Few accompanists would deny that Versunken is one of the trickiest of all Schubert piano parts, a veritable étude, and hair-raising in every sense. This type of writing, relatively short-lived as far as the composer’s career as song-writer was concerned, seems to have been part and parcel of Schubert’s desire to conquer the outside world by beating it at its own game. Thus, if the public judged the success of a composer by his achievements in the opera house, let them have operas! Similarly, if virtuosic display at the keyboard was what people found impressive, Schubert was more than equal to the challenge. If it was not the means of expression that came most naturally to him, it was at least part of his armoury. At the end of 1820 this was a young man who felt he could do anything; never before, and never again, was he to have such boundless confidence. There is a sense of showing off, certainly, but this amounts to little more than a young genius revelling in his powers. And why not? At least he always carefully tailors the music to suit the poem. Thus Im Walde, Mahomets Gesang and Johanna Sebus all have large canvases: the epic nature of the poetry calls for something impressive from the piano. In the last two of these, Schubert is hoist by his own petard, and he sensibly withdraws from the field, the works left unfinished. Nevertheless, during this period of pianistic extravagance he learned an important lesson: where the pianist is allowed off the leash, and encouraged to chatter and thunder in gambolling semiquavers, the vocal line and the text, denied the opportunity to breathe, can be all too easily overwhelmed. (Because Schubert is a genius, there are some songs, like Versunken, where this is not the case, but even he could not bring this off very often.) However, this period of pianistic exuberance was not in vain. The composer was beginning to be fascinated by the possibilities of song as symphony, where organic unity is achieved with the help of moto perpetuo accompaniments of this kind. It is no accident that the first Suleika (Volume 19) song dates from the same period, written just after he had experimented with more rumbustious accompaniments, and a later song like Der Zwerg (Vol 3) uses the same technique to devastating effect. In these works the semiquavers are just as incessant, but they murmur (rather than clatter) in the manner of strings played with a bow rather than struck with a hammer. The repetitive background pulse, the foundation of a work made up of long unfolding melodic phrases, underpins the vocal line rather than swamps it. And Schubert finds the means of generating tension, and establishing a sense of unity, on a scale never before achieved in the realm of Lieder.
Versunken is one of Schubert’s few energetically erotic songs. Of course he is more familiar as the master of the gently seductive, and in this mood he conforms to the sweet-natured Schubert whom we were brought up to revere. Here we have a rare chance to hear him rampant, and it makes some of the commentators uncomfortable. John Reed rightly cites Suleika I as an erotic masterpiece, and finds Versunken less successful in this regard; indeed it is as if he cannot bear to imagine the corpulent Schubert enmeshed in ‘the physical realities of love’. But surely the behaviour of the bedroom need not always be romantic and soulful? This is the music of slap-and-tickle, the energetic horseplay and venting of high spirits which often precedes love-making, and with it we discover an earthier and more physical Schubert than we might have expected. To sing and play it is to set the pulses racing. The hands of this lover, like the pianist’s, are everywhere; the idea of the five-toothed comb an ideal spur to piano-writing where all five fingers of the right hand are equally exercised as, comb-like, they separate the tangled flow of sound into even strands, each semiquaver equidistant from the next. In the meantime the left hand is free to jump and wander at will, its naughty explorations discreetly masked by the grooming tasks of the right. It is the writing for the left hand here, quick jumps between low bass notes and chords much higher in the stave, which strongly reminds us of the end of the second Suleika song (‘Ach um deinen feuchten Schwingen’). This seems to be one argument in favour of the theory that Suleika II was written in the same period in 1821, rather than some time later.
Schubert’s delight in the discovery of the West-Östlicher Divan is evident; we hear him falling in love with Goethe all over again, and his response to this poem is no less inventive than his setting of Gretchen am Spinnrade seven years earlier. In the meantime he has learned much about song-writing, not least that certain phrases and words do not sound well in performance. Thus he cuts the tenth line of the poem which refers to ‘flesh and skin’, and he also cuts Goethe’s reflective final couplet where there is a reference to Hafiz (the great Persian poet who inspired the Divan) which only serves to confuse the issue in a song text of this kind.
The form of the work is one of its most fascinating characteristics. Schubert is now such a master of songs, both strophic and durchkomponiert, that he is able to mix the genres and make various types of hybrid species at will. Versunken is essentially through-composed, but it has certain repetitions which give it some of the attributes of a strophic song. (An Schwager Kronos – Vol 24 – is another Goethe song in which certain passages are recycled, giving a strophic feel to a through-composed work.) Versunken is framed by the phrase ‘Voll Locken kraus ein Haupt so rund!’ – Goethe’s first line is repeated to make an eight-bar opening phrase, and the song closes with the same words and a matching eight-bar phrase, albeit with different music. After this introduction one of the song’s most arresting inspirations is the explosion of joie de vivre for ‘Und darf ich dann in solchen reichen Haaren’. This music is repeated two pages later, and the ear cannot resist classifying the song as somehow strophic when this memorable passage of surging excitement is repeated with different words. This musical phrase is worthy of closer examination. An exhilarating rush of excitement in the accompaniment gathers momentum to reach a climactic point where the music explodes, subsides, and explodes again, like waves breaking on a rocky promontory. The vocal line is borne aloft (on ‘solchen reichen’) and touches a high A flat for a heady split second before it subsides amidst a foam of swirling semiquavers; the same process is repeated within seconds at ‘vollen Händen’. Schubert has imagined the beloved’s flowing locks in terms of his favourite water imagery; the singer is made to swim for his life in the swirling hairy rapids (though no doubt he hopes soon to be washed into calmer waters where he can practise his breast-stroke). This use of unusual arpeggio figures, ornamented with clashes of adjacent semiquavers to give the music a kaleidoscopic glint, is already highly familiar from another piece of water music, the accompaniment for Die Forelle (Vol 21). In that song the fish moves hither and thither in his element, breaking the surface of the water as the conventional arpeggio includes adjacent accidentals. Here the poet’s hands are also in their element as they dart about in his beloved’s hair, glimpses of white skin visible from time to time in the dark tresses.
After this ever-shifting recklessness, ‘Und küss ich Stirne, Bogen, Auge, Mund, Dann bin ich frisch und immer wieder wund’ seems rooted in the same harmonic ground with repetitive patterns. This suggests something enjoyed again and again in a never-ending circular repetition: love-making with a beloved partner, ever new, ever exciting. There now follows a section (‘Der fünfgezackte Kamm, wo sollt’ er stocken?’) which introduces an element of uncertainty: how far is too far? The panting rhythms and syncopations of the left hand introduce a tense middle section, and the poet’s own middle section is probably equally taut. Somewhat fussy in matters of grooming, he wonders where the pronged comb should go next. Before the word ‘coxcomb’ can be formulated in the irreverent mind, the song focuses once more on the glorious head of hair at hand. The music of the tumbling waves of passion is repeated for ‘Das Ohr versagt sich nicht dem Spiel’, and we have already observed that this is a masterstroke on Schubert’s part; in this way Schubert plaits disparate parts of the song together with matching braids. A short interlude at ‘Doch wie man auf dem Köpchen kraut’ heralds yet another return of this music at ‘Man wird in solchen reichen Haaren’. The progress to the home key of A flat here is beautifully engineered; it is delayed a bar or two, just long enough to make the most of the ever giddier intoxication as the lover’s roving hands return to their playground.
From the point of view of harmony, Versunken is a feast of joyous explorations and sly detours. We do not reach the home key of A flat until the tenth bar, and even then it hardly seems an inevitable arrival, so disorientated are we by this lover’s giddy progress. It is only towards the end that we seem to have arrived into a settled tonality, perhaps a musical metaphor for the lover reaching home base after a lot of foreplay. As in some of Schubert’s water music (particularly Der Strom – Vol 2) it is as if flowing hair, like wavy water, cannot stay in any one place long enough, and cannot retain any one shape long enough, to be defined by a long stretch in a stable tonality. During the fourth line of the poem (‘Da fühl’ ich mich von Herzensgrund gesund’) and before ‘Und küss ich Stirne, Bogen, Auge, Mund’, there is a modulation from the home key of A flat to C flat major via the dominant. This also occurs after the first verse of another A flat major song, Ganymed (Vol 24), where there is a similar implication (‘Ach, an deinem Busen lieg’ ich und schmachte’) of sexual intimacy. This particular modulation within A flat major seems to have been one of Schubert’s favourite shifts, and it usually seems to have been associated with the poet Goethe in erotic mood; it also occurs in crucial points in the songs An den Mond (D296, Vol 1), Der Liebende schreibt, as well as Geheimes.
The postlude of Versunken owes a great deal to the throwaway ending of Rastlose Liebe. It looks back to the earlier Goethe settings at the same time as being something utterly new in terms of harmonic and pianistic daring. It is perhaps because there is no other song quite like Versunken, and because it sounds like unfamiliar Schubert, that it is passed over by performers. And there can be no excuse in this case that this song must be sung by tenors only: it is one of the few Lieder where we know that Schubert approved of a transposition into the baritone key. He made a copy of it in F major (perhaps to be sung by Vogl or Albert Stadler) which dates from the summer of 1825. Professional accompanists, taxed sufficiently by the work in the original key, will be relieved to surmise that the composer was unable to transpose the work at sight.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997