John Mark Ainsley (tenor), The London Schubert Chorale, Stephen Layton (conductor), Graham Johnson (piano)
The poem of Schlachtgesang has fourteen verses although we only hear seven of them in this performance. The mixture of religious feeling and jingoism is an uncomfortable combination by today’s standards, but it was also a stock-in-trade for English poets well into our own century. It is true that Klopstock is better known for his purely religious works, but a gruesome historical scena like Hermann und Thusnelda shows his nationalistic side: a legendary tale of a bloody battle against the Romans was meant to be interpreted as an augury of German victories in contemporary times. That Schubert should have set this poem, and others in the same vein, shows he was not immune (as a teenager at least) to the mood of triumphalism which swept through Vienna after Napoleon’s defeat.
Like Das grosse Halleluja, the musical notation of Schlachtgesang goes back to that of the composers of Klopstock’s own time. In the earliest lieder, before the development of independent and significant accompaniments, the words were printed between the two piano staves. In like manner, this page looks like a piano piece with added text. This is fragmented into three separate parts – effectively an A-B-A (varied to include elements of B, with coda). The A section of fifteen bars is repeated. Five strophes of the poem are printed beneath this section, and are to be sung to this stirring music in E major; each of Klopstock’s three-line strophes is sung twice to make one musical verse. Section B is shorter – nine bars which briefly pass through the relative minor. This music is allocated to seven further strophes printed beneath the music, but each of them is sung only once. This accelerates the song’s progress and is typical of the composer’s interest in tinkering with conventional strophic form. The final section sets the remaining two strophes: this is a combination of melodies we have heard in both A and B. The tiny postlude for piano is made up of martial horn-calls, the double-dotted rhythm suggesting battle music.
Again like Das grosse Halleluja, there is nothing in the autograph which specifically states that the composer had a choral song in mind (Schubert writes the words ‘Gesang und Pianoforte’). It is accordingly published in the solo series of the Gesamtausgabe. But man does not fight such battles on his own, and it seems obvious that at least part of this song is choral, and that the notes on the two staves suggest a male chorus in five parts. Unlike Das grosse Halleluja, where it is clear that the composer envisaged the whole top stave to be sung in parts, it seems that the repeat of the words within each musical verse might suggest a song for soloist and chorus.
In the penultimate year of the composer’s life (1827), at the same time as he was writing Winterreise, he returned to this poem and set it again – a work for eight-part unaccompanied double chorus. Of the many poems from 1816 that he might have chosen to set again, this poem would not seem to be the most obvious, but it does remind us, historical reasons apart, that this is a colourful and stirring subject for men’s voices. It is this work, no less, which the composer chose as the conclusion for the one and only public concert in Vienna during his lifetime which was devoted to his works (26 March 1828). Incorporating some of the rhythmic and melodic features of the earlier version, Schubert named that setting (after the poet’s own title) Schlachtlied (D912). For that reason Deutsch 2 uses this as the title for both versions. As the manuscript of the earlier work is clearly marked Schlachtgesang, that title is retained here.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1999