In 1818 Schubert had been invited to be music master for the two young Esterhazy countesses at Zseliz. Among the books and papers he took with him for this long sojourn of five months (June to November) was almost certainly a long poem by Mayrhofer, in manuscript. This was in six strophes with six answering antistrophes in the manner of an antique ode. (It is just possible that the poem was sent to Schubert during his Hungarian visit, but this is unlikely as the letters between Schubert and Mayrhofer at the time do not mention such a consignment.) In early August Schubert was able proudly to report to his friends that the work was finished; it seems that everyone close to him knew he was working on the project. The composer’s letter begins:
Zelez [sic] the third August, 1818
Best and dearest friends,
How could I forget you, you who mean everything to me? How are you Spaun, Schober, Mayrhofer, Senn? Are you well? I am quite well. I live and compose like a god, as though it was all meant to be so. Mayrhofer’s Einsamkeit is ready, and I believe it’s the best thing I’ve done [mein Bestes, was ich gemacht habe], for I was without a care in the world [ich war ja ohne Sorge].
Schubert had every right to be proud of the piece, but his belief that it was his best yet deserves some explanation, quite apart from the fact that we know that he continued to revise it and thus could not have been completely satisfied at its completion. The publication of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte in 1816 had almost certainly both fascinated and needled him. Just when Schubert thought that he was building a unique reputation for himself as a song composer, cultivating a corner of music’s garden which was not of much interest to his seniors, Beethoven came up with a surprising and successful song-cycle – six songs linked together to make a continuous piece, the cumulative effect of which was greater than any one of its sections would lead one to suppose. Beethoven was a famed innovator of musical form, and this work was proof of his continuing mastery, if any were needed. Of course, this must have been taken as a challenge by Schubert who had written many a ballad longer than An die ferne Geliebte but never a piece linked together in this way. It is entirely likely that Schubert asked Mayrhofer to write a poem especially for the purpose. Thus Einsamkeit is divided into six sections to match Beethoven’s ground-plan, and Schubert took it with him to Hungary to set to music as a summer task. It is noteworthy too that whereas Beethoven, from the older generation, sets a poem about longing to be with the loved one, Schubert and Mayrhofer chose to give their work an exactly opposite viewpoint: far from wishing for companionship, the protagonist of Einsamkeit wishes for solitude. Thus the two cycles, written within a short time of each other, represent different standpoints of the new Zeitgeist – in Beethoven’s case Classicism tinged with Romantic ardour, in Schubert’s, Romanticism tempered by Classical models. Both poets were Viennese contemporaries: Beethoven was drawn to the work of the conservative journalist Jeitteles, better known as an expert on Jewish affairs than as a poet; Schubert was far more in touch with the latest writing and ideas from Germany than his older colleague, and his poet, Mayrhofer, was extremely ‘modern’ and left-wing by comparison. There is also a distinct attempt to outdo An die ferne Geliebte in terms of scale.
Einsamkeit is longer than the Beethoven cycle and, in its attempt to create something like a Seven Ages of Man survey in music of a single life, much more ambitious. Although this extra length does nothing to vanquish Beethoven’s cycle, Schubert’s pleasure in the completion of such a cyclic piece is entirely understandable: he firmly re-established himself at the cutting edge of Lieder composition. Because the work was in a new and different form than any he had written before, he considered it his best. It was also his lifelong tendency to favour his recently-completed music over his older work.
Right from the beginning we are made aware that this is no ordinary piece: we find ourselves in Schubert’s song theatre to hear a work staged, lit and conducted by the composer without the need for any of the paraphernalia of operatic performance. Indeed, it is with music in the home that we can best detect Schubert’s dramatic genius; it is different from Mozart’s and that of other successful opera composers, but no less valid in its more economical way. Many signs of this were apparent in the composer’s youth, with hair-raising ballads with poems by Pfeffel and Schiller, Bertrand and Kenner, but those works stand apart from the Lieder. Einsamkeit is the last time in Schubert’s song output that we shall hear a piece on this scale but, as John Reed points out, this should not be considered the last of the solo cantatas but rather the first of the song cycles.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997
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