Brahms's settings of the Hölty poems An die Nachtigall
and Die Mainacht
have unjustly eclipsed Schubert's songs to the same texts. It is not hard to understand the popularity of the Brahms works, rich in sentiment and romantic nostalgia, but the two composers were aiming at completely different things. We should be grateful for such accomplished diversity in the Lied. Schubert had chosen to set the poems strophically, and Brahms (who knew his Schubert very well) offered a deliberately different durchkomponiert solution. Brahms's An die Nachtigall
is meditative and lyrical, Schubert's much more urgent, on the wing and a-flutter; as if it is a matter of life and death that the nightingale's painfully evocative song should be silenced. The song is marked 'Restless, plaintive. Growing in tempo until the end of each verse'. Neither fish nor fowl, the wide-ranging vocal line is an outburst of melody with the peremptory flexibility of recitative. The accompaniment is no less inventive. In the first half of each verse, the harmonies seem arbitrary and thus appropriately distracted: the strummed arpeggios, not to mention the extraordinary piano mini-cadenza at the end of each verse, give an improvised, quasi-Hungarian feel to the music. One is irresistibly reminded of the mad Lisztian outbursts, in the key of F sharp minor (this song's original tonality), in the slow movement of the A major Piano Sonata, D959. Of course it could also be that in this warbling rush of notes Schubert is attempting to depict, in a manner pre-dating Messaien, the actual song of the nightingale as he heard it.
Ludwig Christoph Hölty was born near Hanover. He was a student of theology at Göttingen and a member of the Göttingen Hainbund, an organisation which came into being on a moonlit walk through the woods in September 1772 when the six undergraduate poets present, including Hölty, inspired by the beauty of their surroundings, and swearing allegiance to the emotional poetry of Klopstock, and enmity to the artificial poetry of Wieland, joined hands, danced round an oak tree and swore eternal friendship. This type of eighteen-century Living Poets' Society was against rationalism and convention. Hölty's poetry is often in classical metres, but his theme is May and springtime, and he is always aware that death is never far away. There is something in his genial and gentle work, ambivalent in both joy and sadness, which perfectly matches Schubert's own temperament. The poet himself died young from tuberculosis. The disparity between many of Hölty's originals and the versions Schubert set, goes back to the fact that the composer used an edition of the poems 'improved' and edited by Hölty's friend J H Voss.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1989