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Verse 1: The story is set just at that turning point of the year, a favourite Schubertian period of joy mingled with apprehension, when the eagerly awaited return to spring is in doubt. The opening music, in G major, is deceptively light-hearted and somewhat Haydnesque. Classical subjects sometimes inspired in Schubert his idea of an old-fashioned or classical response. It is possibly the charming, but rather conventional, interludes in the piano part between the recitatives depicting the rippling breezes of Zephyr, which prompted Fischer-Dieskau to describe the piece (which of course he has never performed) as 'a five-finger exercise'. The grim news of Proserpine's loss from the Oread, turns the song into a tragic direction at the end of the first verse, and in order for that change to be effective the composer has had to start on a lighter note.
Verses 2-3: This section begins as a conventional aria in B flat, but soon roams around the keyboard in crazed chromatic search for Proserpine. Legend has it that Ceres searched the entire world for nine days and nights without eating, drinking, bathing or changing her clothes. The controlled levity of the opening pages has disappeared. Anyone who can address Zeus in such imperious terms is to be reckoned with, and the scope of the music proclaims a goddess, and a vocalist, of some substance. The vocal range of this cantata is problematic: too high for a mezzo soprano in passages which look heavenward, it also requires the voice to plunge from time to time into the depths of the underworld. The third verse starts off in G minor and returns there only by means of tortured piano interludes of chromatic double thirds. It was at this point on 9 November, 1815 that Schubert decided that he had had enough of Ceres for one day.
Verses 4-5: Work was resumed (on a G minor chord) seven months later in June 1816, a period rich in songs, when Schubert was preoccupied with another classical subject, the cantata Prometheus (tragically lost to us). The recitative of the fourth verse is notable for the contrast of the depths of 'die Nacht der Nächte' with the height of 'Himmels goldnem Saal'. It is the fifth verse which perhaps has the most astonishing music in the piece: the words are driven by a relentless panting ostinato towards the climax of 'bis die Freude sie entdecket' and thereafter, as Orcus weeps, the completely dislocated juxtaposition of harmonies suggests a contortion of the facial muscles never before seen, even in the tortured realms of Hades. Compassion is squeezed from Pluto's face as blood from a stone.
Verse 6: The fight seems to go out of Ceres here. An aria in A minor with ravishing and touching changes of harmony shows a softer side of maternal grief. A recitative ushered in by a fanfare in B flat (incidentally the single most important key in the work, and the tonality which subtly binds the ballad together) heralds a triplet-accompanied plaint of the broadest grandeur.
Verse 7: The theme of this verse is the reciprocity of love between mother and child. The tiny piano fragment before the words 'Ist mir nichts von ihr geblieben' conveys with astonishing directness a feeling of the empty nursery, of a child's music box no longer used, of communion long ago between mother and infant daughter. One never ceases to be amazed by Schubert's genius at finding the most apt and simple musical analogues for feelings and situations of great complexity. He has however bought this moment of repose and beauty at considerable cost (something he also tends to do in the operas when overall dramatic tension is sometimes sacrificed to the extended sybaritic enjoyment of the moment). Ceres's rhetorical questions suddenly result in a complete change of direction in the piece; optimism replaces the despair of earlier pages, and we are ill-prepared in musical terms for this change. Three simple bars of recitative are not enough space for a goddess, or a diva, to turn around.
Verses 8-9: The potted history of Ceres's plantings (in F minor, verse eight) now seems rather inappropriately lightweight for a goddess, however reassured about her daughter she may be. This is followed by a dance of the hours in A flat which suggests the hearty activity of the miller boys in Am Feierabend; there is something about the 3/8 metre which seems short-breathed for an Olympian who, only moments ago, has been in the depressed depths. At the end of this passage the upwardly aspiring stems and the night-seeking roots are once again painted, in broad brush strokes, uniting the top and bottom of the stave.
Verses 10-11: A recitative in A major leads us back to the G major of the very opening. The music regains its classical poise (including mordants in the piano part) as if Ceres is over her 'turn', and all memories of this maternal hysteria are to be banished; she has awoken from her nightmare and taken a cold shower. The final verse, an aria in B flat, finds our goddess once more smilingly fit to frequent Olympus. This is graceful and grateful music. In vocal terms it still commands the grand style. But the fact is that in this stage of his life, Schubert finds it easier to retain our attention in his ballads with the pain and anger of melodramatic poems, than with contemplative texts. In certain patches of this work he finds Schiller's classical allusions a shade too pedantic to bring to vibrant life. Nevertheless the character of Ceres, when she is mad with grief, is a magnificent portrait of a formidable mother who will fight for her child at any cost.
Friedrich von Schiller's influence on the young Schubert (from 1811 on) pre-dates Goethe's by three years. Just as Zelter was the composer friend of Goethe's old age, Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg was the colleague of Schiller's early years. It was the ballads of Zumsteeg, fanatically admired by the young Schubert for their adventurous use of form and harmony (by the standards of those days at least) which led the composer to Schiller's verse. On more than one occasion he used the Zumsteeg Schiller settings as models (as in Die Erwartung, Volume 1) carefully copying the older composer's choice of tempo and key, but inevitably amplifying Zumsteeg's worthy ideas with touches of incandescent genius. There are forty-four Schiller songs from D6 to D801. As there was no question of being able to make personal contact with Schiller who died when Schubert was eight years old, there could not have been the same disappointment (and perhaps resentment) which hung over his relationship, or rather non-relationship, with Goethe. As a matter of fact Schiller too had difficulty in establishing a relationship with Goethe; he moved to Weimar in 1787, but the two stars in the literary firmament more or less avoided each other. It was not until 1794 that the two men became close and, luckily for German literature, the stimulation of this friendship (their talents were very different) greatly enriched each other's work. Capell was convinced that Schiller's intellectuality often blocked Schubert's creative flair, but it is obvious that the composer thought it well worth trying again and again to match the poet's challenges. As John Reed puts it: 'The proportion of once-and-for-all settings is lower in the case of Schiller than for any other poet. On the other hand Schubert's persistence is sometimes gloriously rewarded.' Schiller's own low estimation of his talents in relationship to Goethe's is excessively modest, and is perhaps only applicable to his lyrical poetry. There is little doubt that Schiller was the playwright with the greater sense of flair and practical theatre, and that his works have held the stage more than Goethe's, not only in their own terms, but as inspirations for such opera composers as Donizetti (Maria Stuarda) and Verdi (Don Carlos). There is also no doubt that Schubert himself regarded Schiller and Goethe as twin stars or Dioscuri, the Castor and Pollux of German literature, and patron saints in his own development as a song composer.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1989
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