We all know that the Christmas holidays, when families come together (in Schubert's case, in cramped circumstances), can be occasions of misunderstanding and tension. Der Vatermörder, written on Boxing Day 1811 as if in a flash of anger, raises the grisly idea of parricide, and then as if horrified by even contemplating such a thing, punishes the guilty party roundly. If there was no personal reason for the choice of words, they were certainly not selected for their literary merit, or even because the story they lamely describe is an interesting one. The poem is piffle by Pfeffel, and is more ridiculous than almost any of the early ballads. The writing of this work probably allowed Schubert to discharge his adolescent anger on to long-suffering paper. He did not need to strike back at his father because the music of Der Vatermörder had done it for him; he did not need to be punished for such thoughts because the music does this too, and sets matters to rights. If the characters are made of papier mâché, they are like the puppets used by certain modern psychiatrists to help children express their hidden aggressions. It was certainly not the last time that Schubert exorcised a personal demon with the power of music. Twelve years later, during his health crisis of 1823, he did not commit suicide (though he probably contemplated it); the miller boy of Die schöne Müllerin dies in his stead. As each of these works progresses, a solution of sorts is found to its crisis, the music comes up with an answer. It seems to me that personal problems which Schubert found impossible to discuss in real life, are aired in the musical arena, and some kind of reconciliation is achieved. The healing power of music is self evident, but here the physician heals himself: the music both describes the problem and seems to be the therapy which assuages it.
Hagars Klage was modelled on the Zumsteeg ballad of the same name which served as a ground-plan on which Schubert built his own discreetly, but tellingly, different version. This was the equivalent of the accepted classical practise of an aspiring painter making a copy of the work of a revered master; from time to time, as in the case of Michelangelo copying Masaccio and Schongauer, or Constable and Delacroix copying their less distinguished elders, the work of the student excelled that of the original. Zumsteeg (1760–1802) had set the poem in 1797 and Schubert had followed suit fourteen years later. He was to rework this composer from time to time until as late as 1816 (Die Erwartung), and each time the addition of Schubert's imaginative dramatic touches eclipsed Zumsteeg's originals, however revolutionary the work of the older master had been in its day. Josef von Spaun, in his memoir of Schubert, tells us that the composer remained enthusiastic about Zumsteeg's work to the end of his life. Eine Leichenphantasie and Des Mädchens Klage were both written in the manner of that composer, but Der Vatermörder is the first of the many Schubert songs with a Mozartian impetus. The song opens with an extended piano introduction where the syncopations and left hand arpeggios quote the introduction to the Queen of the Night's first aria in B flat, 'O zittre nicht'. This is here transposed to the C minor of Tamino's struggle with the serpent; the piano writing suggests an orchestra, or at least a short score of one, and the three flats of the key signature proclaim a Zauberflöte work. It is possible that Schubert might have known this opera through an early vocal score, but the sheer physicality of Der Vatermörder suggests that he wrote it with the sound of singing, in a bold high tessitura, ringing in his ears. If so, Schubert had heard Die Zauberflöte in performance as early as 1811. In asking Tamino to rescue her daughter in Mozart's aria, the Queen of the Night is all but inciting him to kill Pamina's father; Schubert's introduction is a type of overture or prologue, describing the murder of another father offstage before the first sung words proclaim it a fait accompli. It is astonishing how many times the young Schubert extrapolates from works he already knew and admired, tonal analogues for situations found in narrative ballads of this sort (see Orpheus). This apprenticeship led to the creation of tonal analogues of his own, masterful word-tone relationships in which a turn of phrase in voice or piano unerringly evokes a movement, a picture, a mood—musical ideas which somehow manage to transcend the mere illustrative journalism that is the standby of lesser composers.
But this mastery is in the future, and there is much here that betrays the inexperienced youngster; the tessitura (unreasonably high and low) makes for an extremely taxing vocal line and much of the the piano writing is wooden. We are denied the subtleties of Mozart's orchestration, and the piano in this mood suggests sub-Beethoven in Sturm und Drang mode. We look in vain for the humour, fantasy and felicity of Die Zauberflöte itself. At the beginning of Verse 3 we find an echo of the slow dotted chords which open the opera and recur at important moments, and the quasi fugato of Verse 7 is doubtless inspired by the counterpoint of the two armed men in the opera's Finale. The stammering of the piano after the words 'stammeln liess' in Verse 6 is a nice touch, and a moment of respite from the horror. Some of the piano figurations, particularly those ostinati which are meant to stir up the emotions to boiling point, are re-used in Der Taucher, D77, a work in which Schubert uses with considerable panache all the tricks of stagecraft learned in his earlier ballads.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991