Die Nonne, D208

First line:
Es liebt’ in Welschland irgendwo
composer
first published in 1895
author of text

 
This song of blood and thunder, a tale of energetic and resourceful revenge to gladden the hearts of militant feminists, (a type of Fay Weldonesque Life and Times of a She-Devil/Saint), provides us with all the drama that Schubert so carefully kept on a leash in Romanze. He worked very hard on it, making the first version in late May of 1815 and returning to it a fortnight later. It is interesting that in these ballads his instincts were almost always to simplify rather than amplify his original illustrative intentions. Schubert knows that the point of a ballad is to get the story across, and anything that gets in the way, or slows up the pace, is a disadvantage.

Verse 1: The opening of the piece is a good example of this. The May version has eight bars of introduction (a genial statement of the main tune) which are ruthlessly cut in June. The vamping two bars of the second version are the ideal announcement for a terse setting-up of the proceedings. The vocal melody is pleasant enough, but nothing to distract our attention from the narrative.

Verse 2: The protestations of love are quite funny—and they are meant to be. With passionate outpourings underscored in triplets (Ungeduld from Die schöne Müllerin comes briefly to mind) the lover plights his troth—'Thy hand, Belinda' (and other parts of her body) is what he is asking for. The man who loiters in the cloister is a villain, and an Italian to boot, and we hear it in the testosteronic tessitura.

Verse 3: Well, she believes him, and her fall from grace is unceremoniously described, and in not too fine a detail. There is a type of heightened declamation here which convinces us that the composer is not as profoundly shocked by the prospect of an errant nun as an eighteen-yearold Catholic boy might be; indeed he seems to be relishing the scandal.

Verses 4-5: The first version has here a rather difficult and complicated (one might say fussy) accompaniment. One can see that it was meant to depict the meanderings, the dancing perhaps, of the hard-hearted man, weaving a pack of lies and then boasting of his other conquests. Schubert thought better of all these cascading notes which would have tied the singer to a less flexible style of delivery. The dance, marked 'tändelnd' (playful), is the cat and mouse sadism of a game of sexual cruelty, masked in this second version, by the courtly rhythm, the civilised veneer, of gentlemanly behaviour.

Verses 6-7: Things move fast! The plunge into recitative scratches the veneer and reveals a she-devil. She fìnds the means (easier said than done one would have thought for a well brought up girl, much less a nun) to hire a bunch of assassins. Schubert's musical commentary on this is the interval of the augmented fourth, the so-called diabolus in musica. A passage marked 'Wild, schnell' dispatches the monster with many a thrust. The first version asked for the piano chords to arpeggiated, but this requirement is abandoned in the June version in the interest of sheer speed. The piano's descent into hell with the blackguard's soul, is particularly precipitous.

Verse 8: It is here that the nun's energies, and her thirst for revenge, not to mention her sheer surgical skills, bring the seriousness of the whole piece into question. In the twinkling of a tiny tremolandi passage she has recovered the body from the grave, and in the space of one chord (admittedly sforzato) she tears out the heart from the corpse's body. Giving what might be termed ventricle to her hatred, she executes a Maenad's dance on that unfortunate organ. It gives the phrase 'broken-hearted' a disturbing new meaning. Schubert, in a series of crazed chords, also puts the boot in; he rises manfully (dare one say gleefully?) to the challenge of gush and squelch.

Verses 9-11: It is only here that the family resemblance of this piece to the Matthisson Romanze becomes apparent: this is after all a ghost story too. In three verses of narrative 6/8 (and it is here that the performer shows her metile in holding the tension) it is clear that the whole drama is re-enacted as regularly and repetitively as a strophic song. Belinda's sulphurous presence is less sympathetic perhaps than that of the beautiful Rosalia, but the erstwhile nun, still decked in her veil, has a more strenuous role in the Gothic theatre of the absurd. Each night her work, not to mention his heart, is cut out. One should remember that we do not take horror films seriously as works of art, but that we can still find them good fun—an agreeable way of reminding ourselves that we are alive and (if not exactly like the nun) kicking. Before we condemn a piece like this we have to ask ourselves if we are perhaps attempting to judge it without the sense of humour we would apply to an appreciation of the ghoulish confectionery of our own time.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1990

Recordings

Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/4040CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 8 – Sarah Walker
CDJ33008Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40

Details

Track 8 on CDJ33008 [8'08] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 5 on CDS44201/40 CD7 [8'08] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)

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