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Die Allmacht, D875a

First line:
Gross ist Jehova, der Herr! Denn Himmel
Choral version. January 1826; fragment for chorus, completed by Reinhard van Hoorickx and Dietrich Knothe
author of text

This piece of music, more or less unknown and seldom performed, comes as a surprise even to the avid Schubertian. The mighty solo song which is a setting of the same text is a mainstay of the repertoire for bigger voices (Die Allmacht D852); indeed, it is such an accepted masterpiece that it seems strange to think that Schubert wished to return to the poem five months later to make a second, albeit very different, version. The work has something of a chequered history. It was first mentioned (and wrongly classified as a male quartet) in the work list compiled by Schubert's first biographer, Kreissle von Hellborn, in 1865. For a brief time the manuscript was in the possession of the Viennese conductor Johann Herbeck, and then lost. It surfaced in 1952 in a private library in Slovakia and has since been placed in the Bratislava City Library. The version heard here- a reconstruction and completion of the work by the late Reinhard van Hoorickx and Dietrich Knothe, conductor of the Berliner Singakademie, was given its first performance in 1978.

The autograph consists of a full score of the work only until bar34 (the sixth line of the poem). Thereafter, the vocal line is complete until bar119 (and the composer has bothered to write in the text only until bar 99). There is a page missing in the middle of the work (a fact not noted in the Deutsch catalogue which is also inaccurate elsewhere in its description of the fragment). There are five further passages filled in; these relate to crucial interludes for the piano where Schubert has noted his exact thoughts. The whole autograph is a fine example of the composer's working method when in a hurry to compete a work for a specific occasion. We have noted something remarkably similar in the fragment Gesang der Geister D705. Schubert sets off by writing everything down; he then takes care that the vocal line is continued, even if words are not always written in; in a broad overview of the piece's shape, he then writes only what is essentially new material- in this case the transitional passages for piano. It is clear that he could have produced a full score from these sketches with the minimum amount of time and effort. In fact, in his own mind, he no doubt regarded the work as complete. For that reason it has been easier to complete this fragment than some others: what we hear here is rather close to what Schubert would written had he left us a completed manuscript.

Schubert took the text of Die Allmacht from Pyrker's Perlen der heiligen Vorzeit. (It is also possible that Pyrker himself pointed out the passage to the composer when they met in Upper Austria in the summer of 1825.) In this once-popular book of verse in hexameters (extremely tricky to set to music) we find the canto entitled 'Elisa', or 'Elisha' as we spell the biblical name in English. This is Pyrker's elaboration of the story of Jehoram's attempt to subjugate the tribes of Moab with the help of Judah and Edom as recounted in the Old Testament (II Kings 3). Elisha has succeeded Elijah as prophet of the Israelites, and Pyrker took his cue from verse 15: 'But now bring me a minstrel. And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him.'

Erst aufhorchte dem Harfenklang
der heilige Seher, ruhigen Blicks
doch jetzt entflammt' er sich
glühender Purpur färbte sein blasses Gesicht
er hob in schwebender Haltung
Von dem Boden sich auf
und begann in hoher Begeisterung
'Gross ist Jehovah, der Herr
denn Himmel und Erde verkünden Seine Macht!'...
At first the holy prophet had listened
to the sound of the harp with a serene expression,
but now he flared up:
his pale countenace became suffused with a crimson glow;
he rose majestically
from the ground
and began in exalted inspiration:
'Great is Jehovah, the Lord:
for heaven and earth proclaim his might'...

In the Bible the seer goes on to tactical advice: 'Make this valley full of ditches' (II Kings 16). Pyrker follows suit with a section beginning 'Grabt den Gruben im Thal' but, rather unsurprisingly, Schubert stops before this point and chooses to repeat words from the beginning of Elisha's hymn of praise instead. (In this way both versions of the text are identical; it is as if the composer has his own song (D852) in front of his eyes rather than Pyrker's original lines.)

The key is C major, the same as the solo setting of the poem, and the celebratory tonality which also closes this disc. The relationship to the closing fugal section of Mirjams Siegesgesang is no accident. Both works describe the mighty workings of the Lord, and both derive from passages in the Old Testament where music takes on a visionary and exalted role. In this choice of tonality suitable for trumpets and fanfares, Schubert owes a great deal to the example of earlier composers, and the whole piece has more than a whiff of the 'old' or 'learned' style. It is grand and pomposo, and extremely effectively written for the choral forces. The 'surging cry of the forest stream' brings forth piano writing which leaps upwards with digit-twisting vigour, but it is not until bar32 and the first mention of the 'grünenden Waldes Gesäusel' that we hear something incontrovertibly Schubertian- rustling piano writing of the greatest delicacy which sets off a similar vocal weaving between the voice parts which could only have come from one source. This makes a wonderful contrast to the opening music of hammered conviction, a mood which can sound a trifle empty if insisted upon for too long. It is as well that the composer himself sketched the piano writing here because his way with this lilting music is inimitable; it surely needed his own hand. The reconstructed piano writing for the later thunder-and-lightning imagery is less effective because it seldom strays from dutifully doubling the (genuine) vocal line. The gently throbbing 'pochende Herz' section takes its cue from the earlier lilting passagework, and the recapitulation is self-evident. The majority of the vocal line of the closing fugato is the composer's own work. He would probably have provided more daring and independent piano writing, but in his absence it was perhaps best to opt for simplicity. The final bars are perhaps the least convincing of the completion.

Although Die Allmacht is not the composer's greatest work for chorus and piano, it is a worthy study for Mirjams Siegesgesang and a welcome reminder of Schubert's command of the choral style. Unless they take the trouble to make a special study of the church music, it is seldom that lieder lovers are reminded of Schubert's contrapuntal skills and his ability to make the most of vocal combinations for mixed chorus. Here we see in a flash the exuberant and celebratory side of his personality when it came to religious music of this kind. Perhaps too we are glimpsing the energy of Pyrker himself as he reads the poem aloud to Schubert and Vogl. The composer brings such zeal to the enterprise that we cannot doubt that he has been fired by enthusiasm for the poet as much as the poem.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1998


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/4040CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 31 – Christine Brewer


Track 1 on CDJ33031 [6'42]
Track 7 on CDS44201/40 CD31 [6'42] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)

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