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We know, however, that the last music that Schubert heard in his brother’s house was a performance of a much later work by the same composer: he had begged for a Beethoven string quartet which is far removed from the ‘Razumovsky’ style – the great C sharp minor, Op 131. Poor ill Schubert became so excited by this music – indeed, he was one of the very few people in Vienna who would have been able to fathom its greatness – that the players feared that he would have a seizure. Beethoven was counted an avant-garde composer as much as he was a guardian of the sacred flame of Haydn and Mozart, and the fearlessness, not to say the sublimity, of these last quartets must have played their part in encouraging Schubert into similar bravery in his song explorations – certainly in terms of including an avant-garde element within a cycle written in Beethoven’s honour. That composer’s example showed that it was not for a great creator to sit on his laurels: he had to lead the public, by the nose if necessary, into the future. In these six Heine settings Schubert does just this. These songs are so far removed from Rellstab’s that it is as if we were comparing landscape with moonscape. That poet’s words had been expanded into music. But in the unfamiliar light and shadow of this vast, lunar terrain the strangely powerful words by a new icon of Romanticism are telescoped into some of the most powerfully concise and economical songs ever written. Thus the Rellstab Abschied could be seen, in the context of this cycle, as a farewell to the past, and the rumblings of Der Atlas as heralding the music of the future, yet both representing different sides of the same creative coin.
And Heine was very much the poet of the future. He had everything to appeal to the Schubertians (by the agenda of the reading-circle at the beginning of 1828 we know how much they were enthused by his work). Franz von Schober conducted these readings, and how this poet manqué, with his lumbering and pretentious Palingenesien sonnets, must have envied Heine – so well-travelled, so amusing, such a martyr to the pains of love (and respected, not derided for it), so talented. Heine must have seemed the coming man and, in many ways, he was. Here was humour and irony, the deepest feeling as well as the lightest touch, a mastery of prose as much as poetry, a modern voice that boded ill for the forces of political repression and cultural philistinism. And there was a pithy mode of expression in his poetry which had a Goethe-like directness and suitability for musical setting. Heine’s was a name unknown to Beethoven, and it was now up to Schubert to introduce them to each other. We shall see how presently.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000
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