Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 31 – Christine Brewer
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Schubert's model was a ballad by the Swabian composer Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg (1760-1802) titled Hagars Klage in der Wüste Bersaba. This was published in 1797, the year of Schubert's birth. In the manner of young art students who visit galleries in order to copy their favourite painters' work, Schubert set about a similar process. He placed the Zumsteeg score before him and reworked it bar by bar. Schubert is guided by great respect for the original and in the first part of the piece chooses the same key and time signatures, as well as the same points for piano interludes. As the work progresses he gradually departs from his model and becomes increasingly adventurous, although this is not always well advised. Unlike the similar process a few years later with Schiller's poem Die Erwartung (where the younger composer wipes the floor with Zumsteeg without even trying to demean him) some of Schubert's departures from his model are those of an ambitious and inexperienced tearaway, not yet fully knowledgeable about the capabilities of the human voice. (Schubert was not yet a seasoned visitor to the opera.) In terms of understanding vocal Fach the older composer is a sober professional and Schubert an irresponsible joyrider. (Any soprano singing Hagars Klage would have reason to chastise the teenager capable of making her suffer on the tessitura tightrope!) On every other level, however, where raw talent is a more exiting commodity than good judgement, one can immediately see that Zumsteeg's days as the leader of his field are numbered. The depth of Schubert's feeling and the wily strength of his imagination announce the arrival of rare genius.
It would be some time before Schubert had regular access to books, so it is not surprising that this text was lifted from another song. But this is not the only work by Zumsteeg he could have considered, and it is fascinating that he chose this story for his debut. Schücking, admittedly a poet of no importance or renown, here gives centre stage to slaves and outcasts, the bondwoman and her illegitimate son about whom St Paul is so scathing in Galatians 4:21-31. It is clear from an impartial reading of the story (Genesis 16:1-16, also 21:8-21) that Hagar is not entirely to blame for her plight. The song opens at a dramatic moment in the story, her second exile to the desert, but previous events have led to this climactic point. After she was purchased as a slave in Egypt she became Abraham's concubine because Sarah, Abraham's wife, was unable to conceive. During her pregnancy, in Sarah's eyes at least, Hagar became insufferably arrogant; but in matters of sexual rivalry ill-feeling can stem from both sides. Hagar, fearing Sarah's wrath, fled to the desert where she was told by an angel of the Lord to return to bear her son Ishmael who would have many descendants and be in constant struggle with all other men. Some fourteen years after the birth of Ishmael, Sarah gave birth to Isaac, the son with whom God promised Abraham to make a covenant. Sarah saw the two boys playing together and, fearing for Isaac's inheritance, once again insisted that Abraham should exile Hagar, this time together with Ishmael. The song opens with the bondwoman's distress at the lack of water in the wilderness. The boy is supposed to be fourteen years old (Schubert's age at the time of writing the work) but for the purposes of the poem Schücking implies Ishmael is still a helpless infant.
What songs were about mattered to Schubert from the very beginning. Time and again we find him engaged on a text because he is able to empathize with situations and live through them using music as a connecting medium. The drama of his own life is often at one with the drama which he encounters in the pages of the poetry books. It is surely the immediacy of this reaction which makes him, at certain times of his life, select certain texts before others, because he is able to give himself to them without reserve, and with a knowledge that the feelings are as real for him as for the poet. Throughout his life his greatest family difficulties were with his father. We know too, from the composer's record of a dream among other things, that young Franz was a disappointment to his father in many ways, that some of his other brothers seemed to him to be more loved, and that there was a battle of wills between the two men. In any case, fourteen-year-old boys, as I remember, have an especially difficult and tense time with their fathers; so much of parental authority seems so unfair- as unfair as the way Abraham disowned and mistreated Ishmael. (The recurring theme of other ballads such as Der Vatermörder and Leichenphantasie is difficult father-and-son relationships.) We can also imagine that Elisabeth Vietz Schubert, artistically more refined than her husband, was extremely fond of and protective towards her youngest son who showed such musical promise. Perhaps the elder Schubert's temper outbursts had extended to his wife who was three years older and perhaps no longer attractive. (Elisabeth died soon afterwards and Schubert senior married, before the year was out, a much younger woman of thirty.) How easy it would be for Schubert to project his situation onto Hagar and Ishmael, where he and his mother were also in the desert of their husband's/father's affections. And how comforting to imagine that great things were in store for the outcasts. Ishmael was to be accepted as an ancestor by the Arab peoples, perhaps as a forefather of Mohammed himself; and Franz Peter Schubert was to be a great composer. Writing music quietly in his room was an empowering act for the young composer in more ways than one: an act of subtle and concealed defiance, a way of assuaging the pain of those awkward teenage years.
Alfred Einstein points out how much Zumsteeg owed (and thus Schubert too, without realizing it) to the example of scene with orchestra by the forgotten master Georg Benda (1722-1795). His melodramas with orchestra Ariadne and Medea (1775) were extended monologues where the heroine tells of her plight through a variety of vocal techniques ranging from recitative to cantilena, supported by instrumental commentary which reflects her changing emotions. Mozart admired these ground-breaking works, and Zumsteeg latched on to the crucial idea that replacing the orchestra with piano transformed the form into something more mercurial and flexible; the suggestive power of the piano, and the intimate musical details revealed by an attentive accompanist's fingers, liberated rather than constricted the listener's imagination. It is for this reason, Einstein points out, that orchestrations of Schubert songs are 'almost always a simultaneous coarsening and weakening of the original'.
1-3 (Largo) At the very opening of the work, and elsewhere, we also hear the presence of Haydn, a master by whom Zumsteeg seems infinitely less influenced than his young imitator. The power of the slowly unfolding introduction (the key is Cminor, as in Zumsteeg) owes its mood to the spatial grandeur of The Creation; the moonscape emptiness of outer space is analogous with that of the desert. Schubert omits Schücking's line 'In der menschenlosen Wüste' ('in the unpeopled desert') either because it did not appeal to him or, in his enthusiasm to begin his great work, he left it out unintentionally; such mistakes happen during the act of copying. This is probably why the first strophe has only three lines whereas the elisions in verses 4 and 5 were probably deliberate and made for reasons of dramatic fluidity. As Hagar begins to sing, the portentous crotchets of the introduction yield to more lively quavers, and from the beginning of the second strophe the voice is accompanied by pulsating semiquavers. Whatever one may say about the awkwardness of the vocal line, there is no doubt that Schubert here depicts a woman of the greatest temperament. In Zumsteeg she is much more contained and Germanic. Perhaps Schubert has imagined her smouldering Egyptian looks; certainly the music is touched by something dark and exotic. The words 'sterbend Kind' descend to the bottom of the voice, whereas 'schon mit dem Tode' climbs to a fortissimo wail.
The interlude between the second and third strophes is meant to denote the mute pleading of the child's eyes. Here Schubert's solution is not an improvement on Zumsteeg's. After the intensity of the voice part the music suddenly reverts to eighteenth-century commonplace, cadential trill and all; even at this early stage it is the power of words which brings the most intense reactions from our composer. 'Du musst sterben' is a case in point. While Zumsteeg sounds a suitably pathetic note, Schubert suddenly responds to this phrase with an exciting venom, as if he himself were in a rage at the unfairness of it all. This is not only an exhausted mother at the end of her tether, but also a glowering Medea, threatening death. Schubert repeats the words, intoxicated with the power of a descending harmonic sequence. The third verse has a broad and impressive sweep to it, the plashing semiquavers descriptive of the tears that refuse to come. Zumsteeg, choosing to illustrate the absence of tears rather than the idea of them, is justified in his drier approach.
4-5 (Allegro) The new section begins with a seventeen-bar Zwischenspiel for piano in the stormy key of D minor. Here the taut rhythms of Beethoven in Sturm und Drang mood seem to be the inspiration. What might have appeared empty dramatic gesture is made clear by the words. Schubert imagines the rippling muscles and feline guile of the hunting lioness. The power of nature lurking in the bushes is wonderfully conveyed; crotchet rests punctuating the music are crucial to the build-up of tension. A sudden outbreak of semiquavers rushing upwards seems to have been launched by the animal's powerful leap; this springing surprise is followed by pounce and kill as forte split octaves descend the keyboard. Schubert shifts the poet's lines so that Hagar's first word is the dramatic (and unintentionally comical) 'Ha!'. It is here that the vocal writing becomes almost impossible for most singers (but happily not for Christine Brewer). The force of the young composer's conviction somehow carries this otherwise ludicrous passage which imagines a tussle between Hagar and the lioness. She would have to be tough to take on such a challenge, and the high notes on impossible vowels fall into the same athletic category. In Zumsteeg's song the fourth line of the poet's strophe ('so that I may quench your thirst') explains the reason why Hagar, herself a lioness defending her young, fights the animal; but here Schubert omits the line, probably because it holds up the action. The fifth strophe inspires obsessive repetitions of drooping seconds in the piano writing on diminished-seventh chords. These somehow suggest the pursing of lips and a quick intake of breath through the mouth- desperate and unsuccessful attempts to suck water from the sand- one of the earliest signs of Schubert's aptitude for tonal analogue. Although not the most elegant of his illustrative touches, it shows an ability to respond to words on quite another level from that of Zumsteeg.
6-7 (Largo) This is one of the most effective sections of the entire piece. We revert to Zumsteeg's example of repeated quavers in music of sudden hushed stillness. These switches of tempo are at the heart of the drama. As at the very beginning of the song, a Haydn-inspired chromaticism carries far more emotional weight than Zumsteeg's opening, and here the same may be said of that composer's rather ordinary dominant sevenths in comparison to Schubert's otherworldly harmonic explorations. All this is in the spirit of Schubert's aim, as later revealed by his friend Josef von Spaun, to 'modernize Zumsteeg's song form'. These rapt quavers with their inner moving parts seem taken from a memory of a Haydn string quartet, or perhaps one by Mozart. The drooping sequences successfully convey the idea of colour draining from the cheeks of the dying child. The dryly alternating quavers beneath 'Dämmert auf der bleichen Wange' seem distant ancestors of the quavers in Auf dem Flusse in Winterreise where the image of the river's icy surface inspires a similar response to that of a cheek pale with death. The music of the next strophe seems written for a Gluck heroine: grand and noble, statuesque but still decorated by runs and decorative turns of phrase whic recall the eighteenth century. On the other hand, the final phrase 'Sagen: 'Das ist Weib und Kind'' uses every chromatic twist and turn at the young Schubert's disposal. This reference to mother and child seems to wring his withers.
8-9 (Geschwind) Note Schubert's momentary reversion to a German tempo marking; for once he uses the same word as Zumsteeg, and in the same language. He suddenly seems to have remembered that he is writing a song related to a biblical figure. Accordingly there is an outbreak of quasi-fugal music in the 'old style'. (It is here that Hagars Klage, from the very beginning of Schubert's career, joins hands with Mirjams Siegesgesang from the end of it.) This lasts some fifteen bars, an obvious attempt to improve on Zumsteeg's six. Once the words begin again we revert to non-contrapuntal music; this is like an allegro movement of a piano sonata with vocal obbligato. Hagar twists and writhes in her torment, a great deal of which relates to the uncomfortable tessitura. The pianist uses every trick in the book: rattling right-hand semiquavers; striding left-hand basses; scale passages of some velocity and virtuosity. It is as if Schubert's is trying to outdo Zumsteeg at every turn: if the older man sets 'Verzweiflung' to a diving diminished seventh, Schubert plunges the entire octave on the same word. The whole of the ninth strophe is a miscalculation however. Schubert should have adopted Zumsteeg's quietly dignified approach. Instead we have an almost embarrassingly inappropriate accompaniment with chirpy grace notes and banal harmonies. Here the composer's energy gets out of control. He loses the musical mood suitable for a despairing woman.
10 (Adagio) As if to compensate for this unintentional frivolity we move from A flat major to a section in D flat major. This occasions a heartfelt, though hardly very original, piano interlude of nine bars. The vocal line is doubled by the accompaniment, and the most interesting section of this strophe is the simplicity and bareness of the words 'Und dann komme bald, o Tod!' ('Then death soon will come'). This bleak statement is followed by three bars of piano chordal writing, fortissimo, and three bars pianissimo, a simple descending Fminor scale, the hands an octave apart. John Reed points out that these bass octaves would become a familiar Schubert death theme. The last semibreve F slips down a semitone to an octave E, and a dotted rhythm in the right hand establishes the unexpected key of Emajor. This transition is a presentiment of the voice of the authentic adult Schubert.
11 (Largo, followed by Allegro) It is now that we hear, arguably for the first time ever, the unmistakable sound of Schubert's genius as opposed to his talent. He seizes on the word 'Jehova!' which in the original Schücking is at the end of the line ('Blick' auf uns herab, Jehova!'- 'Look down upon us, Jehovah!') and places it at the forefront, both of the sentence and of the drama. Hagar is made to repeat it three times as she calls to God, twice in a descending arpeggio figure, and for the last time in a upward curve which suggests the supplicant's gaze heavenward. The dotted accompaniment evokes the sounding of heavenly trombones and the shiver of fear before the Almighty. The effect is gigantic, like a religious canvas by Tiepolo, with the heavens depicted in vast receding perspectives. Time stands still and we know we are in the presence of a great composer, however young. For 'blick' auf uns herab', and the subsequent repetitions of 'Jehova!', slowly oscillating quavers in both hands with thickly-spaced basses rumble with mighty grandeur as if something elemental were shaking the very foundations of the earth and God's presence were filling the air with rich layers of seraphic sound. Hagar's cries of 'Jehova' at the top of her voice, allied with a darkly grounded low C pedal in the piano, make for something quite extraordinary- agonized and simultaneously exultant. Zumsteeg's expressive little mordent on the word seems risible by comparison. Schubert has taken eighteen bars to cover words that the older man sets to music in five. The rest of the strophe cannot come up to this level. The fast music for 'Send' aus einem Thaugewölke Labung uns herab!' ('From dewy clouds send us refreshing rain!') suddenly sounds peremptory and almost banal. Zumsteeg's extended (and rather effective) melisma on 'Labung', a rare extravagance, is not taken up as a model.
12-14 From here on Schubert more or less abandons the older composer's rather more disciplined approach and reverts to a slew of his own experiments. This makes the remainder of the song very patchy, and there is a noticeable deterioration in its flow. Thus verse 12 is set very quickly as a recitative with an all-purpose yearning piano interlude. Abraham's tears of joy at Ishmael's birth are given very short shrift indeed- perhaps significantly, in regard to the composer's own feelings about his father; this is a much more tender moment in Zumsteeg. Verse 13 (Allegretto) switches moods in an uneasy way and strikes an inappropriately rococo note, the doubling of vocal coloratura with piano merely sounds awkward and coy. Obviously unhappy with this, the composer suddenly launches into a swinging Gminor 6/8 (Allegro) for verse 14. This metre does not really suit the words and gives undue prominence to further expostulations of the comical word 'Ha!'. Schubert may have hoped to create a suitable background for the idea of vengeance and a sense of Hagar's derangement at this point. As this mood suits only the first two lines of the strophe, another rather makeshift recitative is tacked on to cover the lines 'Aber, ach, was tat der Knabe Dass er mit mir leiden muss?' ('But what has the boy done that he must suffer with me?').
15-17 The piece recovers somewhat at this point as Schubert reverts to Zumsteeg's key of A flat and provides a rather old-fashioned, but nevertheless beautiful, set-piece aria for Hagar. Schubert writes a sustained melody (Andante alla breve) realizing that after all these ups and downs the ear longs for something more settled. This reflective piece takes up two of the poet's strophes (15 and 16) and ends rather dramatically on a high Aflat on the word 'verstiess'. After this the piano provides three little sighing phrases which peter out, leaving Hagar alone with her fears and her memories of her first desert exile. Verse 17 begins with the vocal phrase 'War der Fremdling nicht dein Engel?' ('Was the stranger not your angel?') which is almost melody, not quite recitative. This is left to resound unaccompanied in the empty expanse of the wilderness. Her question receives no answer, and it is indeed the poet's ploy to finish the poem before the point where God intervenes to save the unfortunate pair. Only the listener's knowledge of the Bible could calm his doubts about the safety of mother and son. In music which veers between arioso and recitative, Hagar gathers her strength and recovers some grasp on the memories of the angel's first visitation and his sweeping promise about Ishmael's future.
18-19 As the long piece draws to a close it is clear that Schubert, later the pupil of Antonio Salieri, is attempting to add a sort of Italianate operatic gloss to Zumsteeg's Germanic simplicities and decencies. (Indeed it is said that it was this piece which first aroused Salieri's interest in the young Schubert.) What Zumsteeg lacks is extravagance, and Schubert, despite his veneration for the older composer's achievements, finds him worthy but dull, slow to exploit the less obvious, but deliciously dramatic, aspects of a poem. And it is also clear that to be Viennese in 1811 was to be closer to an Italianate sense of drama, even via Mozart's operas, than to be a composer in Zumsteeg's Stuttgart or Reichardt's Berlin. The music for verse 18 (Largo) is reasonably perfunctory and treated as a transitional passage to the work's concluding aria (Adagio). There is, however, an exceptional, and suitably ominous, use of the diminished-seventh chord on 'Leichen werden modern' ('our bodies will rot'). At 'Schrei zum Himmel, armer Knabe!' (verse 19) we have reached the work's peroration, and Schubert does not disappoint. Hagar reverts to the grand Gluckian figure who has called out to Jehovah earlier in the piece. A broad and dramatic vocal line is supported by rippling left-hand semiquavers, and the effect is regal and larger than life. Melismas on several words play their operatic part in expanding this section so that its breadth is worthy of Hagar's plight, and worthy too of the amplitude of voice which is required to sing the piece in the first place. Zumsteeg ensures that he returns to the key of Cminor with which he began his song, but Schubert ignores this nicety and finishes in Aflat. The meltingly gentle postlude has a dignity which suggests that the composer was already thinking of Hagar's imminent rescue from doom by the hand of God. Despite the obvious immaturities, there are moments in Hagars Klage when we are dazzled by an enormous talent which, many listeners would gladly believe, was the ineffable gift of the self-same hand.
The poet Clemens August Schücking is one of the mysteries of Schubertian literary scholarship. We know that this poem appeared in the 1781 Göttinger Musenalmanach, and that it is very unlikely that Schubert had access to the same poetic source. The poem is printed above the abbreviated signature 'Schg'. There is a slightly younger poet, Christoph Bernhard Schücking (1753-1778) listed in Goedicke who was a lawyer from Münster with published poetry and a play to his credit. As Clemens August also came from Münster, the two writers may well have been brothers.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1998