stories. This emphasises the fact (also celebrated by Molière) that it was far from unusual for genuinely talented musicians to be enlisted to flatter the amateur aspirations of the idle rich. Schubert was lucky that his own experiences in this role seemed to have been more productive than usual.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000