Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 31 – Christine Brewer
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It was a lifelong habit of Schubert that, once he had discovered a poet, he tended to compose settings in batches. It is no surprise therefore that another Schiller ballad, Leichenphantasie, is the next song in the catalogue (D7). There is also a question mark on the dating of that ballad, although it too was probably written in 1811. It is also just possible however that both D6 and D7 belong together with that other Schiller setting, Der Jüngling am Bache (D30), which we can confidently assign to September 1812. The mood of that song is very different, however; it has perfect proportions, and is also well written for the voice. These factors may be accounted for by the extra year of musical maturity in the composer's development, the difference between the compositions of a fourteen- and fifteen-year-old.
If we believe that Hagars Klage was composed at a time of teenage unhappiness, there is no reason to suppose that this song represents a change of text-selecting mood on the part of the composer. Both texts would have appealed to someone who thought of himself as alone, or unfairly treated. Hagar, abandoned by Abraham, appeals to Jehovah for help; the maiden appeals to 'die Heilige'- the Virgin Mary. The word 'Klage' ('lament') is common to both songs, and it also comes up in the beautiful early Rochlitz setting from 1812, Klaglied D23. Whatever Schubert's later religious convictions, or lack of them, there is every reason to suppose that at this early stage of his life he was still a believer. On the back of the manuscript of this song Schubert had planned to begin a piece of religious music- a Missa in Partitura for chorus, strings and organ. He wrote the title and voice categories, but never began the music itself. This is, incidentally, the first of a number of songs which refer to the Virgin Mary: Des Mädchens Klage (second version D19; third version D389); Gretchens Bitte D564; Das Marienbild D623; Blondel zu Marien D626; Vom Mitleiden Mariä D632; Marie D658; Ave Maria (Ellens dritter Gesang) D839. Although Schubert spoke up bitterly against the misuse of religious symbols, and that of the Cross in particular, his attitude to the Virgin Mary seems to have remained sympathetic and susceptible. Some of his loveliest church music is to be found in his various settings of the Salve Regina and Stabat Mater.
1 (Allegro agitato) The music begins in every way 'on a high'. The depths of contemplation and depression suggested by the two later versions are entirely absent. Instead the young composer responds, perhaps over-enthusiastically, to the descriptions of nature's stormy power. The key is Dminor, an important Mozartian key for drama, and Beethoven's 'Tempest' tonality. The tessitura of the voice part might be termed 'cruelly high', but Schubert was certainly not deliberately punishing his singer, he simply lacked experience in vocal writing. The music has the air of being conceived in the style of an instrumental sonata (for violin perhaps) with words added later. Because he does not have the guiding example of Zumsteeg in front of him, Schubert is very cavalier with the poem. Right at the beginning, for example, he substitutes the emphatically explosive 'brauset' for 'braust', and repeats whichever phrases and words that appeal to him, willy-nilly. The poem's opening line inspires a small anthology of Sturm und Drang pianistic devices. As soon as the maiden is mentioned in the second line the composer writes the word dolce, and the music changes into D major. The effectiveness of this essentially Schubertian fingerprint is undermined, however, by the setting of the words on a D major arpeggio which soars up to a high tessitura, suggesting a Valkyrie rather than a vulnerable maiden. This is immediately followed by tempestuous water imagery (the poem's third line), the pianist's fingers working up a storm in short choppy scales, encompassing a fifth, which pound the shore (and ear) mercilessly. The word 'seufzt' ('sighs') brings another change of mood: hectic quavers are replaced by much longer notes in the vocal line. Underneath the singer's semibreves and minims the piano invokes pathos with pleading intervals and 'meaningful' scales. Mention of tears in the last line freezes the action into crotchets enlivened by piquant chromaticisms.
2 (Grave) This is undoubtedly the most interesting section of the song- a set piece for the maiden whom Schubert unconsciously casts as a larger-than-life diva. Schiller places this strophe in inverted commas. Although the music cultivates an air of self-conscious pathos, and the rum-ti-tum accompaniment occasions a smile, these things are still to be found in countless Italian operatic arias up to the time of Verdi, and beyond. The astonishing thing is that this 'southern' style has already been somehow assimilated by the composer as early as 1811, and that it has seeped so successfully into his musical consciousness. Once again the free repetitions of 'gestorben' (together with an inherent sob built into the music) seem unworthy of the proprieties associated with the German song, but what we are hearing here, surely, are the birth-pangs of the lied, even if that birth takes place not in the opera house itself, but in a nearby side-street. The fluidity and, above all, the uninhibited emotion of the vocal line in D minor, poised above, and meshing with, those incessantly rolling sextuplets in the accompaniment, seem strangely familiar. Here is a note of Mediterranean passion not to be found in Zumsteeg or Reichardt, and not even in Mozart in quite the same way. I am in no doubt that we are hearing the beginnings of music for another woman in extremis who also appeals to the Virgin for help and who was to achieve immortal existence only three years later- Goethe's Gretchen and the heroine of Gretchen am Spinnrade and Gretchens Bitte. It is not as long a journey from 'Das Herz ist gestorben' (Schiller) to 'Mein Herz ist schwer' (Goethe) as one may think; and how appropriate it would be should Schubert have sown the seeds of his first great Goethe song in the heart of his first Schiller setting.
This aria uses the strophe's first three lines; the remainder of the verse is set to a 'Recitative in tempo' which is awkward. The high B flat on 'das irdische Glück' merely confirms the strapping health of a character who is supposed to be fading away with grief. With such a disregard for logic, Schubert, at this stage of his life at least, seems to have been an operatic natural. As in Hagars Klage a moment of genuine inspiration is followed by a musical disappointment. The composer chooses to repeat the strophe's third and fourth lines in an allegretto tempo, together with a modulation into F major. This is once again in an ungrateful tessitura, doubled note-for-note by the piano. After having treated the singer's line in the Grave section with great skill, we return to what appear to be violin studies.
3-4 The poem, as Schiller envisaged it, may be summed up thus: the narrator introduces the maiden in the first verse; she bewails her fate in the second; the third strophe introduces the voice of the Virgin herself before the girl speaks once again in the fourth. This shape seems not to have been understood by Schubert who elided the second and third strophes and paid no attention to potentially the most dramatic moment, the opening of the Virgin's statement. Only a change of tempo to Andante shows that a crucial new section of the poem is beginning mid-bar; and then the nondescript doubling of the vocal line by the piano seems particularly inept and anonymous. The reason for this is that the clue that the Virgin is speaking is given only in the last line of the strophe (at 'Ich, die Himmlische'). It seems likely that the young composer was not quite clear about what was happening. Until these words he seems to have been unaware that he was writing music for the Madonna herself to sing. And he had probably not yet learned the crucial lesson of reading ahead and making the poem's thorough acquaintance before setting it. 'Ich, die Himmlische' is unequivocal, however. Just before that point there is a double bar line and, interestingly enough, a modulation into C major, the key of so much of Schubert's later religious music. The Virgin, introduced four lines later than she should have been, is no blushing flower; her outpourings are largely marked forte and inhabit the stratosphere. What is more, Schubert continues her aria into the next strophe (there is no gap at all in the music) instead of returning to the maid who has been chastened and instructed by the heavenly intervention of verse 3. It is perhaps the only occasion that Schubert seems to have got himself into a complete muddle over the dramatization of a poem. The music for the fourth strophe, with its undulating triplet accompaniment in the left hand, was no doubt meant to have had a radiant and comforting tone. Instead Schubert composed possibly the most difficult-to-sing page in his whole vocal output. It sits around high Gs and As with a relentlessness born of the composer's innocence and inexperience, rather than the Virgin's. It is as if Schubert wanted her words to sound as if they were coming from another world. To do this he placed them in the heavenly heights of the stave. The result, however, is that this music lies in a part of the voice, and across a break in the registers, which assures that it is never performed. It takes the greatest skill to negotiate these hurdles, and Christine Brewer does just this, against all the odds.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1998