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Songs by Schubert's friends and contemporaries

Graham Johnson (piano)
3CDs Download only
Label: Hyperion
Recording details: Various dates
All Saints' Church, East Finchley, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Julian Millard
Release date: March 2006
Total duration: 227 minutes 13 seconds

These generously filled discs were included as the ‘bonus’ discs in the forty-disc boxed set The Complete Songs by Franz Schubert CDS44201/40. They are now available as a set of three and are presented with comprehensive commentaries by Graham Johnson which firmly establish the composers—many of them barely known today—in the context of that flowering of musical creativity at the zenith of which later generations have placed Schubert himself.




‘This enterprising, often revelatory set should intrigue and delight anyone interested in the development of the Lied’ (Gramophone)

‘Since making music with friends was Schubert's whole raison d'etre, this 3-CD box is an inspired idea … led by the soprano Susan Gritton, the performances are pure A-list’ (The Independent)

‘Anyone who loves lieder will find here a rich, diverse, and delightful offering. There isn't a bad song among the 81 songs by 40 composers who wrote during Schubert's lifetime, and there's a lot of fine music here by well-known and also practically unknown composers and poets. The singing is consistently excellent… anyone interested in this genre will find here a broad-ranging and generous collection’ (American Record Guide)

‘If 81 songs are too many to mention individually, sufficient variety exists and enough songs are receiving a first recording for this set to be indispensable for anyone interested in the genre’ (International Record Review)

‘Graham Johnson once again demonstrates that he has few peers today in his combined function as scholar-musician’ (Fanfare, USA)

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In an article entitled Neue Bahnen (1853), Robert Schumann likened the young, as-yet unknown, Johannes Brahms to the goddess Minerva who sprang fully formed from the brow of Jupiter, armed to the teeth, ready to do battle—Schumann’s metaphor envisaged Brahms engaged in an heroic struggle against the philistines. Such is our admiration for genius that we are tempted to maximize its god-like impact by minimizing the more ordinary, everyday influences that can inexorably turn a gifted student into a great artist. It is part of human nature to prefer the miraculous to the rational when speaking of our idols. The advent of Brahms into the musical world struck Schumann, generous in spirit though ailing in health, like a bolt from the blue.

According to musical legend, Schubert’s arrival on the musical scene was only slightly less imposing, although he was too short for military service, and rather too chubby to jump around in armour. Instead, it is Gretchen, the heroine from Goethe’s Faust, who springs from the composer’s brow, clothed in music and armed with a spinning wheel rotating in the key of D minor. The important date for the history books is 19 October 1814; Gretchen am Spinnrade provides singers and accompanists at a stroke with a profession where none had existed before, and the lied is ‘invented’, as if in a flash of lightning.

This latter fact is true only up to a point: it is cultural history simplified—as when Bardolaters imagine young Will Shakespeare coming up to London fresh from the country to pen canonical masterpieces, his every coup d’essai a coup de maître. Those who know the name ‘Shakespeare’, but for whom all his contemporaries are nonentities, might imagine the young poet arriving in a London barren of entertainment, a city woefully inactive and depressed, holding its breath for its theatrical saviour. This scenario may reinforce a capacity for hero-worship, but real life does not work that way. Before Shakespeare, London was abuzz with artistic activity and ignorant of the fact that it was soon to be enriched by the work of yet another genius. And it goes without saying that the Kaiserstadt was an exceptionally exciting musical centre long before Schubert. The young composer’s greatest luck was that he was brought up in the liveliest artistic corner of Europe and not in one of the Silesian towns in which his parents had been born. At the time of his birth in 1797, Vienna was the home of Haydn and Beethoven—the former just back from his second triumphant English visit, the latter revelling in the success of his early sonatas for solo piano and for cello. ‘Yes, yes’, I hear the vocal enthusiast reply; ‘before Schubert there were symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas, of course, even operas, but no songs.’ Turning a half-blind eye to the handful of beautiful Mozart lieder, the canzonets of Haydn, the earlier songs of Beethoven, this has always been a way of defending Schubert’s special status: we acknowledge that his symphonies and quartets owe a great deal to his musical forebears, but the songs represent a new beginning. Gretchen am Spinnrade and Erlkönig are quoted as evidence of this.

One of the purposes of this set of three discs is to show that there were indeed songs, many of them, before Schubert, and that they helped him become what he was. Any man is dependent on his friends and contemporaries to shape him in his own era. Of course Gretchen and Erlkönig deserve the adulation heaped upon them—Schubert’s genius is unquestioned; especially when heard in galvanizing sound-bites this music seems conceived in a flash of lightning. In truth, candlelight and elbow grease played as important a part in their creation as originality; the young composer’s achievements were only possible because of a painstaking apprenticeship that included the assimilation of the work of earlier masters. It may be a surprise for those following the chronologically ordered Complete Songs of Schubert in the Hyperion Edition (CDS44201/40) that Gretchen am Spinnrade makes its appearance only in the fourth CD, and Erlkönig in the tenth. The role of Goethe in these songs is crucial, but Schubert was responding to words in an almost uncanny way from the very first song he wrote. When we look carefully at these famous settings they become part of a much larger picture. The broader we permit our gaze to be, the wider this panorama seems. We notice that Schubert was not the only composer to be inspired by Goethe at this time, even in Vienna; bustling with its own musical activity, Berlin was far from a cultural desert and its composers had discovered the great poet decades earlier. We are reminded that Vienna is a southern city, much nearer to Italy and Italian culture than is Berlin. In the Austrian capital there were influences on Schubert to rival Goethe’s: the plight of Gretchen is related to the tragic grandeur of Gluck’s Iphigenia, and Gretchen am Spinnrade could never have been written without the feeling for Italian bel canto instilled in Schubert by Antonio Salieri who insisted on the setting of fragments of Metastasio’s opera libretti as musical exercises.

For many years, and for whatever reasons, Schubert’s musical forebears were considered something of a joke. I do not mean Haydn, Gluck, Mozart and Beethoven; it is uncontested that their music played a crucial role in the young composer’s development. No, I refer to the ‘B’ team, the purportedly down-at-heel bunch who had been ill-advised enough to write lieder before Schubert. How often have I heard disparaging references to Reichardt, as well as to those two composers unfortunate enough to have names beginning with ‘Z’—Zumsteeg and Zelter! That great Schubertian Gerald Moore used to laugh about these three stooges, and why not? It had long been a given that our favourite composer brought light to the song world where formerly there had only been darkness. Even Eric Sams, doyen of the lied in Britain, quipped that he would get round to studying Zelter at Zumsteeg [some stage] or other. The names ‘Reichardt, Zumsteeg and Zelter’ sound rather comical to English ears, although no match for the ‘Schütz, Scheidt and Schein’ of the early baroque.

The hostility to Zelter in particular goes back, surely, to our incredulity that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe failed to respond to Schubert’s missives sent from Vienna to Weimar. In this period (the first parcel of songs was sent in April 1816 and returned to sender) the poet was in close correspondence with Zelter who lived in Berlin. Apart from being one of Goethe’s closest friends, this composer (also a builder by trade) was Goethe’s adviser in matters of musical taste. It has often been assumed that Zelter was responsible for the snub to Schubert. And yet, not a single word, as far as we know, was exchanged by the poet and his friend in relation to the young Viennese composer. Schubert’s cause was probably not helped by the fact that his first consignment of music contained a covering letter from the composer’s friend, Josef von Spaun, whose uncle, Franz Seraphicus von Spaun, was a strong opponent of the great poet—a single glance at the name ‘von Spaun’ might have caused the contents of the parcel to be ignored. There is another possible reason that has never before to my knowledge been raised: in a letter to Maximilian Eberwein (a composer featured in this programme) written on 24 February 1816 (some six weeks before Schubert’s parcel was sent) Goethe explains that on account of his shocking treatment by a certain composer in connection with a recent performance of one of his plays (Des Epimenides Erwachen) he has made a vow (‘ein Gelübde’) not to allow any new composition of his texts ‘hiersobald’—‘for the time being’. This incident effectively marks the end of Goethe’s long-standing efforts to use his own texts as a basis for opera in Weimar. He has not received the respect due to him, and as a result he is now unable to give his blessing to Eberwein’s Claudine von Villa Bella, although he acknowledges the composer’s talent. How long Goethe, enraged by one Bernhard Anselm Weber from Berlin, felt constrained by this vow is not certain, but it was clearly the wrong time, a couple of months later, for a new book full of songs by an unknown Austrian to arrive on his doorstep—Goethe was no fan of a country he never visited, and of a city, Vienna, with a reputation for intrigue. He was also extremely worried at this time by the illness of his wife (she died in June 1816). The old poet received, like all famous men, a voluminous amount of unsolicited mail. As a song accompanist I receive parcels of music from hopeful song-composers unknown to me, and it is impossible to respond to them all. One wonders how many other composers of the time sent their songs to Goethe in manuscript; in ninety-nine percent of cases its tactful disposal was accomplished without history offering the slightest reproach. If we are to believe Goethe’s explanation to Eberwein, his rejection of Schubert was part of a blanket policy to ignore all composers who applied to him for recognition; that this decision would have been dogmatically adhered to, at least for a time, is entirely typical of the poet’s nature.

Even a trained musician can misjudge a piece of music by reading it through in his or her head—it almost always requires a play-through. Goethe was unable to do this for himself. He could have arranged for someone else to do so; in this case it is clear he did not bother. He can be accused of treating his priceless postal consignment carelessly, impolitely, but not with calculated philistinism. It is possible that he leafed through the book of music and saw a majority of strophic settings (they look admirably simple on the page) followed by Gretchen and Erlkönig that seemed too complicated to fit his conception of what a song should be. But I do not believe that Goethe was offended by listening to Schubert’s music itself. The Rastlose Liebe settings by Reichardt and Zelter on the first disc bring home to the listener that Schubert’s Rastlose Liebe (included in Goethe’s parcel) is less ‘extreme’ in many ways than theirs. If Goethe could live with these settings by composers he knew and respected, it was unlikely that he would take instant exception to the subtle musical differences and discoveries embodied in the particular group of Schubert songs that was sent to him. Schubert’s music displayed a genius absent from the earlier composers, but his songs have more in common with his predecessors than has generally been recognized; to judge this effectively one needs to know something about the contemporary music in circulation at the time, and few Schubert enthusiasts have taken the trouble to do so. If the Erlkönig settings of Reichardt and Zelter are not the equal of Schubert’s, neither are they boring and negligible. These are fine compositions that hold the listener’s attention. Songs like this doubtless interested Schubert himself, and they are far from the dry-as-dust exercises that one has been led to expect from the so-called Berlin lieder school.

The parameters of this set of discs had to be drawn somewhere. There could have been no more influential composers as far as Schubert was concerned than Mozart and Gluck (Schubert was Gluck’s grand-pupil through Salieri). But these two were dead by the time Schubert was born, and it has been the criterion for inclusion in this survey that each of the composers should have been alive at some period in Schubert’s life-span of thirty-one years. Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg, composer of ballads, school friend of Schiller, squeezes into the picture because he died in 1802, in his early forties, when Schubert was only five years old. Similarly the ageing Franz Joseph Haydn had nothing to do with Schubert personally, and was too infirm to have been out and about in the Imperial chapel at the time (from 1808) when the young Schubert was singing there. Nevertheless, the fact that he was a legend in Schubert’s childhood, and that he was alive and inhabiting the same city, must have been thrilling for a child who frequently played Haydn’s quartets at home and who performed his symphonies with the school orchestra. Schubert was also a lifelong admirer of the vocal music of the composer’s less famous brother, Michael Haydn. Johann Friedrich Reichardt survived until 1814, his most important work written years earlier, but Carl Friedrich Zelter was to outlive Schubert and die in the same year, 1832, as Goethe.

If we are certain that Schubert never saw any of the composers mentioned above, there were others, his seniors who lived in Vienna or who visited the city, whom he knew with varying degrees of intimacy. Chief among these was his teacher, the famous opera-composer Antonio Salieri, who had settled in Vienna half a century earlier. He was the first famous musician to take an interest in Schubert and he was clearly hugely influential on his development. Salieri was twenty years older than the reigning musical deity of Viennese life, Ludwig van Beethoven. Beethoven was ever-present in Schubert’s thoughts; his spirit hovered over his shoulder throughout his creative life. The younger man could not help but measure himself by the exalted standards set by the older composer. In one of Beethoven’s conversation books in 1826, Karl Holz mentions Schubert’s pleasant demeanour and his enthusiasm for Handel, and praises him for his ‘great powers of conception’ in song. Holz asks Beethoven if he knows Erlkönig. Sadly we have no record of the spoken reply. Anselm Hüttenbrenner claimed to have visited Beethoven with Schubert some six days before the composer’s death. The trustworthy Josef von Spaun denied this ever happened. If there is doubt as to whether the two ever met, Schubert would certainly have had to have been in contact with Beethoven regarding permission for the dedication of the four-handed Acht Variationen über ein französiches Lied, D624. We might hope that Anton Schindler was telling the truth (but we can never be sure) when he claimed that Beethoven joyfully discovered Schubert’s songs on his deathbed, and remarked that their creator possessed ‘the divine spark’. We can be certain that Schubert saw Beethoven at a distance on several occasions, but he was probably too timid to seek him out and ask for an opinion on his compositions. He was a pall-bearer at Beethoven’s funeral and the year following Beethoven’s death was occupied with the planning and presentation of a concert which would be a tribute to Beethoven and, at the same time, a subtly, even covertly, presented case for Schubert’s right to inherit his mantle. For eighteen months Schubert could count himself the greatest composer in Vienna, if not the world.

Schubert had at least a nodding acquaintance with Joseph Weigl, and we know that he met Adalbert Gyrowetz; he would certainly have regarded them with less reverence than Beethoven, but they were both accomplished composers with successful careers. The younger man would have approached them with the respect due to established masters of the older generation whose theatrical achievements he had known since his childhood. A different kind of deference was due to Moritz von Dietrichstein who was only a part-time composer, but who was one of the grandees of the Viennese aristocracy and a powerful patron. Johann Karl Unger was less important a luminary than Dietrichstein; he belonged on the fringes of the Viennese elite, but his patronage and good opinion were very important to Schubert on more than one occasion.

We know that the young Schubert came across poetry thanks to the libraries of his friends (or the libraries of his friends’ parents). It is likely that printed music by contemporary song-composers, definitely a luxury item, was also circulated in a similarly informal and haphazard way. Reichardt, Zumsteeg and Zelter were German masters whose music was in wide circulation, but there were a number of composers who had distinctly Viennese careers and whose musical work and progress would have been of great interest to Schubert in his formative years. Nikolaus von Krufft was just such a composer, a gifted Viennese nobleman who died in 1818 before reaching the age of forty. The songs of Václav Jan Krtitel Tomašek, although he lived in Prague, were also very well known in Vienna; it is certain that Schubert was acquainted with some of these, particularly the Goethe settings. Similarly, the songs of Sigismund Neukomm (originally from Salzburg, but a huge musical celebrity in Vienna by 1815) were famous at the time, as were those, to a lesser extent, of the younger Stephan Franz from Hungary whom Schubert certainly knew by sight. Music such as this might have been discovered on the top of any piano belonging to a Viennese middle-class music lover, and Schubert played on a great many pianos in the city’s private houses. Schubert’s greatest local rival in terms of lieder was the Swabian-born Conradin Kreutzer, seventeen years older and a prolific composer of songs. We know that Schubert admired Kreutzer’s music, though not unreservedly, and that he kept an eye on this composer’s achievements until the closing years of his life. They certainly met in 1823 when they visited the piano-maker Johannes Goll and tried out his instruments.

It is far less certain that Schubert knew as much about his German contemporaries, particularly those who were not as celebrated as Reichardt and Zelter. The name of Louise Reichardt might have been known to Schubert, the circulation of her music immeasurably helped by the name of her father. The music of another woman composer, Jeannette Antonie Bürde, was probably known to Schubert through her sister, the famous opera singer Anna Milder Hauptmann. The Berlin-composed settings from Die schöne Müllerin by Ludwig Berger are included here for obvious reasons, but it is unlikely that Schubert ever heard these pieces of music or that he knew even the name of their composer. Franz Anton Schubert of Dresden was known to him, almost certainly, only as a result of a publisher’s joke when a song by the ‘other’ Schubert was published side by side with one of his own in Beckers Taschenbuch of 1821. Maximilian Eberwein, forgotten today, was a member of a musical family that had long been linked to the Goethe circle; ‘Max’ Eberwein visited Vienna on more than one occasion and met Beethoven and Salieri—it is not impossible that Schubert encountered him. We also have no idea whether Schubert ever met Louis Spohr, but we know that he heard a great deal of Spohr’s music—on several occasions the two composers’ work was placed on the same programme in concerts in Vienna. Schubert’s falling-out with Carl Maria von Weber is well known—the younger composer’s frankness about the superiority of Der Freischütz to Euryanthe cost him Weber’s support and friendship, and thus a possible Dresden production of Alfonso und Estrella. On the other hand there was a marvellous encounter with the great pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel who was in Vienna in 1827 to visit the dying Beethoven; Schubert’s songs, performed by Vogl and their composer, brought tears to Hummel’s eyes. Ferdinand Hiller, sixteen at the time, was travelling as Hummel’s pupil and was present at this extraordinary private concert.

Of Schubert’s nearer contemporaries Gioacchino Rossini, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Carl Loewe—all born in the 1790s—none was known to him personally. He admired Rossini’s genius and had to watch powerlessly as the Kärntnertor Theatre, formerly the citadel of opera in German and the artistic home of the singer Johann Michael Vogl, was taken over by the Italian impresario Barbaja. The ascendancy of Italian opera in Vienna was detrimental to all Schubert’s hopes of seeing one of his own operas performed in Vienna. It took a great deal of character for him not to turn Rossini into a bogeyman and bugbear, but Rossini’s music was simply too good, different as it was to Schubert’s own, for the younger composer (though younger by only five years) to begrudge him this success. In fact, Schubert delighted in parodying Rossini’s music in the manner of a true admirer. Meyerbeer was another case altogether; Schubert heard his music only once and disliked it. Carl Loewe had a career that strangely shadows Schubert’s without either composer being aware of the fact. Loewe as singer and composer lived long enough to be hailed in Vienna (1844) as the ‘Schubert of the north’, but Schubert was almost certainly unaware that there was a contemporary in north Germany whose Erlkönig would one day be counted as a serious rival to his own.

After all this discussion of Schubert’s famous, powerful and successful contemporaries—older Viennese composers and faraway German composers—we at last reach the category of Schubert’s friends. Of the composers already mentioned we might place Salieri in this category, as well as Unger and Dietrichstein in that they were at least friendly with the composer, and well disposed towards him. To these may be added the name of the musical pedagogue Simon Sechter with whom Schubert arranged composition lessons at the end of his life. None of these, however, could be called intimate acquaintances. The oldest real friend on these discs is the baritone Johann Michael Vogl, Schubert’s chosen interpreter and also something of a composer. Schubert’s closest friends of all, Franz von Schober and Josef von Spaun were not musicians, but Anselm Hüttenbrenner, a fellow student at the Imperial Seminary, was a fine composer, although the history of his friendship with Schubert was complicated by distance (he moved to Graz) and, almost certainly, jealousy. Less of an intimate friend was Benedict Randhartinger; his memoirs are unreliable but his link with Schubert is undeniable. Karoline Unger (her later married name was Sabatier) was the daughter of Johann Unger; she was born in 1803 and already a famous singer in Vienna in her late teens. Schubert coached her in the role of Dorabella when she was only eighteen. There are two composers, among the best on these discs, for whom Schubert in the last phase of his career was a valued mentor and adviser, if not a formal teacher. The careers of both Franz Lachner and Johann Vesque von Püttlingen, both six years younger than Schubert, were immeasurably enriched by being in almost daily contact with him at crucial periods in their lives.

At the beginning of the time frame of these discs there were composers unable to have known Schubert because they were too old. The set ends with composers who were too young to have known Schubert, but whose work was influenced by his, particularly after his death. Fanny Mendelssohn (her married name was Hensel, a link with the Berger settings of Die schöne Müllerin as we shall see) and her brother Felix Mendelssohn both composed songs in Berlin well within Schubert’s lifetime. Robert Schumann, aged seventeen in Leipzig, composed a song to his own text at more or less the same time Schubert was working on Winterreise. The young Franz Liszt, born in 1811 not far from Vienna, was a pupil of Czerny. He never met Schubert but it is likely that he had encountered Schubert’s ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy as a sight-reading exercise as early as 1823, and he was later to play a crucial part in broadening the appeal of Schubert’s lieder through his piano transcriptions. Schubert would almost certainly have known the name of this brilliant young prodigy. This set of discs ends with a song by a composer aged twenty-one at Schubert’s death, Carl Banck, a pupil of both Zelter and Berger in Berlin. Banck and his music are long forgotten but the subject matter of the song, and the music that it imitates with all the reverence due to an icon (Der Leiermann, the closing song of Schubert’s Winterreise) are immortal.

Graham Johnson © 2006

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