Male choruses were a long-established Viennese tradition, and it is hardly surprising that Schubert wrote the majority of his choral music for men's voices. About a third of these ninety or so works are piano-accompanied as are the seventeen works for mixed voices and piano. The list of songs for women's voices is much shorter. Only seven works specifically require an all-female cast, five of these with piano. When Schubert came to compose this Psalm he had written only one such work, five years previously in 1815 (Das Leben D269) but others were to follow, including the haunting Coronach from Scott's Lady of the Lake settings. The Ständchen mentioned above is probably the most substantial work in this genre. Probably from force of habit the composer originally conceived that work for men's chorus and female soloist; he immediately rectified his mistake by providing another version for women's voices.
Schubert chooses the key of A flat major to express calm and glowing faith. The opening piano triplets waft and weave with the utmost delicacy as a tonic pedal underpins subtle harmonic changes. Some years later the composer was to use this device even more effectively in the introduction to Im Abendrot. The entry of the voices (two sopranos and two altos) is a magical moment: Schubert exploits the lack of a bass line in the voices to conjure a tessitura which seems unconnected to the earth and its worldly concerns. The spacing of the four voices also gives an ethereal quality to the music. It is difficult for the ear to disentangle this insinuating blend of close harmony for women's voices, an effect which has been much exploited in popular music: from the Supreme Being to The Supremes, from Schubert to the Spice Girls, is one way of charting the so-called 'progress' of the medium.
In the beginning the musical calm established is such (so smooth is the vocal line and so soothing the accompaniment) that we see only unending vistas of gently rolling Elysian fields. At 'er lagert mich auf grüne Weide' ('He maketh me to rest in green pastures') the pianist's fingers become more active. Dancing little sequences in dotted rhythm, where the sopranos and altos are briefly separated in imitation, are buoyed up by gentle Schubertian water music- at this heavenly banquet the waters are sparkling rather than still. At 'seines Namens Ruhm' (literally, 'for the fame of his name') there is a sudden outbreak of forte singing accompanied by grandiose triplets which prophesy Die Allmacht. At 'Und wall' ich auch im Todesschatten-Tal' ('Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death') the music becomes mysterious and tense, the triplets now pulsating in the bass, a tessitura of the piano which the piece so far has pointedly failed to exploit; in this we hear a ghostly premonition of the song Schwestergruss where Franz von Bruchmann's sister supposedly returned with a message from the grave. These central sections provide the only passing moments of doubt and drama, and the music soon returns to the higher regions, in terms of both the tessitura and the spirit. The piece as a whole seems to be the music of angels, materializing out of thin air and returning to ether- but not before an extremely apt setting of the final words 'in des Ew'gen Haus' (literally, 'the eternal home') where the idea of immortality occasions a broadening of the word-setting and a lengthening of note-values. The first soprano holds a high E flat for six beats as the second climbs a chromatic scale as if aspiring to eternal heavenly light. The piano's arpeggios become more ecstatic for a moment, but it is not long before the gently plucked harps of Seraphim re-establish themselves. It is as if they have been resounding for all eternity, and we have been permitted to tune in to them for only the allotted time of five minutes and twenty-three seconds.
Schubert turned to the translations of Moses Mendelssohn (published in 1783) for the texts of Psalms 13 and 23. When the unaccompanied Psalm 92 (originally in Hebrew) was first published with a German text in 1870, the Mendelssohn text was also used. It is difficult for English-speaking music-lovers to appreciate that, because of his place in the history of philosophy and the development of German thought, Moses Mendelssohn is considered even more important a historical figure than his grandson Felix, the composer. Abraham, Moses' businessman son, remarked that he was either his father's son, or his son's father. He decided to baptize his children (thus the suffix Bartholdy to the family name, still used in Germany but never considered necessary in England). As an adult, Felix Mendelssohn, proud of his grandfather's achievements, bitterly regretted his father's decision. Moses Mendelssohn had worked within the bounds of his ancestral faith to effect changes in Jewish life. He argued that the deism of the Enlightenment, which he had developed into a universal religion of reason, was identical with Judaism. Without in any way renouncing his faith he believed in a cultural and political union for Christians and Jews, separation of church and state, and civil equality for his people. For this he was reviled by both anti-Semites and conservative Jews. If Schubert identified with Goethe's pantheism, he owed a great deal to Mendelssohn, as did Goethe via the great Jewish philosopher Spinoza.
Like the poet Wilhelm Müller, Mendelssohn was born in Dessau. His progress from a poor background to a position in the forefront of German intellectual life was the result of an astonishing auto-didactic capacity for hard work. His home language was Yiddish, and his first school was one of Talmudic and Hebrew studies. From these beginnings he mastered not only German, but also French, Latin and Greek. In his youth he was a teacher, and then a bookkeeper to a silk manufacturer's business, and in the midst of his tasks as thinker and writer he developed this business into an extremely prosperous one- something from which his children and grandchildren benefited. Mendelssohn, noted for his moral authority and goodness as much as for his intelligence, became extremely famous on a number of levels- as a critic, aesthetician, philosopher, translator (from ten languages) and as the 'German Socrates'. He was well-known as Gottfried Lessing's model for the eponymous hero of the play Nathan der Weise. In the same year as the Psalm translations were published appeared Jerusalem oder über religiöse Macht und Judentum- perhaps Mendelssohn's most important book on the Jewish question. Since the end of the Second World War there has been a renewed German interest in Mendelssohn studies which had been harshly suppressed during the Nazi era.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1998
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