The vast majority of Schubert's songs were set without a sense of such personal involvement with the poem, beyond that which he employed constantly in the vast theatre of his mind and imagination. On the whole his world, like that of Keats, was one of Negative Capability where the page was kept clean of any pre-judgement and moral viewpoint, and the creative need was to reflect life simply as it was, different music arising from many different poets with their different temperaments. From time to time, however, particularly at moments of personal crisis, we know that Schubert was moved to write poetry himself. At the same time I believe he looked to the poetry of others to mirror his distress, and to give him comfort. And when he found something that seemed to speak, as it were, for him, he set it to music as part of a cathartic process. The choice of Die schöne Müllerin was no accident at a time when the composer was gravely ill, and the composition of Des Sängers Habe is in the same category.
By all accounts early 1825 was not a pleasant time for Schubert. There is a possibility that he had to return to hospital with something of a relapse in his condition. Life seemed to be going ill for him on personal and material levels. His one consolation was that his songs were being talked about throughout Vienna and he could sense that he was becoming increasingly well-known even if he had nothing to show for it financially. It was at this time that Schubert wrote Des Sängers Habe, a work which John Reed calls 'despairing, defiant and triumphant by turns', which seems to be a fairly accurate assessment of the composer's mood at the time. Schlechta was a schoolfriend of Schubert, and the composer had access to his poems in manuscript. Indeed it seems possible that Schlechta wrote the poem with his friend's plight in mind. The printed poem differs greatly from the one which Schubert actually set; this was probably an earlier version later altered for publication, but it seems possible that the composer himself made the important change from the third person to the first person in the last verse ('Dass ich' rather than `Dass er'), something which would confirm the status of this song as an artistic credo.
The introduction is a mixture of a falling figure in octaves, loud decisive chords and strutting repeated notes as an upbeat to jaunty triplets with a touch of staccato which suggests an instrument with a brighter, steelier twang than that of a harp. This might be the zither mentioned in the poem, of course, or it might be Schubert's own piano. That this was above all meant to sound as piano music is emphasized by the re-employment of these right-hand triplets in the first movement of the Piano Trio in B flat, Opus 99 (D898). The song of course is also in B flat. This introduction paints a picture of man sweeping aside his misfortune with a touch of anger and defiance, but also with grace and gallant bravado. Here is the spirit of Mozart standing up to the Archbishop of Salzburg; here is the brandished fist of Beethoven who menaces his aristocratic patrons and warns them that he is their superior. But here is also Schubert who cannot keep a pose of anger for long, and who takes us, as we go deeper into the song, into his secret world of consolation and happiness through music. In this respect we are reminded of An die Leier which begins in thunderous mood but softens into love music. Dotted rhythms and jumps of an octave in the vocal line reinforce the feeling of pride and grandeur, and we notice that there is also a great deal of doubling between voice and piano part – often Schubert's way of emphasizing that he has something of great import to say. The ominous nature of this doubling in the penultimate verse recalls the central section of another burial song from this period, Totengräbers Heimweh. The battling spirit of the Scott songs is also evident, notably in the polonaise-like sprung rhythms found in Lied des gefangenen Jägers composed in the same year. In a sense this minstrel is a warrior against life, but he is first and foremost a poet. The most striking modulation in the song is at 'Aber meine Zither nicht' at the end of the third verse. This shift into the submediant – the key of G flat major – is a musical means of illustrating the difference between temporal and spiritual (and thus sheerly musical) realms. This same relationship of keys is also to be found in Der Einsame to underline the difference between fireside reality and pipe-dreams.
From now on the song pivots between these two tonal centres and the rhythms begin to smooth out: jagged phrases and leaps are replaced by fanciful melismas (as at 'In den letzten Schlummer ein'). On the phrase 'In den Grund des Tannenhaines senkt mich leise dann hinab' mention of a burial prompts a slow descent down the stave for four bars, from D flat to the B flat a tenth below. The voice is required not only to sink into the depths but also to float in a higher register over the grave at 'und statt eines Leichensteines stellt die Zither auf mein Grab'. The triplet motif returns in the piano, no longer in strident octaves; it is an ethereal echo of its former self. Within the space of a few minutes we have progressed from anger and determination to a completely other-worldly picture of the dance of the spirits in the afterlife. Schubert has the musical means to take us there: a rapt ostinato of dotted crotchets and quavers underpins a masterly vocal line which seems to recede into a murmur as the song reaches its end. In the piano's left hand there are open fifth chords in the song's final two lines. Goethe tells us that Mignon sings her So lasst mich scheinen to zither accompaniment, and we know that a left-hand drone is part of the character of that instrument. Wolf gives us these open fifths throughout his setting of that lyric, and here Schubert suggests that instrumental sound also. For no fewer than eight bars the song settles into the tonic key which somehow suggests the Elysian fields of eternity.
The postlude consists of the triplet figure in the higher reaches of the piano followed by wide-spaced chords prophetic of the hushed endings of certain Wolf songs – Ganymed comes to mind as well as the Mignon song already mentioned. We know not whether we are in fairyland or heaven. Benjamin Britten achieves a similar effect in the last section of his Hardy setting, The Choirmaster's Burial, which also describes spirits paying homage at the graveside of a former musician.
The whole work, despite its relative brevity, gives us the strongest impression of having moved through various states of life and spiritual development. Here surely we can discern Schubert's own voice telling us that life is supportable for him as long as he can make music. His greatest fear was surely not of dying itself, but the process of dying where a degenerative disease such as syphilis might take from him his ability to play his lyre. Anything but that. Instead of being a minstrel with his trusty zither he would be no better than the organ-grinder repeating his tuneless ditties in a desolate winter landscape. But that image, as the composer looked once more into the abyss, belongs to another year and an even greater phase in his development as man and artist.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996
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