One can, of course, hear the Italianate influence in this music, the result of long hours of exercises in the Salieri gym, work which has made these shapely vocal lines both muscular and flexible. The opening seems culled from the middle of a vocal score of an opera, the statutory two bars played as an introduction by the repetiteur before an audition excerpt. And then that florid little melisma on ‘Meine Ruh’ which brings to a German lyric the temperamental flourish of Italian ornamentation. We will notice the use of this device once again at the beginning of one of the earliest Goethe settings, Nachtgesang D119 of 1814. The accompaniment – a crotchet in the left hand followed by two anonymous quavers – gently nurses and nudges the vocal line along in the best tradition of the solicitous opera conductor. In some ways this is an Italian aria in all but name but, because the language is German, other influences come into sway: the Teutonic strength of the consonants gives the music a word-allied seriousness, a grandeur that the young Schubert can only achieve in his own language. At ‘in dem Säuseln der Lüfte’ the Bewegung of the accompaniment quickens into semiquavers, and the vocal line, singing of the breezes, floats above it with a heartbreaking little fragment of tune which seems imprinted on the memory from somewhere else. Where have we heard it – or something very like it – before? If you recall the cello melody at the opening of Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat major (the third and fourth bar of that heart-stopping solo) you will detect the same creative hand. But if we go forward in this way to Schubert’s future, we can equally visit his past: in Lebenstraum D39, composed when Schubert was only thirteen, we have heard something similar on the phrase ‘Kein Lüftchen wehte’. The interrupted cadence on the first ‘Klageton’ followed by a clinching repeat of the strophe’s last line is also pure Schubert.
For a long while this was known as ‘Schubert’s first song’, and this rubric graces one of the contemporary manuscript copies. It is certainly not Schubert’s first vocal composition (the two Lebenstraum settings share that honour, and after them we have a number of ballads which jostle for chronological precedence). Mandyczewski preferred to think of Der Jüngling am Bache D30, a charming little Mozartian scena, and part pastiche, as Schubert’s first song creation, pur sang. But quite apart from the dates (D30 was written in September 1812 and this song could well have dated from earlier in the same year) one knows what the composer’s friends meant when they thought of Klaglied as the first Schubert song: it has an eloquent seriousness that defies analysis, and an emotional depth disproportionate to its length; and it is cast in the strophic mould, the traditional form for German Lieder (although words from later verses fit the music with difficulty). Above all, the song works a magic which is particularly Schubertian: these long-arched vocal lines have a way of stretching time and making it stand still; as in all the best of his songs, no matter how turbulent, there is a sense of a moment made immortal and held within a vast inner stillness – that heavenly cupola which encompasses Schubert’s fathomless creative span.
It is curious, and wonderful, how such a youngster of fifteen is able to identify so deeply with the emotional plight of a woman. Even earlier he had set part of a long poem, Lebenstraum, by Gabriele von Baumberg which recounted the story of her struggle for artistic independence. The first ballad Hagars Klage recounts the plight of a mother in the desert, and of course the first really famous lied, Gretchen am Spinnrade, reveals the psychical despair of a woman in trouble like no piano-accompanied song before it. Schubert had written Lebenstraum as a result of his own ambitions to dedicate his life to music; Hagars Klage, Leichenfantasie and Der Vatermörder seem clearly related to the composer’s own difficult relationship with his father. In this period of his life it is clear that his textual choices were subjective: he needed his songs to speak for him; they were worthy of the depth of his feelings in a way that none of his own words could match. Is Klaglied a song that similarly speaks for Schubert’s own state of mind? If so, as we listen to this lonely and bereft music, we can only guess at the pains, and perhaps passions, of the composer’s adolescence.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1999