Nevertheless, Schubert took the words at their face value and, as always with the poetry of his friends, transcended its limitations. He was almost certainly attracted by the possibilities the words gave him to take us with him into the starlit world of the music of the spheres, and in this he does not disappoint us. The song is in a number of sections, in the manner of an operatic aria; indeed, for the most part the vocal writing calls on Italian bel canto style, and challenges the singer to show great breath control and technical flexibility. This, as much as anything else, has counted against the song’s popularity.
The original key is G major and the introduction immediately suggests four-part wind music, the prologue to a solemn chorale. (Comparisons with Das Wirtshaus from Winterreise come to mind – admittedly a much greater song, but one where we are also made aware of the Austrian tradition of wind-and-brass music played at outdoor funerals.) As in Das Wirtshaus, a perfectly conventional and unexceptional opening phrase (the first three notes) is ennobled by a slightly altered repetition, where the seemingly banal addition of a seventh chord evokes the shadow of pathos and doubt. The melody itself might almost have been made for community singing. It is a beautiful, hymn-like tune, but it also resembles (intentionally) the solemn choruses about love and death that German students and secret societies were in the habit of singing when in their cups. At ‘einmal die stillen Lieder’ the vocal line becomes more adventurously soloistic and breaks into running quavers, revealing the essentially nimble nature of the song. (Despite the ‘Langsam, feierlich’ marking, the song is alla breve; a sanctimonious, sluggish tempo defeats the listener’s patience.) Schober, showing off his learning, includes the muse Kamöne: this is usually encountered in the plural, Kamönen (Camenae in Latin, and related to carmen the word for song). These were water goddesses linked to the muses, known for the sweetness of their music.
Mention of the ‘pure, anguished soul’ follows a change into G minor, including one of those many ominous left-hand trills in the composer’s music which betoken a shiver at the contemplation of the infinite. This is only momentary, however, for we soon pull ourselves together, switch into E flat major, and launch into a good example of Schubert’s heroic style. At ‘Hebe aus dem ird’schen Ringen’ dotted rhythms in the piano tenaciously insist on staying grounded on E flat, hanging on for dear life, as only the inner harmonies of the right-hand chords change. This is epic music in the manner of An die Leier, Mut from Winterreise, and martial passages in various pieces of chamber music and piano duets; but it is short-lived. At ‘O da werden mich die Klänge Süss und wonnevoll umwehen’ we find the sort of imagery that was written by Schober especially for Schubert. This is accompanied by a change to the key of F sharp major and the first of the flowing triplets in the accompaniment that will more or less dominate the song from now on. The vocal line is a fascinating cantilena which moves so fluently that we are only able to classify it as something halfway between recitative and aria; indeed, this is an example of Schubert’s ability to re-work what is essentially the material of connecting recitative in any guise he chooses. There is some contrast between major and minor key at ‘die Ketten, die ich sprenge’ to match the uncomfortable intrusion of clanging chains. The vocal writing on ‘still und leicht vergehen’, each word embroidered by melisma, borders on Italianate coloratura.
At ‘Alles Grosse werd’ ich sehen’, a double bar and change of key signature (we are now in F sharp minor) signals a return to the heroic music which has made a brief appearance earlier. This strutting may perhaps seem a little lame for the import of these words until one realises that this pomposo passage is meant to depict the unimportance and emptiness of worldly fame, all form and no substance. Even earthly beauty (‘Alles Schöne, das mir blühte’) is given short shrift as we move towards our heavenly goal.
We cross the threshold into real Schubertian magic with a move into B flat major on ‘verherrlicht vor mir stehen’; it is to this moment that the music has been leading and, at the moment of the narrator’s death, the song comes to life. Softly pulsating triplets denote all-pervasive starlight (we are reminded of Beethoven’s 1820 song Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel which Schubert knew well enough to play). To a degree rare in this composer, the voice becomes like a chamber-music instrument charged with the decorated repetition of the music of the opening chorale, and the singer must execute this ornate line (with arpeggios up and down the stave at the repeat of ‘Jede Blume, die ihn schmückte … Jeden Stern, der mir erglühte’) with all the dexterity and elegance of phrasing that one might expect from a stringed instrument. The left hand of the piano plays pointed quavers, standing in for a pizzicato cello. The melody which has opened the song does indeed now seem raised to a higher power. Our primary impression is the similarity of this music to the first movement of the B flat major Piano Trio; the composer seeks to confer on this song the grandeur of an instrumental peroration. It is as if he feels that, when confronted with the music of the spheres, we cease to speak words (or sing them), and are taken over, subsumed, by the purest of music. As if to underline this state of ecstasy where one line melts into another, Schubert freely repeats ‘Jeden Stern, der mir erglühte’ out of sequence, and then adds it to the list which culminates in ‘Werden mir die Töne bringen’. He then reverses the order of flowers and stars: all of this is confusing for those attempting to follow the poem, but we are no longer in control of sentences; it is as if we are tripping on flower-power and hurtling through the heavens on speed.
At ‘Und die schrecklichen Minuten’ there are six bars of suitably dramatic triplets, again moments of Schubert’s chamber music come to mind, rather than songs, and we return to the home key of G major via B minor – the second inversion of B minor melts into the first inversion of D7. So the key signature is once again that of G major at ‘Werden mich mit Lust umklingen’. There is a stentorian four-bar interlude – left-hand trombones – which marks the passage into another world. And then the final verse, ‘So in Wonne werd’ ich untergehen’, which is a remarkable page of music: ethereal, sweet, profound and somehow floating calmly to nescience. Or perhaps to heaven, for the poem is cleverly written not to exclude a reading of it as an advertisement for a Christian afterlife. Poet and composer surely meant something more pagan, however. The wide-spaced intervals of the repeat of ‘Wonne werd’ ich untergehen’ recall the closing page of Memnon, and another song which comes to mind, where the same B flat major Piano Trio triplets weave their magic in similar way, is Des Sängers Habe. Todesmusik is not a great song perhaps, but it contains great things. It is remarkable for turning a musical cliché on its head: the florid vocal line, a style more often found in Italian opera arias for empty display purposes, is here used to denote delirium and unconsciousness. Although this is a medical anachronism as far as Schubert is concerned, this is about surrender to music as an all-enveloping ether, a drug to prepare the votary of the Muse for a peaceful death.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997
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