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Josef Hüttenbrenner, during the days when Schubert shared an apartment with Mayrhofer, played a part in the composer’s life as a sort of factotum. He almost certainly pushed his brother Heinrich’s poem for Schubert’s attention and, once it was composed, ensured its relatively speedy publication. (It was one of Hüttenbrenner’s tasks to liaise with the publishers and it is difficult to imagine the composer himself wishing to rush this song into print when better ones lay forgotten in a drawer.) The fact that the Hüttenbrenner name is linked at one remove with Count Esterhazy, the influential dedicatee of the Op 8 songs, suggests discreet nepotism. Perhaps this pushiness was one of the factors which turned the composer against Josef Hüttenbrenner whom he came to regard as a nuisance. How better to become an importunate bore than to nag a composer into setting the scribblings of a family member of mediocre talent?
There is no evidence that the composer disliked Heinrich himself; we know very little about him apart from the fact that he was a law student in Vienna and was both the youngest and the shortest-lived of the brothers. It is likely that Schubert was fond of all of them for old times’ sake. But the song, as observed by Capell, has all the evidence of something hastily done, in this case as a favour. Of all Schubert’s ‘Jüngling’ songs, a genre which calls for charm, this is the least personable. There are three settings of Schiller’s Der Jüngling am Bache and all of them are delightful in their different ways, the first (1812) Mozartian, the second (1815) more romantic, and the last (1819) almost passionate. Much loved, and rightly so, is the unforgettable Salis-Seewis water-picture Der Jüngling an der Quelle. The affection that Schubert had for Spaun, and the seriousness with which he took his advice, shines through Der Jüngling und der Tod, although it is not a great poem. This Hüttenbrenner Jüngling, however, is over, rather than on, the hill. The composer finds himself faced with an intractable assembly of wooden clichés in pastoral mode (thus the opening 6/8 time signature), melodramatic, tear-jerking, and sentimentally pious to boot. The very young Schubert might have handled it better – the preposterous (and equally stiff) funeral scenario of Schiller’s Leichenphantasie (1811) comes to mind.
The original key is E minor, and the marking ‘Nicht zu langsam’. The composer does his best to paint the youth sitting pensively on the hill, but one has only to compare a later song of a lovelorn young man in a similar location (‘Still sitz’ ich an des Hügels Hang’ – Schulze’s Im Frühling) to hear the difference when the composer is fully involved in a poem’s imagery. The harmonies here, slightly portentous, suggest the old-fashioned minstrelsy and archaic harmonies of a work like Der König in Thule. The two-part writing between voice and piano at ‘der Augen Spiegel’ is an ingenious reflection of the words.
The second section moves into C major as the lambs gambol happily in the fields, like so many four-legged cousins of Die Forelle; their movements are captured in triplets, much less fluid than the sextuplets reserved for the trout. Ornithological life in the contemporary song Morgenlied is depicted very much in similar unselfconscious fashion, and one remembers other works from this period (the Schlegel songs Der Knabe, Der Schmetterling and Die Vögel) where the artless natures of bird and butterfly express themselves in the simplicity of dancing arpeggios built around common chords. This is the happiest and most natural-sounding episode. There is then a transitional passage in C minor which leads into the funeral-cortège music which lies at the heart of this song.
For the section (G minor, ‘Langsam’) beginning ‘Ach! dumpfes Grabgeläute Im Dorfe nun erklang’ one admires another ingenious Schubertian experiment, one of several in the canon, with the resonance of bell music, here deeper and more sonorous than elsewhere (cf. Das Zügenglöcklein – the passing-bell tolled when someone dies, Abendbilder – vesper bells, Viola – snow bells, Das Heimweh – cowbells, and so on). For six bars the pianist’s hands alternate with unchanging tolling sounds, a bleak open twelfth apart, crotchets in the left hand, and crotchets off the beat in the right. This pedal effect conjures a very dark and ominous atmosphere, and the dramatic screws are tightened as the bass line rises ineluctably in gradual semitones, like grief welling to the surface. There is a moment of great tenderness at the mention of ‘Röschen’ (an actual name or simply a flower metaphor?). This incorporates a tiny echo of the dactylic motif of Der Tod und das Mädchen, and it is perhaps ungracious of us to feel that the name little Rose – if this is what the poet meant (perhaps he implies simply that the girl was the rose of his heart) – seems unintentionally comic in this context. The music is portentous enough to suggest that Napoleon is being buried here at the very least. After the cortège we begin the burial music in which the lie of the vocal line and the piano collaborate in digging deep into the nether reaches of the stave. It is difficult to remember when faced with the melodramatic setting of ‘Der Totengräber kam’ the sublimity of which Schubert was capable, with a similar scenario in the closing pages of Totengräbers Heimweh.
We sense in the final strophe (‘Da schwieg des Jünglings Klage’) that Schubert has tired of the poem – he has done his best, but enough is enough! At another moment he might have managed something more interesting than this straightforward change from G minor to G major, and a return to the 6/8 of the opening. That having been said, only this composer could have managed something so simply effective as the extended G pedal where the piano’s right hand intertwines with the vocal line in the manner of a charming obbligato instrument. All this brings about a seraphic sense of contentment. The fact is that it comes too soon and too automatically after the ridiculously high drama of the burial scene for us to believe in its spiritual import. There is too much about this closing music which suggests a sentimental apotheosis in Victorian style. The religiosity of the Silbert settings, flawed as those works are, is a good deal more convincing than this. The postlude which ascends skywards while contemplating hope’s ‘hohe Schrift’ remains earthbound. The handwriting is on the wall rather than in the heavens – Schubert needs a specially gifted poet, a Klopstock or a Novalis, truly to inspire him when it comes to poetry of a religious bent. Even Pyrker is a giant when compared to young Hüttenbrenner.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997
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