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Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 18 - Peter Schreier

Schubert & the Strophic Song
Peter Schreier (tenor), Graham Johnson (piano)
Download only
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: August 1992
St George's, Brandon Hill, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: June 1993
Total duration: 73 minutes 56 seconds


‘Superlative’ (Gramophone)

‘An outstanding disc in a distinguished series’ (BBC Music Magazine)

‘The record brings joy; I've been playing it again and again’ (The Observer)

‘One of the glories of the series’ (Fanfare, USA)

Other recommended albums

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The very term 'strophic song' strikes terror into the hearts of audiences and performers alike. The public knows that one can have too much of a good thing, or even worse, of a bad thing. Verse after verse of the same tune is bound to be boring—one may as well attend a Liederabend of hymns! Singers will seldom willingly include strophic songs in their programmes, not only for fear of alienating their audiences but also because they are unmemorable in the most dangerous sense—a treacherous trap when it comes to memory lapses. In any case there is something about the look of most strophic songs on the printed page which can all too easily suggest a childish, if not downright inferior, article. And that is exactly how they can sound without inspired advocacy. We live in an age which has lost its connection with folksong and hymnody, and, with it, delight in some of the simpler and more heartfelt things of musical life. Where are the strophes of yesteryear? Our forebears thought nothing of singing strophic songs at musical evenings, yet this is the most misunderstood of vocal forms in modern times. Long ago, the strophic song was valued for its immediate impact on ordinary listeners; today it seems inaccessible in its simplicity, and this remoteness is exacerbated when the language in which it is being sung is not one's own.

This disc is a survey of Schubert's relationship to various forms of the strophic Lied—a record of some of the startling experiments of his teens, which the composer was to use as a basis for some of the most inventive and ingenious achievements of his maturity. The elaborate and wonderful songs from Schulze's Poetisches Tagebuch which constitute the second half of this disc are all strophic in varying, and modified, degree. This 'cycle'—and I believe this group of songs benefits from being performed as such—is a stepping-stone, in more than one way, to Winterreise. And that great work is the apotheosis of the modified strophic song, a form which in its various manifestations has been the norm for song composition ever since. It was good enough for Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Cole Porter, and continues to be taken for granted in the pop music of the present. Its triumphant survival into the late nineteenth century, and its continuing power in the popular music of the present, is largely thanks to Schubert's pioneering work.

Before we consider the modified strophic song we must first look at the unadorned original article. Of course all the standard objections to the strophic Lied are directed against its earliest and plainest form which was one of the preferred means of song writing inherited by Schubert from composers of earlier times. Among these were the members of the so-called First Berlin School (c1750–1770)—Krause, Graun, Marpurg and other now forgotten names, as well as C P E Bach. During the second half of the eighteenth century at the court of Frederick the Great, the publication of numerous song collections as well as treatises on the subject established the Prussian capital as the Mecca of Lieder. The hallmark of these composers' songs was clarity and simplicity. In about 1770 a new wave of composers (J F Reichhardt, C F Zelter and J A P Schulz—for the latter see the note on Abendlied in this booklet) established what was effectively a Second Berlin School; their music was freer and more inventive, and they cultivated not only strophic Lieder (both pure and modified), but also durchkomponiert ballads. Nevertheless these composers still adhered to Gluck's celebrated dictum (in the preface to Alceste, 1769) that music in mixed forms was ancillary to poetic expression; the power of music was accordingly down-played in favour of well-mannered reverence for the text. Poets, Goethe chief among them, thoroughly approved of this acknowledgement of the word's ascendancy over tone.

Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven all enriched the Lied form in Vienna, often anticipating what are usually taken to be Schubertian inventions and reforms, but their contributions to the medium had been occasional. Almost from the start Schubert placed song at the top of his list of priorities and looked beyond Vienna for inspiration and direction—to the Berlin masters as well as to the Swabian J R Zumsteeg. Schubert's very first vocal compositions were modelled on the ballads of Zumsteeg where the all-important poem is allowed to lead the willing composer on an extended ramble. As early as 1812 the Rochlitz poem Klaglied (D23) was set as a simple strophic song with four verses, but the young Schubert was not immediately enamoured of this particular formal option. During his high Matthisson phase of 1814 he set that poet's work in almost every way (through-composed, recitative and arioso, ballad, modified strophic with and without recitative) but had avoided the simple strophic form. It took the powerfully compelling lyrics of Goethe himself (known to favour this sort of simplicity himself in matters musical) for the composer to be attracted briefly to the strophic form in 1814 with Nachtlied D119 and Trost in Tränen (both Volume 12). In 1815 it was Goethe's turn, like Matthisson the year before, to be the subject of the composer's ardent attentions from every angle, and the fruits of this tempestuous union reveal the young man's astonishing progress as a strophic song composer: the immortal Nähe des Geliebten (Volume 1), and Am Mignon (Volume 10), both date from early in the year. The strophic floodgates were at last now open; two utterly different versions of Körner's Sängers Morgenlied (Volume 4) already show the hand of a budding master capable of seeing a poem from more than one point of view. He opened his heart to the poet Kosegarten in June and theirs was a purely strophic relationship with twelve song offspring of which Das Finden, the opening Lied on this disc, is among the most delightful. Not that Schubert is incapable of mistakes in the heat of the creative moment: in Die Sterbende (Volume 7), to take but one example, the music fits the stresses of the first verse a good deal more convincingly than the third, and in Ermin's Mein Grüss an den Mai (also Volume 7) only the first verse of the poem is singable with Schubert's music—despite the repeat marks on the autograph and the optimistic words 'eight more verses'. Eight more strophic songs follow Das Finden on this disc, and they all date from 1816; 82 of the 106 songs composed in this year were simple strophic settings. Saying the most with the least fuss, and the most economic musical means is the order of the day in this period.

How I should love to have heard a great singer of Schubert's time, Vogl perhaps, perform these songs to the manner born and raised. There was probably greater freedom taken in the characterisation of the various moods and verses than we would dare to assume today, not to mention the spontaneous ornamentation, not necessarily to the composer's taste, which would have come naturally to singers only a generation older than Schubert. The performers of today have to work for the greatest possible variety of mood and colour within what we now understand to be the Schubertian style; the subtle use of rubato, taking time to be expressive where necessary, is also a major factor. Words must often seem to be more spoken than sung to avoid the impression of dutifully intoning a tune, as if in the schoolroom. The strophic song is an art born of discipline, but a straitjacket squeezes the life out of it.

Composers laboured to loosen the stays of the corset almost from the beginning. Strophic song had been modified according to the meaning of the text, and in order to avoid awkward declamation, for at least twenty years before Schubert was born—a pioneer in this respect was Beethoven's teacher C G Neefe. As eloquent as strophic songs can be, the hiatus at the end of each verse before the beginning of the next, and the inevitable feeling of déjà-entendu in the da capo, precludes the building of a seamless musical construction which gains momentum and gives the impression of ongoing development. Sonata form was evolved for just this purpose in instrumental music. It seems to me that Schubert invented a new type (or rather, a number of new types) of song in which repeated, juxtaposed and interwoven strophes, related to, or contrasted with, one another, are the bricks and mortar of a construction not dissimilar to sonata form with its muscular logic dependent on recapitulation as much as development. Schubert was an architect in sound in this respect, and the building bricks for his new constructions were baked in the kiln of the pure strophic song. The creative experiences of 1815 and 1816 proved spectacularly effective grist to the mill in the creation of Die schöne Müllerin in 1823. In a work like this, the greatest of purely strophic songs live happily side by side with almost the same number of the most subtly modified ones, and we scarcely notice which is which.

This is of course the art which conceals art, and a closer examination of the various types of modified strophic song found in Schubert reveals the hand of a master organiser. In the following list, numbers refer to the verses of the poem. Thus 1 = 2 means that Verse 1 and 2 of a poem are set to the same music in the broadest of terms; Schubert always reserves the right to change details of vocal line, accompaniment and even harmony in verses that are, in terms of form, meant to be heard as recapitulations. There seems no end to the composer's ingenuity in these experiments in form. His modified strophic Lieder fall into six main categories (apart from specially invented and complicated exceptions like Im Frühling) and for each of them only a few examples must suffice.

I: Usually a three-strophe structure where 1 = 3 and where 2 is either completely different or a variant of the other two verses. Examples of this are Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren (Volume 14), Der greise Kopf (and others) from Winterreise, and the Schlegel setting Die Vögel. Some of the Heine Lieder of Schwanengesang are structured on this principle. In Die Sterne (Volume 6) 1 = 3 = 4, while 2 modulates to a distant key.

II: In this category the modifications occur in the last strophe of a song, as in Gute Nacht from Winterreise (i.e. 1 = 2 = 3 in the minor, then 4 in the tonic major). Comprehensive modifications of last verses also occur in Du bist die Ruh' and Dass sie hier gewesen. In Das Wirtshaus, also from Winterreise, 1 = 2 with 3 and 4 different from the first two verses and from each other.

III: The introductory strophe is unrelated to the remaining verses which are linked. As in Freiwilligen Versinken (Volume 14) where 2 = 3.

IV: A seemingly obvious form of 1 = 2, 3 = 4 (with intervening recitative) is found in Der Neugierige from Die schöne Müllerin, but surprisingly seldom elsewhere.

V: First and last strophes correspond, as in Der Lindenbaum where 1 = 4. Verse 2 is related to these but is in the minor, and 3 is different. In Aufenthalt from Schwanengesang 1 = 5, 2 = 4, and 3 is different. In Uber Wildemann on this disc 1 = 5, 2 = 3, and 4 is different.

VI: A subtle structure of interleaving strophes, a special feature of some of the songs of Winterreise: in Erstarrung for example, 1 = 4, 2 = 5, with 3 different; in Wasserflut 1 = 3, 2 = 4; in Frühlingstraum 1 = 4, 2 = 5, 3 = 6. The use of this process in earlier songs includes Fischerweise (Volume 2) where 1 = 3 = 5, and 2 = 4 = 6. Im Walde (one of the Schulze settings on this disc) has a fascinatingly complex structure: 1 = 3 = 4 [a little altered] = 6; 2 = 5. Similarly complicated is Drang in die Ferne which is put together in the following manner: 1 = 4, 2 = 7, 3 = 8 with 5 and 9 standing on their own as do 6 and 10 although they are distantly related to each other in certain details (see commentary on p17).

Drang in die Ferne is an example of a strophic song masterfully modified and disguised; one is scarcely aware where one verse ends and another begins, so seamlessly do the musical ideas follow one from the other. In actual fact the work is a well-laid musical mosaic made up of adjacently placed bricks; each of these units contains a verse of the poem and makes a reappearance in the multicoloured pattern. It is only thinking in terms of creating verses for a strophic song which has enabled Schubert to construct this Lied. There is a definite limit to the number of ideas on offer but far from being mean-spirited this economy of raw material is a source of strength and inner unity. The opening bars of the accompaniment announce the parameters of the argument, and within these, miracles of Protean transformation are accomplished. This economy is characteristic of the ordinary strophic song, rather than the spendthrift extravagance of the durchkomponiert ballad.

Towards the end of his life Schubert was taking the song form forwards with ever increasing subtlety, never discarding what he had learned but incorporating discoveries into old patterns, adapting his musical past and bridging it with the present. We will hear on this disc how extraordinarily far he had developed by 1825/26 in the group of Schulze songs. Two years later, in the last year of his life, he was still crossing new boundaries. A song like Am Meer from Schwanengesang (1828) looks straightforward enough on paper, but it contains multitudes. For a start it embraces much of Schubert's musical heritage, but it also shows his plans for the future: it has the open-heartedness of an Italian aria, the drama of a ballad where tremolo accompanied recitative ('Der Nebel stieg, das Wasser schwoll, die Möwe flog hin und wieder') moves the story forward, and the whole moving cantilena is of a unity that announces lessons already learned from Winterreise. All in all it has the direct yet deceptive simplicity of a strophic song. By watering afresh the strophic roots in his work which dug down deep into the eighteenth century, Schubert nurtured a hardy perennial which not only flowered for him but continued to do so well into the twentieth century. Taken over by new proprietors, the old tree still puts forth blooms; those who pick them in the field of popular music are hardly aware that they owe much to a composer from long ago with a gardener's thrifty pride in making the most out of the least.

Graham Johnson © 1993

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