The poem, itself a parody of the folk style, was written in 1771. At this time Goethe was a law student at the University of Strasburg; there he came under the powerful influence of J G Herder (only five years his senior) who encouraged him to study the simple beauties of folksong texts in pursuit of freshness and spontaneity in his writing. This was also the period of the poet’s love affair with Friederike von Brion, and the poem Wilkommen und Abschied set by Schubert in 1822. Both Herder and Goethe made versions of an old German folksong about a wild rose, but it was Goethe’s poem with its sexual overtones which has survived Herder’s version with its moralising tone more suited to the schoolroom than the open fields.
Reichardt had set the poem simply (to the point of anonymity) in G major and with four quavers to the bar, and one cannot forget that the other celebrated flower song with a Goethe text, Mozart’s Das Veilchen, is also in G major and 2/4. As so often in 1815, Schubert begins his ground-breaking work by bowing to the past and acknowledging his forbears, but after fixing his own song in G major and in 2/4, similarities and obeisances are at an end. Schubert’s tune is unforgettable whereas the tune of the Reichardt song is frankly unmemorable; Schubert takes us outdoors (‘the bucolic air might be thought to have been born of one mind with the poem’, writes Capell) whereas Mozart’s mini-opera on two pages is peopled by shepherds and shepherdesses clothed in the silk costumes of a court bergerette.
In the Schubert song, the alternation between the hands of light quaver chords (it might be called a ‘vamp’ in the language of popular music) suggests the lighthearted cheeky gait of a young man with eyes and heart a-roving. At the same time these very chords, in their very proper economy, suggest the demure innocence of the rose, and in the various strophes the pianist can slightly vary the articulation and dynamics to throw the emphasis on one or other of the song’s protagonists. The semiquavers which flower on the vocal line are an absolutely integral part of the tune rather than extraneous ornament or decoration; at the same time the curvaceous melody suggests luxurious and alluring beauty, as if the visual simplicity of the rose is complemented by its fragrance – a scent carried into the air on these wind-borne semiquavers and which plays no little part in the boy’s delight. Behind the deceptive charm of the two-and-a-half bars of interlude between the verses (a sequence of two groups of quavers – ascending thirds separated by a falling fifth and ornamented by cheeky acciacaturas) lies an illustration of the selfish and callous attitude of the flower-picker, cocky in his male chauvinism, as well as the dangerous power of revenge in the flower’s prickly thorn – thus the piano’s staccato. Schubert marks the refrain (‘Röslein, Röslein, Röslein rot’) ‘nachgebend’, which means giving way or yielding; thus the request for a small ritardando required for the beautiful ascending phrase of eight notes could also describe the yielding quality of womankind for which the prickly rose is a metaphor, although it is soon to prove its capacity to fight back. The effect of this refrain is of the utmost wistfulness, as if kissing a childhood dream of innocence goodbye as it floats past up into the aether. This musing is cancelled by a return to tempo (Schubert marks it ‘wie oben’, ‘as above’) which nicely negates any suggestion of sentimentality and returns the setting to the earthy folksong domain. It takes no great leap of imagination to see in this poem a scenario for the contraction of a wounding disease, sexually transmitted between the sexes. Like all the best folk material, however, the poem works simultaneously on a number of levels, from the lighthearted to the sinister. The merriment of Schubert’s astonishing setting is underscored by a mood utterly typical of the composer in some of his seemingly happy works: a streak of gentle melancholy in the major key suggests deeper layers of meaning, unspoken and heartbreaking.
This is one of the few songs (Der Lindenbaum from Winterreise is another) which has achieved the status of anonymously-composed folksong in German-speaking culture. It is interesting, however, that Erk’s Liederschatz (a compendium of the most often sung German folksongs in the nineteenth century) prefers a setting of the words from 1827 by one Heinrich Werner.
The work did not take Schubert a great deal of time to compose; no less than four other songs were composed on the same day. For those who might like to imagine the heat of creativity in the Schubertian workshop on 19 August 1815, the companion settings (all of Goethe poems) were Der Rattenfänger, Der Schatzgräber, Bundeslied, and the first version of An den Mond.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994