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Beethoven set these words in 1803 (published 1804), and Schubert adopts some of his ideas and textures by way of homage. The younger composer opts for a more straightforward treatment, for there is a side to his nature that was as smitten by the older traditions of strophic-song simplicity as by the musical experiments which marked him out as rather avant-garde in the eyes of the public. It is as if he felt a sense of historical responsibility to keep the North German traditions going, at the same time as supplanting them. It took texts of this kind, with thoroughly old-fashioned associations, to summon up that part of his creative process which relished folksong simplicity, earthbound in the least pejorative sense. John Reed points out that it is likely that at this period of his life Schubert was concerned with the ‘strength and the simplicity of the vocal line’. This was probably an antidote to his interest in extravagant piano accompaniment at the end of 1820 and the beginning of 1821.
Like Die Vögel, the song is in A major in its original key. It is well made and somewhat Beethovenian—hardly surprisingly, although the three crucial notes which are the basis of the whole piece are somehow prophetic of the tiny elfin trumpets we hear in the accompaniment of Horch, horch! die Lerch’. The quail’s cry (almost always on three repeated notes in the introduction, and also within the main body of the song) is sometimes rendered on two adjacent notes in the vocal line, a higher note for the first syllable—there is thus a clash of a major second between voice and piano at ‘Liebe Gott’ in the first verse which somehow gives the ‘Schlag’ a more abrasive and outdoor flavour. The music is otherwise strophic, with a change into the tonic minor key for the third verse which refers to war. It is here that Schubert’s music seems not quite grand or dramatic enough for the words, whereas Beethoven takes up the challenge in a more elaborate way with rumbling basses to depict the thunder of fire on the battlefield. Schubert’s song ends with a repeat of the four-bar introduction. The Italian translation which appeared in the first edition was probably by Craigher de Jachelutta and was part of Schubert’s scheme, hatched together with this poet, to extend the commercial viability of his songs in non-German-speaking lands.
The poet Samuel Sauter is not to be confused with Ferdinand Sauter (1804-1854) who was a sometime member of the Schubert circle from 1826. The poet came from Germany, born in Flehingen, Baden, and was a schoolmaster for most of his life. His work is mainly in a naïve folk-like style, some of it unintentionally funny to those who mock the earnest literary solemnity of the provinces and of that part of Southern Germany in particular. The collection Volkslieder und andere Reime was published in 1811 and his collected poems were issued in 1845. In 1855 some of Sauter’s poems were issued by Eichrodt and Kussmaul as the work of one Gottlieb Biedermaier, a fictional Swabian schoolmaster. Their reception, which prompted a humorous enthusiasm for the simplicities and banalities of a vanished age, prompted the coining of the term ‘Biedermeier’ to denote that uneventful period of German and Austrian history (the term is also applied to literature, painting, furniture and so on) between the fall of Napoleon and the political upheavals of 1848. As Schubert’s whole life and work fall within these parameters, he is the Biedermeier composer par excellence. The danger of this was that the false image of the safety and small-town cosiness of the Biedermeier epoch, actually a politically repressive period for Austrians, has tended to obscure many important details in Schubert’s life. It is interesting that the kitsch simplifications of the musical Die Dreimäderlhaus (Lilac Time) were an indirect result of Sauter’s poetry and style and of the Viennese falling in love with the spuriously nostalgic idea of Biedermeier Gemütlichkeit.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997
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