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Memory and nostalgia for past moments of happiness ('alte unnennbare Tage', 'old unnameable days' Mörike called them in his 'Im Frühling') is one of the trickiest of ideas to turn into art. To revisit a place where one has been happy with someone else stirs mixed emotion: 'Halb ist es Lust, halb ist es Klage' ('half pleasure, half lament') as Mörike also wrote. There is much that has changed, but there are certain constants that have not. One can never step into the same stream twice, but the river banks look the same even if much water has gone under the bridge. The vocal line of Im Frühling is subtly modified strophe by strophe, but this is nothing new in Schubert's output. The accompaniment however here has a life of its own, and it was a stroke of genius on the composer's part to call on a form he used only once in his songs, that of theme and variations. What could be more perfect to express the concept of 'the same, yet not the same'?
Variation form was a Schubertian speciality. In his book devoted to the subject, Maurice Brown has sixteen chapters devoted to different instrumental works. The first of these concerns the set of variations which constitute the second movement of the Symphony No 2 in B flat, D125. Listen again to this and you will hear a tune and variations, in E flat major, with a lilt and a gait that are unmistakeably prophetic of Im Frühling. The Symphony was written at the end of 1814, a few months after the first performance of Schubert's Mass in F in which the soprano soloist had been Therese Grob, the girl with whom it is said Schubert was in love in his youth. Let us postulate for a moment that this charming and accessible movement, composed at the time that the pair was courting, was one of Therese's special favourites. The next appearance of a reworking of this theme is in 1815, at the height of the relationship; in the twelfth number of the opera Die Freunde von Salamanka D326, Diego and Laura sing a love duet in C major, 'underneath a roof of trees by the silver stream, the shepherd longs for his beautiful girl and moans in enraptured tones'. By 1824 Therese had long been married to someone else, but the tune from this opera was used again, this time as a basis for the variations of the second movement of the Octet for winds and strings, D803. Perhaps Schubert was already weaving this melody into that web of allusion and emotional cross-reference where certain tunes bring back our pasts as infallibly as Proust's moistened madeleine cake evoked his. Perhaps Schulze's poem brought to mind a season of tenderness and innocence in the springtime of Schubert's own life, together with the pain and regret of recognition that so much had now changed for the worse. But as the poet also says, much remains the same, or almost the same. Perhaps Schubert's old tune, an echo of the golden days of 1814, came to his mind's ear. If so, the result was the last and most sophisticated metamorphosis of a theme for variations which had run like a thread through his life for the past twelve years.
All this is mere speculation, but something has to account for the lavish care that this song received at the hands of the master. Verses 1 and 2 form a statement of the theme—or rather two themes, for voice and piano sing a subtly different song—perhaps counterpointing the idea of him and her, past and present, reality and fantasy. The song is a set of variations from the point of view of the piano, but vocally it is in modified strophic form where two of the poet's verses are used to make one of Schubert's musical strophes. Thus as far as the voice is concerned, 1 + 2 = 3 (slightly modified) + 4 = 5 (in the minor) + (after a bridge passage) 6. We hear the piano's theme in an introduction that is the epitome of the happy/sad in Schubert, subtle and searching with a streak of melancholy (no conventional springtime paean this), yet also warmed by a gentle smile and a lift to the rhythm. At the entry of the voice the piano momentarily abandons its theme in order to aid and abet the magical workings of the vocal line. Did ever breezes play so lovingly in music ('Lüftchen spielt im grünen Tal')? Was there ever more eloquent use of the supertonic than in the side-step return to the past of 'ich beim ersten Frühlingsstrahl'? Was ever a repeated phrase like 'einst ach, so glücklich war' ('I was, oh, so happy') more appropriately set, the pulse quickening in the minor mode as the memory of love returns in a rush of pain/pleasure, followed by rueful acceptance, in the major, that nothing cannot last forever?
The second section (Verses 3 and 4) is the first of the piano's variations—pearly semiquavers rippling high in the treble, underpinned by staccato left-hand quavers. The effect is quite delicious and timeless; indeed the charm of the piano writing (with its stride basses avant la lettre which suggest a slightly languid yet cheeky 'swing') has become such common currency that it puts one in mind of the Eurovision Song Contest. The tiniest of details bring pleasure here: at 'am liebsten pflückt' ich von dem Zweig', the explosive consonant and staccato bass conspire in onomatopoeia to suggest the sound of a flower snapped from a branch; the picture of the heavens reflected in the stream (at 'das blaue Himmelsbild') is fleetingly blurred by a mordent as the pianist's right hand skims the surface of the water.
Now it is a time for a minore movement, conventionally placed near the end of a set of variations in the major key. The previous variation is turned on its head: for the first time, semiquavers in the left hand stir the dark emotional waters, and quavers in agitated syncopation are to be found in the right. The reign of the tonic minor is disturbed by an aching reminiscence in the Neapolitan key of A flat on 'Und nur die Liebe bleibt zurück', the key which Reed associates in Schubert with 'secure and reciprocated love' and which here holds sway for less than two bars. The sudden advent of a middle section storm was to be a pattern of some of the greatest slow movements of Schubert's maturity (in the A major Piano Sonata D959, for example, and the String Quintet). In those works, when calm returns, an echo of the catastrophe remains behind to cast a warning shadow over the recapitulation; we have learned too much to go back to our old ways, and nothing now can be the same. So it is in this song. After a bar of modulation which returns us to G major, the right hand semiquavers of the first Variation return, but the leaping basses of the left hand are subverted by the storm syncopations. This belies the optimism of the last verse; it has the effect of a pull at the heartstrings, a catch in the throat, and warns us that what follows is now sheer fantasy. At the words 'and sing a sweet song about her', the voice jumps a seventh, full of longing, which is prolonged by a fermata. This has happened three times in the song on different words. As a strophic composer Schubert scores three out of three: the jump is wonderful for the bright clarity of 'hell' (Verse 2), and also for 'Quell' (Verse 4), which is brightest by reflection; but most of all, heartbreakingly appropriate in the last verse for 'von ihr' where she is put on a pedestal high in the voice. Schubert shortens Schulze's last two lines for a rapt coda; as the singer pauses on 'ganzen Sommer lang' the pianist aspires to the highest note in the whole accompaniment but cannot tarry there long. It is all an evanescent dream, fleetingly conjured and dying with the last wistful notes of the postlude. Schubert's use of modified strophic form was seldom so virtuosic, and the Lied has seldom attained such perfection.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993
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