John Mark Ainsley (tenor), The London Schubert Chorale, Stephen Layton (conductor), Graham Johnson (piano)
On this basis it seems likely that the lion’s share of the piece was written for the high tenor Ludwig Tietze (or Titze) (1789-1850). He was the most accomplished of a group of singers in Schubert’s circle who performed the four-part choral songs in various teams which changed from time to time depending, then as now, on the singers’ availability. Indeed Tietze’s work as a singer of male-voice quartets was overtaken by his performances as one of Schubert’s chosen solo singers: his voice was of beautiful quality, and he was accustomed to being treated as something of a star. He was regarded by no less a personage than Leopold Sonnleithner as a more satisfying interpreter of Schubert’s songs than the great Johann Michael Vogl whom some people found mannered and pretentious. Schubert entrusted to Titze the first performance of such important songs as Im Freien and Der Einsame6. The celebrated Nachthelle (for ‘damnably high tenor’ in the words of Ferdinand Walcher – see notes on this song in Volume 26) was also written for him, and the Erstes Offertorium in C major was dedicated to him. Despite the musical riches lavished on him, Tietze blotted his copybook with lovers of Schubert because he insisted (according to Josef Hüttenbrenner) that the composer was not important enough to merit a sung requiem at his death: Schubert had been, in his eyes, merely a ‘Liederdichter’ (song-poet) as opposed to a ‘grosser Tonsetzer’ (great composer). This displays the sort of superficial musical judgement that has always given tenors of a certain kind a bad name. And there is no excuse. After all, he knew Schubert’s vocal music better than most.
Tietze came originally from what is nowadays the Czech Republic (like Schubert’s parents), and there seems to have been a jovial band of ensemble singers in Vienna at the time, all with more or less the same background. The best-documented team of singers to perform the quartets were all Czech-born. The tenors were Johann Umlauff (1796-1861), a pupil of Vogl, and Josef Barth (1781-1865) who had perhaps the closest personal connection to Schubert. The Op 11 quartets (Das Dörfchen, Geist der Liebe and Die Nachtigall) were published in June 1822 and dedicated to Barth; he was selected by the composer to sing a solo song (Der Blumen Schmerz) on at least one occasion, and he seems to have a voice of great agility and range, if not of a beauty comparable to Tietze’s. The trusty basses for this ensemble which made regular appearances in 1821/2 were Barth’s close friend Josef Götz (1775-1842) and Wenzel Nejebse (1796-1865). The native Viennese, Johann Nepomuk Nestroy (1801-1862) also took part as a bass in some performances of Schubert’s quartets between 1819 and 1822; he was to become one of Austria’s greatest writers of comic plays and farces, with over eighty stage works to his credit.
Schubert’s interest in the East had in fact dated back to Goethe’s Der Gott und die Bajadere (1815) and the opera fragment Sakuntala (1820), but it was only in 1821 that the composer began to set Orient-inspired texts in earnest. These included not only works with obvious Eastern subject-matter, but also poetry by Platen and Rückert written in ghazel form. Hérold’s opera Die Zauberglöckchen had an oriental plot, and Schubert contributed some numbers to the Viennese production of this work. In Schubert’s own operas both the opera Fierrabras and the incomplete Der Graf von Gleichen have story-lines based on the conflict between Christendom and Islam. This shows the composer’s rather patriotic interest in eighteenth-century Viennese history, and the conflict between the Austrians and the Turks.
And this leads naturally back to Mozart’s Singspiel, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, a work which Schubert adored. Surely a great deal of his enthusiasm for oriental evocation derives from Mozart, who also wrote such works as the famous Rondo alla turca. The 6/8 movement of Im gegenwärtigen Vergangenes seems to owe something to Pedrillo’s Romance ‘Im Mohrenland gefangen war’ from that opera: it is obviously set in a seraglio garden (the flowers a metaphor for beautiful girls); it has the same time-signature, a similar easy melodic flow, and the accompaniment suggests that the singer is strumming a lute or guitar. The opening song in D flat major (it has something of an aria about it) begins gently and lyrically. At ‘Und mit hohem Wald umzogen’ it becomes more dramatic as the accompaniment turns to triplets and stabbing left-hand octaves – we have already encountered this glowering mood to describe the dramatic sight of castles built on high precipices in the middle section of Auf der Donau (Vol 2). Schubert has enjoyed the ingratiating melody of ‘Ros’ und Lilien’ so much that he now engineers a repeat of the opening words and music, an ABA structure which is not to be found in Goethe’s poem. A short bridge passage modulates to A major, playing on the fact that D flat (C sharp) is the third of the new key.
And here we have our surprise. Can it be a new voice which begins a new, gentle melody with the words ‘Und da duftet’s wie vor Alters’? Before we can decide, another tenor (actually our soloist, Tenor I) joins in a contrapuntal weave – the same melody a fourth higher. So this is a partsong after all – or at least a duet! The mingling of these voices is such that it is as if the same voice were singing against itself – and this is what the composer, in a stroke of genius, intends us to hear. The old poet, Goethe in his seventies, is actually singing with himself, an alter ego – or Doppelgänger – of himself when young. The poem, as we can see from the title, is all about past and present, and this music is suffused not only with the fragrances of the garden, but also heady memories of the glories of youth – the tug at the heartstrings, with the regretful little melisma of ‘Alters’, says it all as the figure is gently exchanged between the two voices. It is difficult to analyse how this music seems to make time stand still, but this is a metaphor which exactly relates to the poem’s intent. The change from 6/8 to 4/4 plays a part in the magical effect, as does the extended pedal on A, while the piano imitates the psaltery in right-hand triplets with plucked left-hand chords. This music, redolent of the mingling fragrances of past and present, expands the idea of Goethe’s poem in a unique way: by setting these lines for two voices, Schubert rounds out the literary idea with an extra dimension that could only have been realised in music. At ‘Wo das Jagdlied aus den Büschen’ we are suddenly introduced to a much heartier evocation of youthful energy; this hunting music is strenuous and in unison. A two-bar bridge passage re-introduces ‘Und da duftet’s wie vor Alters’ and its reappearance is like a gentle balm on older ligaments exhausted with even the thought of too much exercise. As with the opening cantilena, this music is far too good to be heard only once, and the composer adapts Goethe accordingly.
We return from A major to D flat major, and 6/8, for the third section of the piece – perhaps the most conventional. This is for four-part male chorus, TTBB. The poet’s extraordinary words about the ever-renewing nature of life should be taken to heart by artists apprehensive about being replaced by those from the younger generation. Goethe is saying, with a wisdom characteristic of his later years, that we cannot begrudge our juniors the pleasure and success that we ourselves once had – it is all as inevitable as the new season’s growth in the forests. Indeed, by living through the pleasures of those who replace us, we are capable of re-experiencing our former achievements. Anyone who has seen a great artist who is happy as a teacher knows how true this is. It also strikes me in reading these words, and imagining the composer’s state of mind as he came to set them, that Schubert himself, without being old, often viewed love at one remove, and experienced it only vicariously in the relationships of his luckier friends. At times he must have felt himself to be always the chronicler and minstrel of his circle, standing back from the ‘action’, observing and recording human emotions with unfathomable depth, but like the older Goethe musing with his memories, denied the here-and-now of a fulfilling relationship. Like the enlightened sage here depicted by the poet, Schubert never became bitter, despite the fact that his own searches for love led him down tragic pathways.
The final section is an epilogue, played in front of the curtain as it were. The singers come one by one on to the stage for this envoi, which is all the more delicious for the way that the entry of each voice approximates a fugal entry. Mention of the Persian poet Hafiz, which Schubert has excised from the end of Versunken, is here permitted. Once again it is Tenor I who is given a position of primus inter pares. Goethe’s strophe (beginning ‘Und mit diesem Lied und Wendung’) is heard twice, the second time with a more rhythmically taut accompaniment. The music begins in B flat minor, but modulates back to the home key of D flat major for the last phrase where the contrapuntal weaving cedes to block-chord harmony, as in a chorale of acceptance and gratitude. Right at the end, the important word ‘geniessen’ – to enjoy – is given almost a religious significance by its extended setting – half loving salute, half regretful farewell – as well as the solemnity of the plagal cadence which ends this unusual and beautiful work.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997