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Der Geistertanz, D15

First line:
Die bretterne Kammer
composer
First setting. c1812; fragment published in the supplement to series 21 of the Gesamtausgabe, Leipzig
author of text

 
The successful setting of this poem, D116, was completed in October 1814, a few days before the composition of Gretchen am Spinnrade. About two years before, Schubert had twice attempted to conquer Matthisson's lyric. Both versions break off in the middle of piano passage work, as if Schubert had lost heart, patience—or both. The two unsuccessful versions illustrate the dangers the young composer faced when he allowed the poem to lead him up the churchyard path without any idea of where he was going. He relished the luxury of line-by-line illustration, but he soon recognised that a pithy and elegant lyric such as this would become unwieldy and top-heavy without a plan to make sense of the whole. These attempts must have brought home to him the value of the strophic song for certain lyrics, as opposed to these sprawling, ad hoc, piano-dominated fantasias. His eventual solution was a modified strophic structure with room for an ingenious recitative between the verses.

D15, the first version, is in the key of C minor and is in 6/8 time. Both these attributes survived in the final version, D116. The shuddering of the coffin, the 'bretterne Kammer' of the poem, is achieved with two jabbed chords loud enough to shake the piano, itself something of a coffin on wheels. The stroke of midnight is depicted by the bass notes in dotted minims, numbered 1 to 12 on the music, in case we miss the point, although somewhat strangely changing pitch, as if the clock tower itself was invaded by gremlins. Before the words of Verse 5, there is rather a wrenched modulation from E flat to E major. By the time the piano has had a lengthy comment on jesting and flitting, the spirits have become heavy-handedly corporeal and beyond a joke; they are stopped dead in their tracks.

D15A starts off in F minor and in common time. After five bars (marked 'Midnight' as if in stage direction) the music shifts to the dominant, and illustrates 'the howling wind' (another specific stage direction) with a ghostly, but unnervingly loud, echo of the ascending figuration at the opening of the last movement of Beethoven's 'Pathétique' Piano Sonata, Op 13. Fourteen bars of bone-rattling yield to a short section marked 'Solemn Silence'. The twelve strokes of the midnight bell are now left to our imagination for the composer has learned that to illustrate them literally fails to chime with the fleeting nature of the poem. The dance of the spirits, this time in 6/4 and duly labelled 'Tanz', lopes along in a lugubriously humorous manner; the words of verse 2 are repeated with the words 'Und morsches Gebein' left out in order to justify a huge leap of a 13th between the graves ('Gräber') and the whirling dance ('sausenden Reihn') Nowhere in all Schubert is the gap between low and high spirits so graphically mapped on the stave. The whining of the dogs is effectively painted in mournful suspensions (Schubert shows off newly acquired skills by using the tenor clef in the left hand of the piano part here). The piano writing in the last bars is loud but empty: having shot his bolt the composer realises with horror how much more of the poem there is to set, and quits the scene with a puff of pianistic smoke.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991

Recordings

Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/4040CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 12 – Adrian Thompson
CDJ33012

Details

Track 2 on CDJ33012 [1'31]
Track 1 on CDS44201/40 CD2 [1'31] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)

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