The well-known setting is the third, D116, which dates from October 1814. The key is C minor and the mood is one of gawky glee: the music depicts the lolloping danse macabre of disjointed skeletons, and the patter of consonants suggests the clatter of shaking bones. The poet uses a quotation from Horace to head the poem: ‘Pulvis et umbra sumus’ (‘We are but dust and dreams’ in Housman’s translation). This suggests that Matthisson might have meant the poem rather more seriously than Schubert chose to take it. The opening contour of the vocal line reveals the spiritual presence of Mozart’s Fantasie in C minor, K475, although the mood of the song is much less exalted. Indeed it is somewhat adolescent, like an older schoolboy showing off to the younger ones that he is no longer afraid of ghosts, delighting in frightening the juniors while still secretly still in awe of supernatural powers. There is nothing to suggest that only five days later the same composer, with Gretchen am Spinnrade, would produce a work as astonishingly mature as it is innovatory.
When Schubert revisits a poem it is often a sign that he was somehow dissatisfied with his previous efforts, and that the text has been kept to one side in his mind until another solution occurs to him. There is no arguing that D116 seems successful enough in its way (it was popular enough to be included by Max Friedländer in the second Peters volume) although Schubert never selected it for publication in his lifetime. Perhaps it was because the poem suggested the merry pranks and laddish larks that are at the heart of most communal male activity, including choral singing, that he returned to it after a gap of two years. Indeed, on reflection, the piano is almost superfluous in D116 as it spends a lot of the time merely doubling the vocal line. Apart from this, a group of spirits, windswept and transparent, is too numerous to be represented by a solo voice. For these reasons alone the poem seems better suited to the unaccompanied choral medium. Schubert chooses to elaborate on the conventional four-part male chorus format by dividing the second bass line into two. The resulting thicker chords in the bass (the piece is thus actually a quintet) add a certain darkness to the choral texture not inappropriate to those who spend most of their time incarcerated in the grave.
The music begins in C minor and the tempo marking of ‘Geschwind’ is fleet and mysterious. Schubert has read past the opening lines of the poem (in the first versions he makes much of the striking of midnight; here this point is ignored) and concentrates on depicting the ghosts as they are described in the poem’s seventh line: ‘luftigen Schweber’, or ‘airy spirits’. Even the communal inhalation and exhalation of choral singing is part of the windswept effect, and one is reminded that the sound of breathing is often obscured by piano writing. In this case breath has to be snatched by the singers: the setting is remarkable for containing only one rest, and that only a semiquaver. Instead of the rollicking 6/8 of D116, Schubert sets this text largely to his favourite dactylic rhythm. This gives a sense of driven urgency to the music as if the ghosts were poltergeists intent on whirlwind visitation, rather than long dalliance.
This sense of determination and purpose is also reflected in the form (AAB) of D494 which is a much tighter construction than the mixture of recitative and arioso of D116. Matthisson’s poem is in seven strophes, each of them too short to turn into a whole musical verse. On the other hand, this uneven number of strophes makes it awkward to marry them in pairs – a relatively common Schubertian practice. In D116 Schubert resorts to the freedom of recitative in the middle of the song in order to use up the spare strophe. In D494, however, he stretches five strophes into two musical verses. In the first of these, Matthisson’s second strophe (beginning ‘Rasch tanzen um Gräber’) is repeated so that two quatrains are spread out to, and made to occupy the musical space of, three. This clears the way for the musical da capo to accommodate three further strophes, the profusion of new words, and lack of repetitions, adding to a mounting sense of excitement.
Two strophes remain. Schubert modulates into A flat major for a change of mood, a new section which is at first marked at the slower tempo of ‘Mässig’ to accord with the idea of frozen rest. At the return to ‘Geschwind’ (and the beginning of the poem’s seventh strophe) the composer makes great play of the ghostly whisperings of farewell. Perhaps the most individual of the song’s musical effects is where the word ‘Ade!’ rises a surprising semitone – D flat to D natural in the first tenor’s vocal line – exactly as if we were hearing the pitch change on a police-car siren as it rushes by. The valedictory phrase is heard no fewer than five times, twice with this Doppler effect whistling past our ears. In the final descending phrase, marked ‘pianissimo’, the dancing spirits seem to evaporate before our ears. The music never returns to C minor, and in staying in the Neapolitan reaches of A flat major we are left with the impression that we have had a brush with rather genial ghosts. This is an ideal piece of writing for men’s chorus; it must have been hugely enjoyed by the singers for whom Schubert wrote it.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1999