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Der liebliche Stern, D861

First line:
Ihr Sternlein, still in der Höhe
December 1825; published in 1832 in volume 13 of the Nachlass
author of text
from the Poetisches Tagebuch

The poem is dated 28 April 1814 in the Poetisches Tagebuch. The song is 'a little pearl' according to Capell; in John Reed's words, it is 'content to celebrate our love and longing'. It seems to me that it is not at all content, and that it has a number of disturbing hidden depths. It is placed in our 'cycle' sequence to follow the water music fragment in the same key of G major; the two songs share this element as well as a feature of open fifths in the left hand of the accompaniment. But the song's very presence in a group of Schulze songs, works which the composer wrote at the height of his expressive maturity, raises certain questions. Can it really be true, as John Reed has written, that 'Schubert ignores the tragic hints in the last two verses of the poem'? If this is so, is it because the composer could not be bothered to screw himself up to the necessary pitch of musical intensity worthy of the text? For the Schubert of 1825 this is very unlikely. If he ignores the 'tragic hints' is it perhaps because he has decided that there are certain moments when a conflict of meaning between words and music is more chilling than their congruence? If Schubert had never written a song like Täuschung in Winterreise, where the waltz rhythm seems horribly ironic and incongruous with the traveller's plight, there might have been more room for doubt. But these Schulze songs are the precursors of the Müller cycle, and Der liebliche Stern has an arguable claim to be considered the Täuschung of the group.

In Täuschung it is a naive Viennese waltz which pervades the song as a cruel counterpoint to the traveller's woe. He is powerless to change the lighthearted dance of humanity, not in itself distressing—only when contrasted with his own circumstances. Robert Schumann twice wrote songs where the unhinged narrator is surrounded by cheerful dance music which horrifies him, Das ist ein Flöten und Geigen and Der Spielmann. Throughout the song canon Schubert has invented motor rhythms, less susceptible to rubato than music governed by human emotion, in which nature goes about her business if not quite regardless of man's presence, at least as a fixed given in his uncertain life—the setting of the sun, the rustle of the winds (both Suleika songs), the blinking of the stars as a source of light and energy (Leitner's Die Sterne) and above all the flowing of water which stops for no man. Think of Des Baches Wiegenlied, the final song in Die schöne Müllerin: the most heartbreaking words relating to suicide and betrayal are sung quietly in the major key, in unvarying strophes, a musical form as ritualised and impartial as the burial service. The tragedy of the miller-boy is seen as part of the inscrutable workings of nature: 'Golden lads and girls all must / As chimney-sweepers, come to dust'—and it is this which makes it unbearably moving.

In Der liebliche Stern the music of the dancing stars carries on regardless of the poet who is shown to be only a small cog in the impartial workings of the universe, even though he obsessively believes himself to be at its epicentre. The difference between Schulze and the winter traveller is clear; the protagonist of Winterreise is blessed (or cursed) with self-knowledge, the poet of Der liebliche Stern has little idea how distorted and obsessional his relationship with life and love has become. But even he, totally self-absorbed though he is, is powerless to stop the stars in their course, and why should Schubert's music do this for him? In the presence of Nature the poet is small fry. If he were to commit suicide in the watery depths (he lacks the courage of the miller-boy) the music makes it clear that the stars would still shine, life would go on. Thus Schubert does not 'ignore the tragic hints', he comments on the puny human condition by counterpointing the poet and his environment; this throws into even greater relief Schulze's alienation from the workings of the real world as expressed by the music.

But this music is also subtly and deliberately distorted, precisely because it is seen through the poet's eyes. There is a confluence of musical motifs here—water music and starlight. Even the look of the music for the introduction looks unusual. There is nothing quite like these awkward figurations with their right-hand leaps (Capell called them 'dainty'!) in all Schubert. Think of how easily the water flows under the hand in Wohin?; it is as if the accompaniment for Der liebliche Stern has been composed by holding up a mirror to a more conventional piece of water music. The vocal line for the first two lines of the poem ends most unusually, with a shape for 'spielend im Meer' which falls and rises in precisely opposite places to the expected. Would 'Meer' not sound more natural set a falling fourth rather than a rising one? The left hand in the tenor register sings a strangely beguiling tune which also looks upside down; falling from its quaver anacrusis rather than rising; this cantus firmus must signify the Lorelei-like song of the beguiling star, but should this celestial melody not be made to shine in the treble? Of course not, because the work is all about reflection, and everything in this song is upside down. For Schulze, the star's only reality is beneath the water; the natural order of the universe where stars live high above the sea, is thus subverted. Schubert has created a topsy-turvy land through the looking glass which is all the more disturbing because it masquerades as reality. The singer accepts the mirror-image as the truth, but Schubert knows different, and so should we.

In the songs so far performed in this cycle, one-track-minded obsession, born of strophic song formulae, has been the order of the day: the unflinching return of the ritornello in Auf der Bruck, the self-hypnotising and repetitive choreography of Um Mitternacht. Der liebliche Stern continues the pattern. The song remains centred around the tonic chord of G major to a remarkable degree; it moves once to the minor key, once to a stentorian B flat (prophetic of Lebensmut) and in the last verse to C major for 'lasst tief in der wallenden Kühle' (this passage recalls the cool depths plumbed by the Salis-Seewis Fischerlied D562 in the same key), but the poet's theme is himself and he is always drawn back to the tonality of an unchanging viewpoint. The strophic form is skilfully and subtly modified, but always within the parameters of a world in which neither the stars nor the poet are able to change their themes. Seen in this light, Der liebliche Stern reveals itself as perhaps the most misunderstood, and falsely prettified, of all the songs of Schubert's maturity.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/4040CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 18 – Peter Schreier
CDJ33018Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 19 – Felicity Lott
Schubert: An introduction to The Hyperion Schubert Edition
HYP200Super-budget price sampler — Deleted


Track 16 on CDJ33018 [2'44] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 2 on CDS44201/40 CD31 [2'44] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
Track 8 on CDJ33019 [2'58]
Track 1 on HYP200 [2'44] Super-budget price sampler — Deleted

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