Here is proof indeed, if any were needed, that the young men of the Schubert circle regarded the death of a war hero as something of a personal tragedy. Josef Kenner was one of the composer’s school friends and the poet of the unlikely ballad Der Liedler
, the gothic horror of which, werewolves and all, gives us some idea of how the still impressionable young men of the Imperial Seminary thrilled to a Jurassic Park scenario of the day. But Grablied
leaves this innocent high camp for the serious pitched battle of the Austrian soldier and the ‘Befreiungsschlacht’ against the French. References to ‘splintered bones’ and ‘deadly bullets’ show not only a typical young man’s fascination with the gory details of violence (at a time when ‘video’ was still only part of a Latin verb) but also the poet’s relief that he and his comrades, safely back at school in Vienna, were spared a similar fate. It is easy to see in this poem a specific lament for the poet Körner who, as a successful playwright and cultural figure in Vienna, had the double distinction of being an artist as well as a man of action. It is true that he had died some two years previously, but Napoleon’s unexpected return from Elba, and the tension induced by the frantic military activity of the ‘Hundred Days’ put the fears of the Viennese, and the achievements of their fallen, once more on the agenda. Grablied
was written four days before the Battle of Waterloo, and Kolmas Klage
, which is a woman’s elegy for the death of her father and brother, was written only two days before that.
The music is typical of Schubert’s elegies of the period – Kosegarten’s Schwangesang (and also originally in F minor) comes to mind. There are the usual sensitive touches one can all too easily take for granted: the word ‘süssen’ elicits a tender and lingering appoggiatura, and mention of the ‘Befreiungsschlacht’ – the War of Liberation – prompts a note of rueful regret rather than self-satisfied jingoism. The semi-staccato chords in the accompaniment under ‘wir graben ihm’ (meant to suggest the sound of a shovel doing its grim work, iron against earth, at a burial) help classify Grablied as one of the composer’s gravedigger songs. The implication is that the singer is not only present at the funeral but actually doing the spade work – often the sad lot of a fellow soldier in the field. In such a manner does the composer take himself to the scene of battle on a magic carpet of sound. The tomb-like depth of the piano in the little postlude as well as the ominous basses in octaves are prophetic of the greatest of all burial songs, written a decade later and without mention of war, Totengräbers Heimweh in F minor. Schubert’s feeling for key does not change over the years; in 1815 F minor was already his key for graveyard ritual.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994