The appeal of the poem to young patriots of this kind is obvious. It tells the story of the so-called Hermannschlacht, the battle in AD9, during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, in which the legions of the Roman General Varus were defeated by Arminius who was also known as 'Hermann der Cherusker' (Chief of the Cherussi). He fought for a time in the Roman army but on his return to his homeland he led a revolt which culminated in a battle in the Teutoburg Forest which annihilated the Roman occupiers. This was the first famous victory of the German 'race' against a foreign invader. 'If we could beat them then we can beat them now' is the message that young men in 1815 would derive from the tale. In the same way the story of Francis Drake and his repulse of the Spanish Armada stirred the British when threatened by Napoleon's might at sea. Hermann survived a later defeat by Germanicus (his wife Thusnelda was taken to Rome in captivity, however) and continued to rule until his assassination in AD21. His exploits were celebrated by German writers (Ulrich von Hutten and Daniel von Lohenstein) in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but the middle of the eighteenth century saw a real revival of interest in this historical episode thanks to a play by J E Schlegel, and above all to Klopstock who penned not only this poem but also a trilogy of plays dealing with different episodes in the life of Arminius. Schubert's setting comes between Die Hermannschlacht, a play written by Kleist in 1809 (bitterly critical, by historical analogy, of the squabbling Prussian and Austrian factions who failed to unite in time against Napoleon) and de la Motte Fouqué's play Hermann written in 1818. Such writers as C D Grabbe and Otto Ludwig continued to embroider the Hermann theme until the middle of the nineteenth century.
The song opens with a long 27-bar prelude, a triumphal march for the victor of the battle in the Teutoburger Wald. The ceremonial key of E flat is used, which the composer seems to favour for pagan or Ossianic ritual. Dotted rhythms and anacrustic triplet semiquavers suggest trumpets and drums. An adventurous shift to C flat major introduces a surging quaver figuration which culminates in a return to the second inversion of E flat; a B flat in the treble rises to B natural and then C at the top of an A flat chord. This effectively depicts an overflowing of joy and happiness on the part of the onlookers, Hermann's wife Thusnelda among them. The earlier setting by Christian Gottlob Neefe (1748-1798) sets the whole of the poem (with the exception of Strophe 6) as a military march, but as usual Schubert has something more elaborate in mind.
Section 1: The first verse of the opening is an unmeasured recitative for Thusnelda, punctuated by fragments of the march tune as if offstage. It is not enviable for any singer to start a song with the word 'Ha', but it gives us some idea immediately about Thusnelda's character. One of its least attractive sides is her bloodthirsty enjoyment of all the evidence of carnage, her seeming indifference to the death of Hermann's father, and the fact that she admits to feeling more attracted than ever to Hermann in his bloodstained state. This gruesome model of the ideal German woman (fit for the Third Reich in 'total war' mode) is probably derived from the stories of the women of Sparta who preferred their loved ones to return dead on their shields rather than alive and defeated.
Sections 2, 3: Thusnelda's outpourings become more lyrical, and the composer employs arioso (marked Im Takte - 'In time') which has the melodic curves of aria whilst retaining the function and feeling of recitative. At 'Komm, o komm, ich bebe vor Lust' we are still in the home key of E flat with flowing quavers underpinning the vocal line as the right-hand crotchets echo the singer's words. Directly after 'Ich bebe vor Lust' for example, the tremblings of pleasure seem to jump off the page as the piano part twitches in immediate response to these words. For the third verse we modulate to A flat. This rather more gentle section is in 3/4 and marked Nicht zu langsam; the rippling semiquavers set up an expectation of an aria which is never fulfilled. The restful tenderness of 'Ruh' hier' lasts only for a few lines. After six relaxed and tender bars the music becomes agitated again and opens out into a veritable paean of passionate adoration; this reaches its climax as it veers into an elaborate cadence in G flat for 'so hat dich niemals Thusnelda geliebt.' Sweeping sextuplets and stentorian basses remind us that the Schubert's most recent Klopstock setting had been Dem Unendlichen, very different in its religious viewpoint, of course, but similar in its grandiosity of scale. Thusnelda's wild enjoyment of Hermann's bloody exploits to the point of erotic excitement (and this is admirably conveyed by Schubert as he adds pulsating demisemiquavers to the accompaniment under 'Wie glüht der Wange') puts us in mind of the Wilde/Strauss Salome as she contemplates the beauties of Jokanaan's severed head.
Section 4: For this strophe we return to recitative for a brief resumé of the couple's earlier courtship (if so it may be called), another part of the Arminius story altogether and also famous in German legend. Hermann had carried off Thusnelda as his bride in a famous 'Entführung'. She here admits that she went with him willingly, having glimpsed his future greatness. The transformation between then and now is admirably conveyed by the long note on 'die nun dein ist' accompanied by staccato chords. The seal of immortality is the florid setting of 'dein', ornamented in the voice and accompanied by a mighty A flat 7 chord. We are certainly in the presence of a formidable character from German folklore, a precursor of Wagner's Ortrud or the Valkyries.
Section 5: This section is in D flat major (marked Etwas langsam, mit heiligem Jubel). Once again we are denied real aria in favour of arioso. The accompaniment, one of the composer's most distinguished ostinato inspirations, was recycled ten years later as the basis for Ellen's first song (Ellens erster Gesang) from The Lady of the Lake settings. In that remarkable rondo the King of Scotland, disguised as a hunter, is serenaded to the words 'Raste Krieger, Krieg ist aus'. The accompaniment is there marked piano and seems expressive of a battle in the far distance, or even the distant elfin horns of an enchanted forest. Here the writing is forte, but the theme in common between the two works concerns the majesty of kings in ancient kingdoms and the role of women in administering post-battle comforts. It was unusual for the composer at the height of his maturity in 1825 to lift an idea intact from his earlier work, but it is not surprising given this motif's buoyancy and its happy combination of pomp and tenderness. Needless to say the beautiful counter-melody which Schubert invents for Ellen is far superior to Thusnelda's arioso.
Section 6: Hermann himself now speaks at last, and with a certain amount of impatience, although without the heroic distinction which we might have expected from the build-up given him by his wife. His recitative is short and to the point and eminently believable as the words of someone battle-weary and bereaved by the slaughter of his father. He would naturally have preferred to do battle with Augustus himself rather than with Varus. He has the least to say of all the male heroes in this conversational form of two-voiced dialogue (the others are Antigone und Oedip, Hektors Abschied and Shilrik und Vinvela). Schubert favoured this form invented by the North German ballad composers over the conventional (and more Italian) duet form where the singers' voices sound together.
Section 7: Undaunted by Hermann's rather negative feelings, Thusnelda embarks on the song's final section. This is marked Mässig langsam, mit hoher Würde ('moderately slow with great dignity'). This section is in B flat and as in many of the Schubert ballads there is no attempt to return to the key of the opening. The accompaniment is formed from another ostinato based on a proud, almost dance-like rhythm. The most exceptional moment here is the musical depiction of Siegmar's ascent (he is Hermann's slain father) into Valhalla. The phrase 'Siegmar ist bei den Göttern!' begins on a B flat and rises chromatically to D flat whereby the accompaniment underneath 'Göttern' engineers a modulation to G flat major. The final phrases ('Folge du') are imperious and built on descending B flat major arpeggios in the voice although a touch of compassion is allowed (despite Thusnelda's hard-hearted injunctions not to weep) in the plaintive chromatics of 'Wein ihm nicht'. The piano postlude of two-and-a-half rather peremptory bars is an echo of this vocal line.
“Ludicrous” is how Fischer-Dieskau describes the song; “Hardly interesting” says Capell; “It leads nowhere” says Reed. On balance, the piece deserves a little better than these verdicts which have been somewhat influenced, one feels, by the poem's jingoistic subject matter. Much has been made of the Wagnerian atmosphere which is prophesied in the Schubert ballads, and nothing here stretches belief more than some of that master's scenarios. At least Schubert has the advantage of brevity (even by his own ballad standards) and in Thusnelda we have a larger-than-life Amazonian character, infinitely more formidable than Hermann and loosely based on history. Whether her strength of purpose and independence of spirit, undoubtedly politically correct by twentieth-century standards, are marred or enhanced by her bloodthirsty nature is open to question. She would certainly have loved to take part in the battle herself, and one feels that the Romans would have been even more soundly beaten.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994