Suleika I, D720

First line:
Was bedeutet die Bewegung?
March 1821; published in December 1822 as Op 14 No 1
author of text
attributed to and adapted by Goethe
author of text

When the forces of nature join forces with the erotic energies of an eastern princess the results are bound to be spectacular. This song, and its companion setting, are in the forefront of Schubertian masterpieces, as difficult to perform as adequately to describe. From the very beginning we realise we are in for something extraordinary: the piano, in its guise as the East Wind (ambiguity and cypher figure strongly in these songs where the protagonists wear oriental disguise, and everything is a symbol for something else) rustles sinuously across both staves as it ascends from the depths of the keyboard, spending its energy in two dotted minim chords rolled with the utmost sensuality. These wonderful five bars are redolent of the East Wind certainly (and one remembers that Goethe lives in the east, in Weimar, and Marianne in Frankfurt to the west) but so lovingly and caressingly must the left hand finger the curling figurations, coaxing them to rise from the depths of the instrument (each group of four semiquavers briefly turning in on itself before aspiring higher) that the breezes can here be heard as a metaphor for the stirrings of desire.

The key (B minor, symbolic in Schubert of love and longing) and characteristically punctuated left-hand rhythm are those of the 'Unfinished' Symphony. In her opening lines, Suleika asks two questions in the home key (inflected at the end to suggest that she expects an answer) and the balancing phrase brings a reply in D major. The repeat of the last two lines of this strophe is a marvel of tenderness; the triplets in the vocal line first heard here are a sultry feature of this song – they suggest arabesques or moorish melismas which subtly colour the music to evoke the quasi-oriental provenance of the poem. For the second verse, Suleika's gaze shifts to observing the world about her – Goethe the scientist and botanist has been her teacher after all – and, momentarily distracted from the intensity of her longing, she smiles in the major key of the workings of nature. It is as if the domain of the insects has been placed under a musical microscope, and each of the accompaniment's black semiquavers on the page represents a bustling ant. Aurally, this impression is aided by the word-setting and a quick succession of busy consonants; in the piano we hear something like the repetitive hum of a thousand tiny exotic creatures as they disport themselves in the dust surrounding the vine leaves. This is followed by a welcome musical repetition of the first verse; the wind cools the heat of Suleika's cheeks as it kisses the vines. In Verse 4 the real romantic message of the East Wind reveals itself to the singer whose newly minted vocal line astride an already familiar accompaniment (the same as Verse 2) stretches out to receive it like a body yielding and opening to a caress; at 'von dem Freunde tausend Grüsse' and 'grüssen mich wohl tausend Küsse' the voice is teased into gently repetitive undulations of foreplay as it cleaves to the piano line in hunting-horn thirds and sixths.

Of course all this is a prelude to the song's climax of Verse 5 – waves of mounting passion where the first two lines of the strophe are repeated in two magnificent sequences, one a semitone higher than the other. A plateau is reached on 'Dort … dort (the word-repeat is the inspiration of the panting composer) wo hohen Mauern glühen'. The voice's E rises to F, then F sharp; the piano's left hand also rises to meet the vocal invitation-challenge in steps of a semitone with all the exciting consequences of a whirlwind chromatic journey through the senses. The two halves conjoin in two shuddering climaxes on 'bald den Vielgeliebten'. The first of these seems to be the high point until we realise that it is on an inconclusive second inversion of F sharp major; a moment later, in a second spurt of energy, we reach the temporary tonic, itself the dominant of the home key. Schubert had written nothing as openly impassioned as this for woman's voice since the climax of Gretchen am Spinnrade; that work had been shot through with the anguish of betrayal, but here we hear only the rapture of reciprocation. True enough, it is the rapture of Marianne's and Goethe's fantasy of union, but who was better placed than Schubert to fantasise alongside them about the love which he could never enjoy in reality? The ten bars of piano interlude which lead into the final verse allow racing pulses and heartbeats to descend into a warm glow of quietus and detumescence.

In the final section it is as if the voice rests on the piano's shoulder and the throbbing heartbeat of a gentle F sharp pedal; it is Schubert's 'extase langoureuse' and 'fatigue amoureuse' long before Verlaine and Debussy attempted to capture the post-coital mood (warmth, security, fear that this bliss should not continue forever) in the musical language of French impressionism. Above all this music is about feeling, for sensation alone is never enough for the any true lover or Schubertian. Triplets and a single mordent ornament the vocal line the better to allow it to flow and unfold in its intensely private and inner contentment. We hear the same twelve bars of music twice – the only important difference being in the tessitura of the right hand accompaniment which is an octave higher as the soul and spirit gradually surface from the depths. The use of diminished sevenths on 'wird mir nur aus seinem Munde' and 'kann mir nur sein Atem geben' perfume this music with the presence of Hatem (thus the pun on 'Atem', breath) who is the longed-for lover. Suleika's words are repeated one last time where the vocal line winds the piece down to its conclusion and melts into the sleep and dreams of fulfilment. The F sharp pedal is now to be heard in both bass and treble and continues until six bars from the end where the home key of B major arrives at last on the final 'erfrischtes Leben'.

John Reed, quoting Blake, sees in this music 'the lineaments of gratified desire', and he is surely right. Schubert has allowed the two lovers to conjoin where the disparity between their ages as well as geographical distance defeated them in real life.

On 26 April 1825 Marianne wrote to Goethe (whom she had now not seen for ten years) reporting that in attempting to buy a Beethoven song from a local music shop, they had sent her “a really lovely song on the East Wind and Geheimes from the Divan.” This was obviously Schubert's Op 14 published in 1822. She failed to mention the name of the composer; once again Schubert was destined to fail in any attempt to cross Goethe's path. Brahms, as have thousands of others since, agreed with Marianne's verdict: he thought this was the “loveliest song ever written”. His song Von ewiger Liebe (also in B minor/major) owes much to this Suleika.

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. 19 – Felicity Lott


Track 17 on CDJ33019 [5'31]
Track 10 on CDS44201/40 CD24 [5'31] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)

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