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Der Unglückliche, D713

First line:
Die Nacht bricht an, mit leisen Lüften sinket
January 1821; published in August 1827 as Op 84 (later changed to Op 87) No 1
author of text

It so happens that Der Unglückliche is one of the very rare Schubert songs of which there is an extant sketch (Mandyczewski: Revsionsbericht No 390) and it gives us a fascinating glimpse into the composer's workshop. It shows beyond doubt that Schubert conceived at least some of his songs in a type of shorthand—the vocal line supported by the bass line, and that the finer pianistic details of the accompaniment were added at a later stage. Certain figurations in the pianist's right hand are obviously already in the composer's mind, but he is content to note the movement of the voice supported by the bass in a short score of two staves. It is obvious that Schubert, working in this way, could write at high speed, ensuring as his highest priorities a spontaneous flow of melody, the correct prosody of the vocal line and a strong basic architecture of shape and harmony. Although the piano part seems to have been left until last, it is difficult to believe that the unifying motif of the accompaniment was not one of the very first inspirations; it seems likely that Schubert simply kept these ideas in his head until the time came to make a fair copy. There are no corrections in this sketch, and it is amazing how near this ground plan is to the final version of Der Unglückliche. The initial time signature of 12/8 which survived in the song's first version, (not otherwise significantly different from this second version) was subsequently changed to 6/8 suggesting a slower, heavier tempo with stronger, more forlorn downbeats.

The song is divided into five main sections which almost always correspond to the way the strophes have been set out on the printed page:

Section 1: An elegiac movement in B minor—a key of high passion in Schubert's work, but also of depression and derangement (cf Die liebe Farbe from Die schöne Müllerin written two years later). This section suggests both the pessimistic nature of the wanderer, and in the sections which move into the major, the consolation of nightfall. This opening passage owes a great deal to the Andante movement of the A major Piano Sonata D664 (Op posth 120). It is possible that this work was written in Steyr, Vogl's home town, while the composer was on holiday with the singer in the summer of 1819; it was perhaps this Sonata that Anton Stadler named as being a favourite of Vogl's. If this was the case it is likely that Schubert was deliberately quoting from this movement in D major in order to give music to the singer which was already associated with him—a type of musical signature as it were. The opening of this piano sonata movement is heard almost note for note in the bar of accompaniment after the words 'sinken sie'. Incidentally, Schubert takes no notice in this bar of the awkward separation beween the verb 'sinken', at the end of the first line, from its subject 'sie' at the beginning of the next. (It must be admitted however that Pichler is not always to blame: Schubert's emphasis of the word 'auf'—given almost an entire bar of music—is not exactly a miracle of prosody.) The time signature is 6/8 and it is a sign of Schubert's mature style (as opposed to his ballad style from his earlier years) that he seeks to unify a long piece like this, in a number of sections, by ensuring that this time signature does not change until the very end of the piece, and then to very dramatic effect. On the repeated words 'in ihr täglich Grab', there is a tender imitation between voice and piano, gently appropriate to the text as if to suggest a compassionate laying-on of hands. Involving the pianist's right hand, this is one of the details not to be found in the preliminary sketch mentioned above.

Sections 2 - 4: Under cover of night the dark forces of depression emerge to taunt the wretched protagonist. Semiquavers begin to rustle in the right hand disturbing the calm established in the first section. For a moment both hands are on unison octave Bs, but then the left hand sinks down to A and then G only to climb menacingly upwards in a carefully plotted slow and surreptitious chromatic ascent. It is as if an emotional cauldron is slowly on the boil bringing suppressed feelings to the surface. This is real transformation music, a bridge passage between night's calm and night's torments. It leads into the powerful music of 'Versenke dich in deines Kummers Tiefen' which is both heralded and accompanied by a strident left-hand motif of angry staccato semiquavers in octaves. The vocal line plunges down a seventh from D to E flat, and then, as the words 'Versenke dich' are repeated in higher sequence, from F to G flat. Under the words 'Und wenn vielleicht in der zerrissnen Brust' the music, now back into 6/8 triplets, seems to have reached a plateau in B flat minor, but not for long. The contradiction of the words 'mit grausam süsser Lust' is the clue to the mood that Schubert is seeking to establish in a maelstrom of chromaticism: the deliberate intermingling of conflicting feelings (the happiness of the past, the pain of the present) are suggested by the presence of both minor and major harmonies. By the beginning of the fourth verse ('Berechne die verlornen Seligkeiten') the major has won the day; it is used with frightening effect to reflect tormented emotions which a lesser master would have attempted to portray in the minor. This is an exceptionally stirring passage, one of the most hysterical in all Schubert songs of grief and woe, and one requiring considerable vocal resource in its relentlessly climbing tessitura. It is as if the singer is wildly lashing out (an accelerando is marked) in a futile attempt to grasp the lost flowers of paradise. The accompaniment throbs in syncopations between the hands, half desperate and half exultant. The 'harsh hand of fate' is turned into a clenched fist as dotted minims in unison octaves are hammered out, the blows of immutable fate, to bring the section to a close.

Section 5: It is probably this section (in B major, and still in 6/8, though now at a rather more rollicking tempo) which made Richard Capell say that Schubert was writing to a formula 'more parade of emotion than emotion itself.' The music for this verse seems to me to be in Schubert's Schiller style, which is not to deprecate that poet but simply to imply that it can appear staged in rather a lofty and old-fashioned manner, as if destined for display beneath a proscenium arch. It is meant to be a flashback to days of happiness, although there is a danger that the bouncing rhythm can sound more banal than carefree. Seven years later in Die Post from Winterreise, also a flashback to a happier moment when the narrator was in touch with the beloved, Schubert uses the same rhythm to more touching effect.

Section 6: Rumbling basses, dramatic chords and one and a half lines of poetry make up a recitative with a dramatic jump of a tenth for 'stürzte dich'. From 'und dein stilles Glück' the true inspiration of Schubertian intimacy firmly re-establishes itself: the rhythm of the opening is reintroduced, now unequivocally in G major, with a pathos and stillness that recalls the mood of the song Die Götter Griechenlands where there is a plea for a return to the ideals of the past ('Kehre wieder, holdes Blütenalter der Natur'). Here it is the 'all-too-lovely dream vision' which returns ('kehrte wieder') to heavenly realms. This passage is then repeated almost note for note—the very return of the music a metaphor for the return of the angelic spirit from whence it came. But this after all is a euphemism for death, and the last two lines of the poem, cut mercilessly short from their flowering into a full-lengthed strophe, return us to B minor and the desperation of a character who has lost even the right to dream of the past. The angular dotted rhythms in cut time are like the whiplash of a terrible reality. After their appearance in the minor key, the lines are repeated louder and higher in the major, and sound more terribly final in this guise. The ghost of the Handelian double-dotted overture (although here a postlude) gives this passage a stagey feel; again several Schiller settings are recalled. In its tonality of B minor, the whole song has had a flavour of Schiller's Sehnsucht D636 about it—a similar type of cantata probably composed in the same year. But these final lines are even more reminiscent of the closing bars (from 'Ach kein Weg will dahin führen') of a later song to the same poet, Der Pilgrim D794. In that song can be found another postlude starting in B minor and using dotted rhythms, and the interplay of minor and major tonality, to suggest that the travelling outcast embraces his fate with a grim determination that borders on self-destructive joy.

This cantata probably owed its existence to the friendship between the poetess Karoline Pichler and Johann Michael Vogl, Schubert's preferred singer and Lieder partner. There is a statuesque grandeur about this music which suggests Vogl's performing manner as accurately as the heroic pieces inspired by classical antiquity which, thanks to Schubert's genius, were also in his repertoire. It seems highly probable that the work was tailor-made for the singer to perform (accompanied by the composer) at one of the poetess's soirées—a gracious compliment from the performers to their hostess. Pichler held twice-weekly gatherings at which writers read and discussed each other's works. Without having the intellectual credentials of a Madame de Staël or Berlin's Rachel von Ense, and lacking the formidable talent for self-promotion possessed by Bettina von Arnim, Pichler nevertheless left lengthy mémoires (Denkwürdigkeiten aus meinem Leben) which offer a detailed if somewhat gossipy account of her dealings with many of the important people in the arts and politics of Vormärz Vienna. Sadly these memoirs tell us little about how Pichler and Schubert got on; the composer is mentioned almost in passing as an illustration of how certain geniuses are scarcely aware of what they have created, or how. As evidence of this, Pichler recounts an incident related to her by Vogl, and later amplified by the singer's widow Kunigunde where, only a short time after he had composed it, Schubert did not recognize Der Unglückliche as his own work. Allegedly, Vogl had rifled through Schubert's desk and had decided (in typically overbearing and bossy manner, it seems to me) to send the composer's sketches of this song to the copyist. A few days later the pair rehearsed it from the newly transcribed copy, and it was on this occasion that Schubert pointedly failed to identify the piece ('Not bad. Who is it by?'!). I detect here the composer registering a subtle protest against the manner in which Vogl had taken it upon himself to snatch a work from the drawing board, perhaps before it was ready, probably in his impatience to hear something which he rightly guessed had been written with him in mind. I have no doubt that Schubert's remarkably good-humoured way of dealing with the situation was to have a joke at the singer's expense. Vogl of course took this all at face value as corroborating evidence for his theory that Schubert's genius was 'somnambulistic'. This is one of the ways in which fallacious legends of a Schubert who was supposedly vague and out of control of his own life and work, began to be accepted as true. Perhaps the composer, in order to protect himself from the importunities of society, permitted others to think whatever they liked about him as long as they left him alone; time to compose was of the essence for him, and he hid behind a disguise of vagueness to spare himself time-wasting conversations and social niceties. In any case the composer was no great lover of the lions of society. Anselm Hüttenbrenner recorded what Schubert had whispered to him at an elegant soirée: 'I cannot stand these women with their compliments. They know nothing about music and they don't really mean what they say. Go on, Anselm, slip in and get me a little glass of wine.'

Fischer Dieskau in his book on Schubert takes this phrase 'these women' to refer to Karoline Pichler herself, but in actual fact there is no justification for this when we read Hüttenbrenner's memoirs of his friendship with Schubert—the passge no doubt refers to some of the people the composer encountered in various other salons. Pichler, daughter of Charlotte von Greiner who had been a lady-in-waiting to Maria Theresia, was not only a prolific authoress much published in various literary almanacs and journals, but an accomplished musician. In her youth she had studied with Haydn and Mozart and was hailed as a pianist of rare accomplishment. This set her apart from the average Viennese society hostess. She praised Schubert's works, it seems, in sincere and knowledgeable terms: according to Hüttenbrenner she was 'complimentary and encouraging', and 'captivated by Schubert's muse'. On that occasion she had apparently heard the famous Schmidt von Lübeck setting Der Wanderer. Der Unglückliche has a number of things in common with that work: it shares the theme of the outcast and loner in society, it is a work in a number of contrasted sections, and the very opening triplets, dragging their feet through the unfriendly world, have a similar portentous power. Moreover, Schubert had originally found the poem for Der Wanderer in a Viennese almanac where it had been misattributed to Zacharias Werner and entitled Der Unglückliche. The confusion was cleared up by 1821 when the song was published under its correct title and with the name of the correct poet. There was now a vacancy for a new song with the title of Der Unglückliche in the Schubert catalogue. It seems unlikely that Schubert would have written something in Pichler's honour, in the manner and with the original title of the song she had admired, unless he had taken her enthusiasm to be well-informed and genuine.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1992


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/4040CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 15 – Margaret Price
CDJ33015Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Track 5 on CDJ33015 [7'42] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 6 on CDS44201/40 CD24 [7'42] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)

Track-specific metadata for CDJ33015 track 5

Recording date
10 October 1991
Recording venue
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Martin Compton
Recording engineer
Antony Howell
Hyperion usage
  1. Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 15 – Margaret Price (CDJ33015)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: October 1992
    Deletion date: April 2014
    Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
  2. Schubert: The Complete Songs (CDS44201/40)
    Disc 24 Track 6
    Release date: October 2005
    40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
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