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Leichenfantasie, D7

composer
c1811; first published in 1894 in series 20 of the Gesamtausgabe, Leipzig
author of text

 
Schiller, 'imprisoned' in his military academy, wrote this poem in 1780 in a State of high emotion and despair. A fellow student by the name of August von Hoven had died, and the poet wrote to the young man's father enclosing this work. The letter of condolence which accompanied the poem is a fascinating indication of Schiller's general state of mind at the time: "I am not yet twenty-one years old, but I can teil you the world has no more joys for me … the nearer I get to maturity, the more I wish I had died as a child." In this way he hints that he would quite happily have died in von Hoven's place. Richard Capell was quite mistaken to write that "the humanity of the case … is not the poet's subject. It is an exercise in the macabre." Whilst this may be truly said of Pfeffel's Der Vatermörder (Volume 12) which Schubert set at the end of the same year, Eine Leichenfantasie (Schiller's title; the composer omitted the indefinite article) was as heartfelt a response to a father's bereavement (and the poet's own sense of loss) as might be expected from a highly-strung young man at the end of his tether. The poem is influenced on one hand by the religious poetry of Klopstock, and on the other by the grave-side scenes in Goethe's Werther which had appeared six years before and changed the course of German literature. Goethe's tragic hero was buried by night, as is the unnamed corpse in this poem. This mixture of genres, the old and the new in German literature, engenders a stilted type of Sturm und Drang which may seem comically ghoulish to our ears. It is important to remember however that in order to escape from an appallingly regimented existence, the young Schiller's imagination worked overtime, his emotions overheated in the hothouse of his hated school. The poem is contemporary with Die Räuber, an 'over the top' work if there ever was one, but both play and poem were written with the greatest seriousness.

There is also no doubt that Franz Schubert took the poem seriously. He was not the first musician to do so. There was a setting by the Czech composer Wenzel Tomašek dating from 1805, and probably earlier settings as well. Underneath the heading of the printed poem are the words 'in Musik zu haben beim Herausgeber' ('available from the publisher in a musical setting'). There are other Schubert graveyard songs (the settings of Matthisson's Der Geistertanz for example, Volumes 11 and 12) in which the composer partakes of the glee typical of all boys when confronted with a tale of ghosts or witches. By contrast, he seems to be aiming at something quite différent here. What led him to attempt this long and difficult poem, apart from the fact that he had already set one of Schiller's much shorter works (Des Mädchens Klage D6')? It is reasonable to suppose that a large number of poems of differing quality came the young Schubert's way. In the absence of developed literary taste and knowledge, what was it that made him cleave to certain texts and not others? Autobiographical musings are strong in the juvenilia of all great artists; in their early teens the narrow parameters of their own lives are all they truly know. If Schiller wrote his poem because of something that had happened in his life, it is reasonable to suppose that Schubert, at the same early stage of creative development, was drawn to poetry that seemed to echo some aspect, particularly some painful aspect, of his own life. It seems likely that the young composer, already marked out as 'different' from his siblings and peers, was undergoing some of the same pressures that had prompted Schiller to wish himself dead. School life was tough (though not to be compared to the regime undergone by the poet in Stuttgart) but life at home was difficult for Schubert, as it has always been for every fourteen-year-old who is adult enough to disagree strongly with a father's rulings, but powerless (not least economically) in the face of paternal authority. During the eight years of study at the military academy Schiller had seen far too little of his own father. One suspects that Schubert had seen rather too much of his.

The three biggest 1811 songs, Hagars Klage, Leichenfantasie and Der Vatermörder, are united by a thematic thread of parenthood, and in each case the song is concerned with father and son. It has been said that Schubert's early ballads are drawing-room operas, but at this time they seem also to be about domestic issues, dramatic ups and downs in family life. In Hagars Klage (the fourteen-year-old composer's first bailad) it is Hagar, concubine of Abraham and mother of Ishmael, who begs for mercy for her son: "Ah, he wept tears of joy when I bore him this child, and now the child has become a curse to him … What has the boy done that he must suffer with me?… Do not scorn the pleas of this innocent boy." It is interesting that, according to the Bible, Ishmael was fourteen years old at the time he was cast into the desert with Hagar, and that Abraham preferred his other son, Isaac. At this time Schubert's own mother was still alive (though possibly ailing) and it is not hard to imagine Franz as her favourite son, and that she was protective of him against his father's (well documented) choleric outbursts. Schubert was later to dream (see introductory essay to Volume 8) that his own father banished him to the wilderness, and that his brothers' actions found more favour with his father. Der Vatermörder (see notes in Volume 12) is about a son who murders his father. This is one way to resolve what might have been termed, in a later age, Oedipal conflict. The other way is for the son to die instead of the father, offered up as a sacrifice in the manner of an Isaac rather than an Ishmael. In the case of Leichenfantasie it is as if Schubert sees himself play the rôle of the dead son reconciled at last to a father who, at the grave side, is able to love his child unconditionally. He seems to be saying those immortal words of childish self-dramatisation, "If I died, you'd be sorry."

Verse 1: The opening music (Adagio, in D minor) is astonishingly mature. Indeed it ranks alongside the opening of Die Nacht (Volume 6) as one of the most atmospheric of Schubert's nocturnal preludes. A repeat, more or less, of the ten-bar introduction serves as the accompaniment for the first four lines of the poem, and it is clear that this opening for piano was planned to mirror the words from the outset. Accordingly, there is an octave jump from D to D, first in the piano and later in the voice, as the eyes sweep heavenwards to the moon; the night spirit's sighs are painted in clashing minor seconds and a fleeting scale passage flying through the air gives musical expression to a line from the Book of Job later quoted by Thomas Hardy at the head of one of his poems: "Then a spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up." This ascending aery scale makes poetically expressive use of an instrumental figure in hemidemisemiquavers which has already appeared in the openings of the teenage composer's Ouvertüre in D (D2A), his Sinfonie in D fragment (D2B), and in one of the six Minuets for wind (D2D). 'Nachtgeist durch die Luft' is a splendid piece of word-setting first time round, but the sequential repetition of the same words (the voice is suddenly asked to sing a high A) betrays the composer's inexperience in one important way: Schubert has no idea, as yet, how to write for the human voice. The vocal demands of Leichenfantasie would be better shared between a trio of artists: high tenor, baritone and bass. It is all too obvious that the young composer has had little opportunity to hear real singers. He was soon to begin visiting the opera and would learn his lessons from Mozart's example among others.

The A minor cantilena section beginning 'Sterne trauen bleich herab' is reminiscent of the writing in Mozart's A minor Rondo for piano. There is an appropriate sense of a heavenly void in the empty bar of left hand accompaniment before the melody, star-like, shines through in the right. But the continued doubling of voice and piano is awkward, and apart from a deliberately jarring change of harmony on 'Totenpompe' the rest of the verse makes do with rather conventionally portentous tremolando rumblings.

Verse 2: After such a strong opening it is disappointing that Schubertian inspiration seems to flag so soon. Either the task of depicting the shattered form of the grief-stricken father is too much for the teenage composer, or he has little sympathy for him. This strophe is the low point in a piece otherwise full of interesting things. The most that could be said about 'Zitternd an der Krücke' (Andante) is that the feebleness of invention paints, perhaps deliberately, a figure too exhausted to move or get the words out in any believable way; the music really does 'totter behind the coffin.' From 'schwer geneckt vom eisernen Geschicke' (Adagio) Schubert seems to be attempting to use the bass register of the voice to depict the gravitas of an older man, but the word-setting is ineffective and the section has been planned only to be a transitional movement to …

Verse 3: (Presto, in C minor) where, for the first two lines of the verse, we are treated to a display of Sturm und Drang. After a Mannheim rocket in reverse (a downwards plunging arpeggio figure) quavers rattle away in the right hand as ascending arpeggios in the left hand lead the way to a number of sudden and unexpected key juxtapositions. This gives the section a type of wild Beethovenian quality which owes at least some of its eccentricity to the composer's inexperience rather than any avant-garde inspiration. The words are awkwardly set, mostly with a dotted minim per syllable; the whole of this outburst seems to have been conceived orchestrally. The words 'Vater, floss es von des Jünglings Munde' initiate a new section (Allegretto in F minor). To reflect the dialogue between father and son Schubert creates a canon between voice and piano. The idea is a touching one, only spoiled by the banality of the rhythm and the way that the words seem locked into a pattern where they (and the singer) have scarcely time to breathe. The young composer's word setting has not yet become free of conventional instrumental rhythmic patterns, although his shivering setting of 'Eiskalt' is effective enough. The music for 'Und dein Traum so golden einst' suffers from being a repeat of the 'Vater floss es' theme. The most original passage in this verse is the setting of 'deine Wonne und dein Paradies' which rises heavenward and melts into a visionary cadence in the dominant.

Verse 4: The next three verses (in dactylic metre, in contrast to the funereal trochees) consist of flashbacks to the golden youth of the boy whose life has been prematurely cut short. Schubert's music places him in Schiller's era, which is to say the music is in a galant eighteenth-century mood. At first (Verse 4, Allegretto in F major) the model is certainly Mozart. There are elegant tums of phrase and some effective ornamentation, but rather too much of the vocal line is doubled by the piano. The exception is the rippling accompaniment that weaves around the vocal phrase 'Nachgespiegelt von silberner Flut.' The composer is already adept at illustrating the movement of water. It was to be a recurring theme in his songs for the rest of his life.

Verse 5: (Allegro, D minor). In this miniature biography of Schiller's hero the boy âges sufficiently to display a more Beethovenian profile. John Reed has pointed out that the rhythmic cell of this section has already been used in the Fantasie in G for piano duet (D1b, 1810). It is true that the verb 'springen' (to leap) was the inspiration behind the use of this motif which unleashes its power like a tightly coiled spring, but once again the gabbled scansion of 'Muthig sprang er' is suspect, and there is the distinct impression that words are being grafted on to instrumental ideas. This musical movement is certainly developed at the expense of repeating words in the manner of an eighteenth-century cantata, and the leaping gazelle takes on the character of a battering ram. Schubert seems to have realised that the lithe image of the deer has been lost in the fray and an ascending scale passage with a diminuendo briefly re-establishes an impression of delicacy. Comparisons with beasts of the air and field then continue: the eagle flies high, and the composer accordingly places the voice line in the stratosphere; the tessitura fails to make singers crow with delight. Foaming steeds thunder away in octave leaps for the voice part as the harmony hoofs downwards in semitones, and there is a great amount of sub-Beethovenian musical rhetoric as Schiller's hero steps out in front of slaves and princes and shakes an all-purpose defiant fist at them (the repetition of 'Sklaven und Fürsten').

Verse 6: (Andante, F major) reverts to the manner of a courtly eighteenth-century minuet, not exactly a 'wirbelnder Tanz' (no matter how many left hand semiquavers are added to stir thing up) but a deliberately antique piece of music for flashback purposes. These lines are perhaps the rigidly self-controlled Schiller's indirect criticism of the deceased whose propensity for drink and a good time (no doubt the cause of parental disappointment) is duly explained away as a fault of youth, soon to be rectified by the fruits of maturity. The manly determination of 'Welten schliefen im herrlichen Jungen' (Allegro, D minor) sounds like the announcement of a fugue which never in fact materialises, a good enough metaphor for the failure of the arrival of maturity. This section only lasts for two lines of the verse before the miniature Mozartian movement of 'Freue dich, Vater' (Allegretto, F major) which captures a real Zauberflöte jauntiness and aphoristic simplicity.

Verse 7: The music for the remaining three verses is significantly more original than the majority of the ballad's middle verses. A brief Andante in F major begins with a motif which shivers with horror — four repeated staccato semiquavers. The words 'Nein doch, Vater' are genuine arioso — a melodie line with the true intonation of recitative. It is as if Schubert has momentarily stepped into the song's frame to sing those words himself to his own father; the music seems to want to placate the patriarch as much as comfort him. The picture of creaking gates is effectively painted (the repeated-note motif is heard again); swiftly descending scales precede a downward look into the grave; a beautiful Haydnesque passage for the piano, smoothly ascending and ornamented, illustrates the free flow of tears before the singer mentions them. There now follows a passage as if written for brass, marked 'Maestoso' and in D major, which is nothing less than prophetic of the music of Wagner. A hero is announced in the manner of Siegfried, and either by fluke or because there was already a musical language in the air appropriate for heroic exploit and which Wagner was to inherit in direct line from his musical forbears, a pre-echo of Der Ring hovers in the air. This section (beginning, after the piano introduction, with 'Geh, du Holder') even ends with a reference to Valhalla. The gently ascending chromatic setting of that word implies a less imposing residence and resting place than Wagner's edifice.

Verse 8: The setting of the opening lines (Allegro moderato, A flat) has a seraphic quality which might have been termed Mozartian if the melodic invention were somewhat superior. Young composers always find it easier to depict hell rather than heaven and our fourteen-year-old composer is no exception; the gates of Eden are rather dull in comparison with the portais of the eternal abyss. Now that we have actually come to the moment of the burial, imagination works overtime. The descent of the coffin in stages ('der Sarg versinkt') is graphically done, and even the vocally ungratifying repetition of 'mit dumpfem Geschwanke' lurches appropriately as the bier sways from side to side. As yet, Schubert had had little first hand experience of much he describes in this piece (eagles, steeds, beautiful maidens, the golden grape) but with the death of so many of his siblings (see Introduction, Volume 8) he was certainly no stranger to the graveyard and the sight of coffins being lowered into the ground. The bars of 'wimmernd schnurrt das Totenseil' comprise a supremely appropriate use of a passage in contrary motion: the left hand coffin plunges by semitone degrees deep into the ground as, by a law of physics, the supporting ropes, and the vocal line, are propelled upwards. This is followed by an Allegro moderato in F major where tremolando passages in the piano roll drunkenly, and the doubling of voice and piano at 'Lippen schweigen' is made to represent lips locked in silence. As tears begin to flow at the grave-side, the vocal line becomes more free (at 'Tränen stürtzen wärmer'); the final cadence, despite its impossible tessitura, is touchingly eloquent.

Verse 9: The recapitulation of the opening music is a musical triumph made possible by Schiller's repetition of the poem's opening six lines. This device seems to draw together ali the disparate strands of the piece and (almost) gives us the impression that it has been a coherent whole. The reappearance of this nocturnal music has a calm majesty and a long span which is a welcome respite from the fragmented preceding sections. After six lines of this recapitulation, when Schiller begins to write new words, Schubert follows suit with new music. The section beginning 'Dumpfig schollert's' is magnificent in the way the spade, grimly mechanical in its dreadful task, is made to do its work with a menacing series of left-hand flourishes followed by the hollow staccato of clay falling on wood. The piano interlude after the third 'nach einem Blick' has a rhetorical anguish that is prophetic of the prelude to Wolf's Prometheus. The final section, 'Starr und ewig schliesst des Grabes Riegel' (Andante, D minor leading to a conclusion in G minor), is perhaps the best of all the work. The digging spade motif resumes after an appearance of the shivering four-note motif heard at the beginning of Verse 7. 'Nimmer gibt das Grab zurück' points to Der Wegweiser from Winterreise. The words there are 'Die noch Keiner ging zurück'; the idea that the road to the grave is a one-way street is remarkably similar to the finality of Schiller's closing image. Moreover, both passages are in G minor with repeated throbbing chords in the right hand underpinned by a strong bass line. In this way a powerful image from 1827, world famous as part of a much performed cycle, can be heard in embryo in Leichenfantasie from 1811. The composer's Lieder language was formed over a number of years, but occasionally, in the middle of much that is as yet unformed and unclear, we can detect the partially formed hand of the master. It is precisely because the child is father to the man that the study of these early works is richly rewarding for Schubertians.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993

Recordings

Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/4040CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 16 – Thomas Allen
CDJ33016

Details

Bars 1–295: Mit erstorb'nem Scheinen
Track 1 on CDJ33016 [10'54]
Track 4 on CDS44201/40 CD1 [10'54] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
Bars 296–453: Nein doch, Vater – Horch!
Track 2 on CDJ33016 [8'27]
Track 5 on CDS44201/40 CD1 [8'27] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)

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