Reed rightly points out that because the poem dates from 1810, Schlegel cannot have equated his caged birds with the victims of Metternich’s secret police. August von Schlegel (unlike his brother Friedrich who became a Viennese resident) lived in Switzerland and Germany and his poetry did not refer to local Austrian political conditions. But one must beware of thinking Metternich’s regime the only oppressive one that has ever been, and Schlegel (unlike his brother Friedrich) remained a lifelong liberal. Despite the poem’s use of metaphor to describe the longing of the artist for an ideal world beyond his reach, one cannot dismiss this poem (and the resulting song) as entirely unpolitical. In reading this poem, it is more than likely that it struck a number of chords with Schubert at a time that he was at his most politically engaged; this is the composer who had set Prometheus with such vehemence that he cannot have regarded it as purely a mythological narrative. In fact Die gefängenen Sänger was painfully descriptive of a situation at home. The reference to the singers’ (or poets’) caged confinement must surely have seemed apposite to the case of the poet Johann Senn who had been arrested in March 1820 at an incident when the composer, subsequently also questioned by the police, was also present. This was the one direct brush with the repressive state authorities experienced by Schubert. He got away with a caution; he was less than a minor player in what amounted to a small, but basically harmless, cadre of student secret-society rebelliousness. But Senn was detained for a trial which dragged on for fourteen months before he was finally deported to the Tyrol, his career in ruins and his prospects blighted. This means that when this song was composed in January 1821, his case was still undecided. Senn, fearing for the verdict, was behind bars, as much a captive as the birds in Schlegel’s poem. Of course the composer was highly involved in this incident. He had escaped punishment, but his friend had not.
The drooping figuration, a crotchet phrased away to a quaver, and almost obsessively repeated, is prophetic of another 1821 song accompaniment written a few months later – Geheimes. There the theme is of the frisson experienced between two lovers which can only be expressed in meaningful glances. The courting pair are constrained by oriental etiquette, and nevertheless manage to say much. Similarly, the birds communicate with each other as if in code; the imprisoned birds draw sustenance from their secret communication with their free brothers. The invention of a musical language to describe a secret language (if we believe that birds actually can speak with each other) is what is achieved here. The vocabulary is small, repetitive and immediately recognisable. That lilting, rocking little motto pervades the song, refusing to develop into extended melody, and preferring to reflect the tiny, cell-like structures of birdsong. With these unpromising beginnings Schubert performs miracles.
The first strophe is in G major (in the original, untransposed key). The outdoor nightingales sing in freedom in the May breezes. The sinuous melody in 6/8 darts and wafts; the vocal line, when it imitates the drooping figurations of the accompaniment approximates to a cooing sound, as if doves and nightingales belonged to the same family. The aerial atmosphere is enhanced by the fact that both staves of the accompaniment are written in the treble clef. To add to a feeling of unearthly joy, the composer uses the tonic chord in root position extremely sparingly until the interlude in the song’s thirteenth bar. The rise and fall of the vocal line on ‘sieh’, es kam der holde Mai’ is delightful (even more appropriate at ‘welche Wonn’ im Lieben sei’) and the melismas on ‘holde’ and ‘Lieben’ are especially gracious. What other song, I found myself wondering, has the same happy (yet somehow disturbingly nostalgic) 6/8 gait, a mention of birdsong, a reference to May? Hölty’s Mailied perhaps? Yes, but let us not forget this song’s most famous descendant, Frühlingstraum from Winterreise, where the same criteria also apply. And, like Frühlingstraum, this song has a dark side. In that case there is a time-shift away from the happy past (the major key) to the bitter present (the minor); in Die gefangenen Sänger the shift is of space rather than time, from the free outdoors to incarceration.
For the second verse, the same motif which has begun the song is adapted to the minor key. The prosody of ‘And’re, die im Käfig leben’ is masterly, with the quaver-rest gap after ‘And’re’ which suggests that even speaking of the plight of these poor ‘others’ has produced a lump in the throat. The setting of the passage beginning ‘Möchten in die Freiheit eilen’ right up to the expressive ‘Ach’ on a high G which drops a diminished fifth in expressive plaint, is extraordinary. Whoever has seen a bird caught within a confined space, attempting to escape and only succeeding in hitting, time after time, against the barrier that holds it captive, will understand this passage. The accompaniment is higher than at any other point in the song, as if the hands were trying to escape over the top of a keyboard fenced in by its size and without access to the outside world. There is something unbearably poignant about the fruitless mission of the piano’s airborne triplet (we hear this three-note pattern repeated no fewer than eight times with unchanging harmony) as it strives for resolution; the unsuccessful quest for the root position of the chord is the longing for release. The desolate ‘Ach’ on a diminished chord signifies failure. We have already heard the gently rolling music of the interlude; it was the postlude to the first verse, but there it was in the major, and here it is in the minor key.
The key signature of the third verse is five flats as we find ourselves, rather unexpectedly, in B flat minor for the darkest strophe of the song. The vocal line is fashioned out of the same materials, and the accompanying motifs are similar, but there are new details. The vocal line at ‘Schmetternd ihres Lieds Gewalt’ (and even more appropriately at ‘an der Steine / Hartem Bau zurücke prallt’) bounces back and forth within the range of a sixth and seventh as if sound were reflected harshly back on itself within too small a space, an acoustical effect described precisely in the text. The piano adds to this impression of harshness with semiquaver triplets in the right hand, wing-flapping oscillations in octaves. Where have we heard this in a more familiar song? In Frühlingstraum of course, where the early morning cockerel arouses the sleeper from his dreams (in bars 16, 18 and 20 of that song). The two works are united by distress: the sound of imprisoned birdsong sends shivers down the spine in much the same way as the winter traveller is awoken not only by cock-a-doodle-doo (‘Und als die Hähne krähten’), but by the harsh cawing of ravens (‘Es schrieen die Raben vom Dach’). In Die gefangenen Sänger the ugly stone walls of the prison make even the most beautiful birdsong seem ugly and grating. The artist’s work cannot remain beautiful in inhumane captivity: it is brutalised by ill-treatment and lack of understanding. At the end of the verse there is a seven-bar interlude which leads the music back to G minor. The semiquaver triplets make a brief reappearance, but a succession of unadorned dotted crotchets has a calming effect on the music. For the first time in the song the bass clef makes an appearance, pulling the work’s specific gravity earthward. We have heard the ill-effects of imprisonment; now it is time for a moral to be drawn.
This is where we hear Schubert’s skill as a composer – the ability to re-use material in a way that reinforces a sense of inevitable continuity within a song of this kind. It is one thing for him to write bird music for singing throat and flapping wing. But the philosophical envoi is never a particularly easy thing to set to music, and is best avoided. When it has to be included (like here) it is best to keep it simple and unadorned. Accordingly, the fourth verse of the poem is also the shortest. It contains the moral, the key to the allegory, but Schubert sets this to music derived from earlier melodic and rhythmic patterns, gently floating along in the barcarolle rhythm which seems rather frivolous for a work with such a serious message. There are no elaborate melismas or decorations, and no repetitions of text. It is clear that man the creator has more options than the birds of nature. Inspired by the song of our fellow artists, we seek in vain to find a bit of heaven in this earthly life. The second-strophe music for the birds trying to escape (a constantly repeating circle of triplets) reappears in a lower register where the addition of bass clef harmonies illustrates mankind’s weightier destiny. And this time there is a way out. Poetry is the key which opens all doors, and Schubert introduces it in such a way that the concept seems to be created and named before our very ears. The ravishing modulation back to G major which coincides with the last syllable of ‘Poesie’ surrounds the precious word with an aura of calm and peace.
And so we have come full circle. We find ourselves back where we began, but the allegorical birds have fallen silent. The bass-clef harmonies add the full bloom of harmonic depth to a vocal line which is by now familiar in all its details. Earlier agitations are now settled in the calm of a world-view. Even if a poet’s work (or a composer’s) appears to be the result of jubilant enjoyment of life, the roots of creativity stem from deep suffering. This is a concept with which Schubert clearly identifies; the gentle swinging gait of the song is not much enlivened by the words ‘Jubelhymnen’ and ‘lebenstrunkner Brust’. The truth behind the mystery of creativity lies deeper than hearty celebration, and the minor-key colouring of ‘aus der Wurzel tiefer Schmerzen’ acknowledges this. The Schubertian duality inherent in ‘Lachen und Weinen’ is summed up by the setting of the phrase ‘Blüte seiner Lust’. The diminished seventh of ‘Blüte’ opens, like a beautiful flower, into an unambiguous G major and the expansive melisma of ‘seiner Lust’. In the last strophe mankind is capable of recovering the joy of the nightingale’s lovesong; but in order to do so he must first expect to experience pain.
This is the last of the nine settings of August von Schlegel to appear in the Hyperion Schubert Edition. Volume 27 is given over to the songs of the Schlegel brothers where there are six August von Schlegel songs and a biographical essay on both poets. Further settings of August von Schlegel are in Volume 6 (Abendlied für die Entfernte), Volume 21 (the first of two performances of Lob der Tränen) and Volume 32 (Die verfehlte Stunde).
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000