Leopold Sonnleithner, a great patron of the time, particularly of religious music, remarked that Schubert intended this work for a large orchestra. If this were so, the rescoring would have been no easy task. There are arguably some unpianistic passages (notably in the concluding fugue), but this is an intricately-written accompaniment with numerous pianistic effects, not merely a short-score standing in for an orchestra. Franz Lachner provided an orchestration as early as 1830, but this has not stood the test of time. Like so much else in this composer's vocal music, the clash of Miriam's timbrels sounds better at the keyboard. In a curious way, this hybrid work, somewhere between oratorio excerpt and choral ballad, joins hands with the early songs: we return to the Old Testament world of Hagars Klage composed some seventeen years earlier, and we hear many an echo of the piano-generated drama of such ballads as Der Taucher and Die Bürgschaft. Mirjams Siegesgesang is a biblical epic worthy of Cecil B de Mille: the raising of the waters of the Red Sea, the chase of Pharaoh's hordes at full gallop, and his destruction, were all featured in that director's The Ten Commandments. Not for the first time we notice that this type of narrative cinema, with its exaggerated yet effective pathos, seems related to the mood of the early Schubert ballads and, strangely enough, also to this work from the end of the composer's life.
Two other great composers hover in background of this work's genesis- Ludwig van Beethoven and George Frideric Handel. As we have seen, it is likely that Schubert inherited the synagogue commission from Sulzer because Beethoven was out of the running; from the same composer's deathbed Schubert inherited the Rellstab poems, later published as part of Schwanengesang. By 1828 he seems to have become closer friends with Anton Schindler, Beethoven's former factotum, and there are signs that Schindler was even preparing to take up the younger composer as his new 'cause'. (Whether Schubert would have played along with this, had he lived, we shall never know.) Schindler had taken possession of Beethoven's music library, and this contained at least one treasure not to be found easily elsewhere: the Samuel Arnold edition (1787-1790) of the collected works of Handel which had been sent as a gift from England. It seems certain that Schubert perused these volumes, via Schindler, after Beethoven's death, with as much interest as the older composer. One of the effects of this was to make Schubert want to return to his studies; he resolved to begin counterpoint lessons with Simon Sechter. It is likely that Mirjams Siegesgesang is early fruit of Schubert's new enthusiasm for the Handelian oratorio tradition. Beethoven had remarked that all composers bend the knee before Handel. Miriam and the tribes of Israel, unbending to mighty Pharaoh, are made to curtsey in like manner.
Grillparzer's poem is based on the episode of the Israelites' flight from Egypt. Mention of her song of victory occurs in Exodus 15:20/21: 'And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam answered them, Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea.' Thus, as Miriam praises God, she recounts a part of the story of Pharaoh's destruction. Taking his cue from this, Grillparzer frames the celebratory aspect of the outer verses with a long central section, essential for Schubert's purposes, which tells the story of the flight from Egypt, and the pursuit of Pharaoh, in the historic present. As if the poet had also studied Handel's works, the words preserve just that sort of narrative distance that distinguishes oratorio texts from either operatic libretto, or song lyric. Mention of 'we' in the poem suggests that Grillparzer was fully aware that portions of the poem were to be set for chorus. 'All the women' following Miriam are mentioned in the Bible, of course, but Schubert chooses to back the prophetess with a chorus of mixed voices.
1 (Allegro giusto) The very opening of the work proclaims its Handelian ancestry. Dotted rhythms set the work off to a grand start. This is music for a state celebration, the brilliance of C major being the time-honoured tonality for such jubilation. After the introductory fanfare of six bars the soprano begins her trumpet-like melody. Perhaps this loud and jangling introduction corresponds to the mention of the cymbal; a few bars later, the succession of sixths in the pianist's right hand is also rather metallic, but these chords probably refer to 'die Saiten'- the strings. The dotted rhythms of the left hand also suggest percussion of some kind. After the sibyl's 'Gross der Herr zu allen Zeiten, Heute gross vor aller Zeit' we suddenly hear the exciting entry of the massed chorus echoing the last phrase of the soloist in a manner as familiar in Gilbert and Sullivan as in Handel or Bach. A piano interlude in the old style, pomposo and with a touch of canon, introduces the chorus's repeat of the words 'Rührt die Zimbel'; here Schubert has enormous fun with imitation between the voice parts. This interweaving of snaking quavers, accompanied by rhythmically insistent crotchets in the piano, generates real energy- an intoxicating barefoot stomp such as might have been danced in biblical times. (Crowd scenes in Cecil B de Mille again come to mind.) The rest of the section repeats and develops these ideas with the same old-fashioned, and symmetrical, interaction between soloist and chorus.
2-3 (Allegretto) Inspired, no doubt, by the image of a protecting shepherd, Schubert constructs the next section in a pastoral 6/8 in the comforting key of F major. All is classical symmetry muscular and strident; here, as elsewhere, the rhetorical exchanges between solo voice and chorus are in a style that suggests music from another century. The first mention of the sea at the beginning of verse 3 ('Und das Meer hört deine Stimme') retains the 6/8 rhythm but introduces a note of turbulence into the music as God parts the waters. Some of the best and most original music in the piece (from 'Scheu des Meeres Ungethüme') now follows. The whispered fear and amazement of the chorus is accompanied by an edifice of suspensions in slowly moving dotted crotchets in the piano. The effect of this is to suggest water (the chorus's moving semiquavers) held in check by the shimmering of a miraculous wall, damming the sea's force. Low tremolos in the key of G flat major underpin a slow and ominous pianistic underswell; this is a perfect musical analogue for the miracle- the surging power of the sea held and parted, against all laws of gravity and nature, by a higher power. Schubert conveys both the fear and danger, as well as the impermanence of this altered state where water glistens and moves even as it is held in a stationary position. The music of the Good Shepherd returns, and the crossover into the promised land occasions a triumphant high C from Miriam at the final 'das neue Land'.
4-6 (Allegro agitato) This section in C minor describes, with an admirable sense of excitement, Pharaoh giving chase. Scuttling semiquavers convey mounting panic and the raising of dust by a vast phalanx of Egyptian troops. The piano's left hand sounds a military bugle motif in dotted rhythm. The choral echoes of Miriam's increasingly breathless descriptions become shorter and more frequent, and this too adds to the tension. At 'Hörner lärmen' the piano writing moves into the bouncing triplets of a cavalry charge. These alternate with semiquavers in writing which paints the swift movement of a large army over constantly changing terrain. This recalls part of the long Schober ballad Viola when the abandoned flower, like the Jewish race also in danger of extinction, flees the forces of winter, propelled forward by semiquavers, and stumbling over many changing harmonies. A turning point is reached at the repetitive setting of 'Jetzt und jetzt', a rhetorical device that reminds one of a cliff-hanging end to a soap-opera episode. A succession of hammered C flats changes enharmonically to ominous triplets in B minor for 'da horch'!' and further single-word exchanges ('Wehen', 'Murmeln', 'Dröhnen') between soloist and chorus; here one thinks of Bach's St Matthew Passion as much as of Handel, but Schubert could not have known the work. This is a bridge passage to a new section, and the return to C minor is cleverly managed with the most protracted and exciting build-up. The word 'Sturm' announces the pummelling waves of the watery retribution visited upon the forces of Pharaoh. This new section is marked Allegro moderato. It is in this music of destruction that the power of the piano seems insufficient to convey the full force of the cataclysmic turn of events, particularly when the weaker middle register of the instrument is pitted against the chorus at full throttle. Schubert had abandoned the ballad Johanna Sebus (also about disaster caused by water) because he had come to an impasse: the piano is capable of only so much violent sound, and there comes a point when only an orchestra in full flood can be sufficiently loud.
7-9 (Andantino) The spirit of Handel returns to point the moral of the story in music of the greatest self-righteousness and pomp. 'You have got what was coming to you' is the gist of Miriam's tirade in an E minor panoply of dotted rhythms and old-fashioned devices like canonic entries and trills. The image of the enemy being sent down into the abyss ('Hinab, hinunter, Hinunter in den Abgrund') prompts the doubling of voice and piano and a descent into the chest regions of the voice. The music is so physical here that one can almost see the prophetess striking a pose in the grand manner, her finger pointing imperiously down towards the watery grave. Some of the most gracious and original music is reserved for 'Und das Meer hat nun vollzogen'. These gently rolling phrases suggest the quiet, rather than violent, movement of water (the poet gave Schubert the cue for the mood here with the word 'Lautlos'- 'soundless'). Here the sea is dead rather than red, its depths containing not only the bodies of the Egyptian army, but also the many imponderable mysteries of the Lord. After having delivered this extended solo, Miriam hands over to her implacable chorus. The imperious music and mockingly sarcastic words asking Pharaoh whether he will emerge like a surfacing diver from the depths ('Tauchst du auf, Pharao?') are repeated from the beginning of verse 7; but instead of echoing Miriam's words in verse 8, the chorus moves to the slightly different verse 9. Here a chorus proves even better able to depict the sinuous flow of water which gently obliterates all the evidence of this great event: smoothly gliding counterpoint between the voices paints wave after wave of nescience. It is as if the Egyptians had never been. These doleful undulations, as well as the repetitions of 'Nimmer gibt es' at the end of the strophe, illustrate the eerie end of a once-powerful enemy. One is tempted to feel rather sorry for Pharaoh who has become, perforce, a deep-sea diver, obviously no match for a high C diva.
10 The story of the Egyptian rout has been told and now it is time to return to the celebration. There is a stirring return to the music of the opening, beginning with the piano's opening C major fanfare. (This represents a real clearing of the air after the long episode in E minor.) Miriam sings 'Drum mit Zimbel und mit Saiten'- that crucial 'Drum' ('for that reason' or 'therefore') summing up the events recounted in the last ten minutes in a single word. This time we do not have to wait so long to hear the chorus mirror Miriam's phrases- they enter almost immediately. A lesser composer would have been satisfied with a simple repeat of the opening music, but for Schubert the fun is just beginning; indeed we now encounter one of his principal reasons for writing this work in the first place: he wishes to practise his fugal writing! Taking the final two lines of the last strophe, he develops as mighty a contrapuntal structure as is to be found in any of his vocal works with piano. The basses state the four-bar subject ('Gross der Herr zu allen Zeiten, Heute gross vor aller Zeit'); the tenors enter a fourth above with the fugal answer, slightly altered as is permitted and required; then the altos and sopranos repeat the process in turn. The working out of the fugue arguably has a whiff of the schoolroom exercise about it, but it is extremely effective; particularly stirring is the mighty stretto on a pedal G before the work abandons contrapuntal garb and ends in an outburst of punched-out chordal harmony and unanimous joy. The unfolding and intermingling of all four voices (Miriam herself is silent; she leaves this peroration to the masses) is mightily impressive, even if a little stiff and unwieldy in comparison with the real masters of fugal writing. Indeed, one is reminded here of the sinewy and wilful writing of the late Beethoven: the uncompromising fugue that ends the D major Cello Sonata, Op 102 No 2, was published as early as 1817 (it is likely that Schubert knew it) and it feels similarly awkward under the pianist's fingers. The Missa Solemnis was also finally published in 1827 and Schindler would no doubt have let Schubert borrow a copy. Inspired now by the same Handelian source as the older composer, only in 1828 does Schubert seem to have welcomed the idea of immersing himself in counterpoint. Like Beethoven before him, this is an interest that belongs to his final period (not that he could have known that his allotted span was nearly over). Before he died, Schubert had one composition lesson with the great pedagogue Simon Sechter with the aim of improving his technical command of counterpoint.
Mirjams Siegesgesang is one of a series of works that give us a fascinating hint of what directions Schubert might have taken had he lived. The other 'signpost' works are the starkly modern Heine settings from Schwanengesang (unlike any other of the Schubert songs), the unfinished opera Der Graf von Gleichen, and of course the bold romantic inventiveness of the sublime late piano sonatas as well as of the String Quintet. It is as if we are standing on the threshold of something new and staring into an infinite horizon where the waters of the Red Sea have quietly removed all trace of former life and activity. The possibilities for the future are endless, but there is not enough detail visible to enable us to continue the journey without our dear Schubert himself being at our side.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1998