The theme of the poem is of course that an artist finds reward enough in his art without needing to contaminate his ideals by asking for filthy lucre and accepting what amounts to state subsidy. It might be tempting to imagine that it is this notion which excited the hilarity in Wilhelm's companions, who are impoverished actors; Goethe must have realised that artistic humility in the serious artist had been, and would continue to be, exploited at every turn by countless holders of official purse strings. But it is clear that the poet here takes the theme of altruism senously; he casts his ballad in an idealised medieval epoch, full of chivalry and fine feeling, before the fall of artist and patron into the ways of greedy self-interest. Before he sings this song in Wilhelm Meister, the Harper deplores man's 'repulsive selfishness'. Goethe was writing in a world incapable of imagining the financial dealings and fight for survival of a Beethoven, let alone a Wagner. The lofty tone of the text takes its inspiration from a poem by Novalis which had foreseen the return of a golden age of a harmonious society, a union of Spirit and Power, where the artist's role was that of a mediator, tempering and enlightening those with political might. Richard Capell wonders how it was that the impoverished Schubert should have taken up this poem without irony; it was all very well, he says, for Goethe who 'never in all his life had to think of ways and means'. The answer is that Schubert was at this time fighting his father tooth and nail for the right to be an artist, for the right to give up schoolmastering to be a full-time composer. The propaganda of the poem is heady material for an optimistic young man faced by logical yet stultifying parental objections to a life, as free as a bird, in the service of art. A few years later, and with a more worldly group of friends and acquaintances, Schubert would doubtless have seen things in a less romantic light.
The point of the poem is the sweet power of song to educate and move, those of our rulers susceptible to music are given pause for thought. From the composer's point of view, the main problem with the text is that there are no words for this powerful minstrel's song, and thus no place in the setting for what is central to the poem's idea. In the extended Hugo Wolf setting we hear this melody in the tenor register of the piano part. This is splendid in theory: the singer on the bridge plays his instrument 'outside' the vocal texture and at the same time the king notices him and comments in song. This stereophonic idea however needs a spectacular melody to compete with the singer for the ear's attention, and here Wolf fails to deliver. In Schumann's ballad we hear many a rhetorical harp-like spread chord in the piano; the Loewe setting is short and to the point, but that is the best thing that might be said of it. It is clear that Schubert also had difficulties with the poem, but what is surprising in this august company is that a boy of eighteen should have made what remains the best stab at the poem.
Section 1: John Reed regards the opening music here as 'court music', but surely what Schubert is attempting is the sound of the minstrel's own music filtering through the palace gate, into the king's chamber? The very first chords we hear are spread in harp-like arpeggio. Like Wolf, Schubert transforms the old man from singer to instrumentalist, but unlike Wolf, the king and court are made to listen to the music in silence, rather than talking through it. This music, in the fomm of an extended piano interlude, is recapitulated in the third verse, when the minstrel gives a repeat perfommance, this time within the audience chamber. Schubert's response to a medieval background is often to conjure the music of the eighteenth century. This music is old-fashioned unsophisticated, rather Haydnesque, the sort of music that a masterful old man from an earlier generation (like Haydn himself, surely Schubert's idea of a gracious papa of a musical figure) might have played. The way the motifs anticipate the words ('Der Page lief') also owes much to Haydn's descriptive tactics, particularly in a work like Der Schöpfung where illustrative music precedes its subjects. The king's observations cut into the song at a convenient cadence (a fragment of the minstrel's melody returning between his sentences) and make it plain that if a film were to be made of the proceedings there would be cutting between outdoor and indoor shots. The young pages run dutifully enough for Schubert (in cartoon fashion the music ascends when they are summoned, descends when their job is accomplished) although here Wolf is more vivid. He uses the same ascending and descending pattem, but the minions' scurrying is depicted by the pianist's left hand crossing over into the treble clef to suggest the squeaky obedience of lads with unbroken voices.
Sections 2-4: This begins with courtly music, for the old minstrel has been trained in the formality of another age. He manages many a vocal flourish and gentlemanly turn. He greets the beautiful ladles as one not entirely unacquainted with the pleasures of the fairer sex but as if it has all been a long time ago. The fanfares of formality die away; the emptiness of C major ceremonial octaves is warmed by harmonies, and eventually the addition of a B flat. It is as if he has fallen into a trance in preparation for his performance—the recapitulation of his tune at the third line of 3. This is a compressed sonata movement with asides from the narrator; the thunder-struck audience is described in a whisper just as the figuration becomes intricate for the pianist. It is not surprising that Schubert's operatic instincts should have led him to amplify the length of the song at this point in order to incorporate a 'performance' of credible length from the minstrel; it is something that all the other composers fail to do. A strong cadence in D brings this set-piece to an end, but the two quiet chords following it, and leading into recitative in B flat, beautifully capture that moment of astonished silence when an audience is deeply moved. The king's offer of a golden chain is quickly refused in recitative (4), for by now Schubert had learned that in this type of ballad, if he chooses to linger in one section he must make up for the dalliance in the next. With a passing reference to the dangers of medieval battle, the music moves on to its next moment of repose.
Section 5: It is this verse which is seized upon by Wolf to make a fully sung version of the minstrel's tune which has up until then only occurred in the accompaniment. The only trouble about this solution to the problem is that this verse is not another performance (or a performance at all), it is an explanation of the minstrel's motives, once the formal performance is over. Schubert makes a charming and unpretentious arietta, very much 'off-duty' music for a serious artist, in his pastoral key of F. This is almost self-consciously simple, apt for the words, and in no danger of swamping the grandeur of the minstrel's central utterance. Both Schubert and Wolf make their accompaniments blossom into flowing semiquavers at this point. As soon as the idea of having a drink occurs to the minstrel he breaks off from his song (as if he has remembered, just in time to be well-mannered, that he is not giving another perfommance) and returns to recitative.
Section 6: The narrator takes over for a line, which introduces the old man's final say—the most civilized and measured of drinking songs. There is nothing rumbustious here; this is the music of the wine connoisseur who can seldom afford to taste the noblest vintages. We distinctly feel that the king and court have been swigging the wine without realising its quality. During this salute to the drink, (the repeat of 'O Trank voll süsser Labe', only to be found in Schubert ) the melismas In the music somehow suggest wine tasted and rolled around the mouth. Here is a young composer who already knows how to sit in a corner and relish his drink in friendly and thoughtful company. We do not need to be told that the singer has sat down, the music suggests it; indeed we may wonder how the king will get rid of the old man, once he has struck this philosophising form, were it not for the fact that Schubert effects the minstrel's exit with a gracious bow in the last five bars. The somewhat martial strains of the song's opening have by now much mellowed. The copious word repetitions on the last page leave us with the impressions of an old man growing slightly fond and sentimental. The affectionate strains with triplet accompaniment of this section are reminiscent of another bardic song—the rejection of violence in favour of love in An die Leier. Could it be that at the words 'so denkt an mich' Schubert has thought himself into the role of the bard, the role he longed to fulfil in society, if only his father would permit him?
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1990