The first, and principal, difficulty facing interpreters of this song is the choice of tempo. At the head of the music Schubert writes ‘ziemlich lebhaft’ (‘rather fast’) which, without a great deal of experience of this composer’s markings, may be taken to mean more or less anything. The mezzo soprano Jan de Gaetani, for example, chose to perform the song incredibly fast, an astonishing feat from both her and her accompanist, but one where the music loses the earthiness and relaxed geniality which is an essential part of Schubert’s style when he is in this pastoral mood and creating his own folklore. On the other hand the great baritone Gerhard Hüsch favoured a tempo which was so measured that it bordered on the lugubrious. Geoffrey Parsons, Hüsch’s last accompanist, also believed in a stately progress for the winged messenger. He rightly pointed out that the verb ‘schweifen’ in the first line of the poem, means ‘saunter’ rather than ‘run’. It is all too common to hear this music performed at top speed and in a state of panic, and often it is the accompanist who is to blame for this: instead of taking the time to find those chords which leap hither and thither, pressure of performance occasions a scramble through the song, the pianist like an adrenalin-crazed lemming hurtling over the cliffs. The lordly insouciance of the young god-like figure does certainly not suggest undue haste and unseemly breathlessness; on the other hand the music must still have a mercurial quality, an élan which should suggest the flight of winged heels (‘Ihr gebt den Sohlen Flügel’). As in all fairytale figures there is a slight touch of the demonic here: this music could be sung by a Peter Pan or Pied Piper, and it has something of Puck too, who boasts that he can ‘put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes’. The son of the Muses is surely the composer himself, too portly to fly perhaps, but still capable of a beaming smile, a chuckle and, as we shall see, a hidden tear.
As always in these matters relating to Schubertian tempi, a compromise is called for which avoids extremes. Thus the song should not be dazzlingly fast in virtuoso manner, and neither should it be self-consciously meaningful; it is still meant to set the toes tapping and to excite the listener with its irrepressible gaiety. The secret, as always with this composer, is to be guided by the time-signature: Schubert writes 6/8, thus two-in-a-bar in the manner of a folksong. A fast tempo, where we are conscious of only one beat per bar, misses the poise of text and music; and a slow tempo when we can hear six beats, or a leaden two, denies us the piquancy. One learns that when the composer writes something like ‘ziemlich lebhaft’ he means us to tread the middle way, curbing our excitement without suppressing it.
The construction of the song is relatively simple. Goethe’s five verses are set alternately in G major and B major. The change into B major is without the preparatory niceties of modulation. At the beginning of the second verse this sudden change has the heart-stopping effect of implying a sudden and momentary dalliance as we are taken into the poet’s confidence: at ‘Ich kann sie kaum erwarten’ the change of key helps to depict a feeling of suspense and impatience as he reflects on the beauties of spring; at the loving repetitions of ‘sing ich noch jenen Traum’ he might be closing his eyes (the incessant quavers in the accompaniment have temporarily quietened down to a gentle throb) as he dreams of imaginary sights and fragrances, the very things that will inspire him to new melody and which keep him ever youthful. And suddenly we are off again – the second appearance of the G major strain – and the words of the third verse have a breadth and majesty which give to the bewitching creator of rhymes and melody a bird’s-eye view of the whole world. Here we have a timeless perception of the changing seasons and of the cyclical nature of life itself. Another quick change into B major and we zoom in on the village green, as if accompanying the swooping descent of an aerial camera in a documentary about small-town life. Here even the most provincial of yokels, and the most inhibited of girls, are animated by the singer’s powers, almost despite themselves. The pianist can have fun in characterising the clod-hopping antics of the ‘stumpfe Bursche’, the left hand slightly accented as the boy earnestly goes through his paces.
For the last strophe we hear the music in G major for the third and final time. This makes a naturally satisfying and fitting conclusion to the proceedings, and as a young accompanist, before I understood the poem, I treated this as a merry recapitulation where the only difference from the first verse was the slight rubato at ‘am Busen’, a ritardando which anticipates the vocal line’s concluding phrase. Of course I should have noticed a piano marking for the vocal line (pianissimo in the accompaniment) at ‘Ihr lieben, holden Musen’ but, like most performers, I did not ensure that this important change of dynamic was audible to the audience. And yet it should be. Closer acquaintance with what Goethe is saying in this last verse marks out Der Musensohn as significant a plea for public understanding of the artist as Der Sänger, or Trost im Liede. The message is something like this: the creative spirit strives unendingly to entertain and move others, but when does he receive his own reward? When will he too be able to rest on the bosom of someone who loves him? The artist’s happiness is taken for granted, but he can all too easily give out much more than he receives. This was much more true of Schubert than Goethe; the conclusion of this song summons up for me images of the young people at the Schubertiads dancing in happy enjoyment, while the composer, their only source of music, labours at the piano to provide them with endlessly beautiful improvisations. And what loneliness is he feeling as he does so? Where was the person who was special to him, the person for whom he was ‘the preferred one’? The repeat of the last two lines of this verse dwells lovingly on the notion of this imaginary love (the ritardando at ‘am Busen’), but the song goes back into tempo for its concluding phrase as if these hopes of shared intimacy must all somehow be dismissed as a pipe-dream. The performer who really understands the poem will not make of this final page a rollicking peroration; the whole strophe has to have a new colour (aided by the addition of pedal in the accompaniment perhaps), a tenderness and gentleness tinged with regret and longing which contains as much of the true Schubertian flavour as any song he ever wrote about love and loss – and all this within the context of the same tune which has bounced through the earlier pages. The challenge to the performers of this final page is to convey, if only for a fleeting moment, the solitary state of being a great artist.
The son of the Muses has enormous powers certainly, and as the song progresses he tells us about them with not a little sense of cheeky self-satisfaction. But the final lines reveal him to be excluded from the ordinary human joys and satisfactions that are daily enjoyed by those without such an exalted calling. The happy postlude restores to view the poet-composer’s primary role in life, that of an entertainer born to delight us. But we have been gently reminded that he is not a self-sufficient god, but rather a human being with needs just like the rest of us.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997