James Gilchrist (tenor), Brandon Velarde (baritone), The London Schubert Chorale, Stephen Layton (conductor), Graham Johnson (piano)
From April and May 1813 date exercises for unaccompanied voices with texts excerpted from Schiller’s Elysium (D51, 53, 54, 57, 58). In the same period there are five settings with different texts from the same poet’s Der Triumph der Liebe (D55, 61, 62, 63, 64). A fragment of Schiller’s Gruppe aus dem Tartarus (otherwise known through the famous solo song recorded in Volume 14) was also used for an exercise (D65). D67 is a fragment from Schiller’s Der Flüchtling (the solo setting is to be found in Volume 1). The same poet’s Spruch der Konfuzius is set twice in July 1813 (D69, D70) followed by Die zwei Tugendwege (D71). In October 1813 there was a brief return to Elysium (D60). These sixteen exercises, plus a Sanctus (D56) and an Alleluja in F (D71A) were all devoted to the writing of unaccompanied three-part harmony, mostly for two tenors and bass. So much for Holzapfel’s slur on Salieri for not being a very thorough teacher! One can but wonder whether the obsession with this particular vocal combination was purely pedagogical. Schubert’s voice had broken in 1812 and it may have been that a reasonable trio (TTB) could be mustered from among his schoolfriends, or even his family.
The setting of Dithyrambe for tenor, bass and chorus is contemporary with this period of exercises. Although there is nothing to prove a link with Salieri’s lessons, it seems possible, as was the case with the Serbate, o Dei custodi, that the ageing Italian master decided to allow Schubert his head and see what he could do with a larger project. The manuscript has survived only in a fragmentary form, but enough of the piano writing has survived to have a clear idea of its style. It is also possible that the work was written for a real performance within the school or home, and that the provision of a piano part was simply because it was impossibly unrealistic for a young composer to conceive something with orchestral accompaniment.
The work opens in D major with an ascending arpeggio (sometimes known as a ‘Mannheim rocket’) which shoots to the top of Olympus. This straightaway gives the work a symphonic feel and there is little throughout the piece to suggest the intimate interaction of voice and piano. Neither should there be: this is a Bacchanal on a grand scale, a real public occasion. The idea of happiness (Bacchus, der lustiger) is conveyed by upbeats consisting of smiling little semiquaver gruppetti reminiscent of the figuration which pervades Mozart’s ‘Rondo alla turca’. The vocal line goes into semiquavers only once, for a delightful little melisma on ‘Knabe’. The entrance of the SATB chorus with its panting accompaniment on the fifth line of the strophe (‘Sie nahen, sie kommen’) is an inspired touch: everyone wants to rush to this party, and the build-up suggests the approach of the heavenly throng from afar. The monolithic choral writing in long note-values supported by restlessly pulsating quavers is pure Gluck. At the second appearance of the phrase ‘Die himmlische Alle’ the vigorous syncopations between the pianist’s hands suggest the introduction to Divinités du Styx from Alceste, as if Schubert, when writing music for the gods, thinks of Olympus as a higher form of Hades. After a great deal of loud choral music the final two appearances of ‘Himmlischen Alle’ are marked piano. These lofty chords in minims and semibreves are accompanied by soft, rippling arpeggios: the effect is somewhat ethereal, as if the upper reaches of Olympus are swathed in swirling mists of sound. The energetic setting of ‘Mit Göttern erfüllt sich die irdische Halle’ brings back certain features of the opening music as if it were a development section leading to a recapitulation of the D major music of the opening. The banal piano interlude before this, a series of turns ascending the keyboard is, surprisingly enough, genuine Schubert.
The second verse begins with the opening six bars. But it is the bass who now begins the second verse. This is a suitably rewritten variant of the tenor solo, less florid and ending with a short recitative (‘Hebet zu eurem Olymp mich empor!’) which introduces the chorus. With these forces and this poet, one cannot help thinking of the bass solo which launches the Ode to joy in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – but we have to remind ourselves that this was composed eleven years later.
The chorus takes over the rest of the verse in a difficult-to-perform movement (marked ‘Allegro molto’) where there is almost nowhere to breathe. The fluency of the part-writing shows, however, that the composer has benefited from his tutorials with Salieri. Where the music moves from the home key of D to B flat major, and later to G minor, Schubert seems to have had fun with the weaving inner textures and oscillations which playfully suggest drunkenness among the gods (cf the Shakespeare Trinklied – ‘ Bacchus, feister Fürst des Weins’) with its similar depiction – in the accompaniment particularly – of the inebriation caused by the same god. The setting breaks off towards the end of the second verse. There is no surviving music to the third verse and we do not even know whether the composer had intended to set it in the first place.
This choral piece could not be more different from the famous solo version of this song, Dithyrambe D801. That was written long after Schubert had ceased to be interested in Schiller’s poetry, or at least long after he was able to take much of it seriously. Part of that song’s delicious, and enduring, appeal is the cheeky and disrespectful irony with which the music is invested. Schubert does not believe in the gods, and he had strong doubts even about God: in 1824 he is not afraid to laugh at the ridiculous posturing of the deities. Capell’s criticism that it was a ‘sublimation of a students’ song’ is not really unfair, but we should not imagine that this downgrading of the heavenly banquet to the student refectory was anything other than a deliberate piece of fun. In 1813, however, the dwellers on Olympus were thought worthy of much more serious treatment.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1999