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Der Kampf, D594

First line:
Nein, länger werd’ ich diesen Kampf
November 1817; published in March 1829 as Op posth 110
author of text

This is a real set piece, an aria in the grand manner that might have been conceived to conclude an operatic act, written at a time when the collaborative friendship of Schubert and Mayrhofer was at its peak. We know that this work became one of the favourites of Johann Michael Vogl, the retired opera baritone who had taken up the cause of Schubert’s songs, but was it actually written for him? There is no doubt that composer and poet put their heads together to find material suitable for the singer who was the recently converted champion of Schubert’s songs, but Spaun’s memoirs state that Vogl was singing Der Kampf shortly after meeting Schubert, which would suggest the work was already in existence. There is nothing to say, however, that Schubert might not have written it with Vogl in mind before they actually met, probably in November 1817. The settings of Mayrhofer’s own classical poems were no doubt composed partly with an eye to Vogl’s classical tastes (the singer read ancient Greek, and he was a famed Orestes in the Gluck operas); at other times it is likely that Mayrhofer may have recommended suitable material from the work of the great German poets (for example the Goethe poem Prometheus). It is doubtful, however, whether Schubert needed much help when it came to selecting Schiller’s work. He had set this poet from the earliest days, and Der Kampf is to be found in this six-strophe version in the Sämmtliche Werke (Anton Doll, Vienna 1810), the source of many of the composer’s other Schiller settings.

There is an earlier version of the poem in the almanac Thalia (1786) entitled ‘Freigeisterei der Leidenschaft. Als Laura vermählt war im Jahre 1782’. The same woman inspired various other Schubert Schiller settings – the two versions of Die Entzückung an Laura – but she is not to be confused with Friedrich von Matthisson’s inamorata of the same name. The poet’s emotions run riot as he watches the beautiful Laura being wed. This is an important point in understanding this poem which is surely not about the struggle to abstain from love merely for the sake of self-control. It is clear that after working long and hard to get Laura’s attention he has at last succeeded: it seems likely that the poet will be able to consummate his relationship with her despite her marriage. But in this victory is also his defeat: in order to requite the passion she feels for him he will have to be party to an immoral act. We are expected to feel horror with him – Gadzooks and Zounds! – but we are merely reminded that despite his talent for drama, Schiller’s ivory tower of high moral ideals sometimes houses characters who are not convincingly made of flesh and blood. Nevertheless, Der Kampf met some opposition from the censor’s office when it was published after the composer’s death in 1829. It is scarcely possible today to hear the lasciviousness in these words which troubled the guardian of the public morals.

The Vogl songs were not usually written in the bass clef, and they do not usually explore the lower reaches of the stave in the way of Der Kampf. There is another contender for the singer Schubert had in mind, Johann Karl Graf Esterházy. We know that Schubert was in contact with the family early in 1818 (thanks to another Johann Karl, the poet and dilettante composer, Unger) with a view to taking up summer employment at Zseliz as music-master to the two Esterházy princesses. The count was an able bass singer, and it is just possible that Schubert wrote Der Kampf the preceding November as a type of audition piece. For this theory, however, the choice of text seems rather racy: Esterházy was a religious family man, a prospective employer whom the composer had not yet met.

On the other hand, one can immediately tell that Der Kampf would have suited Vogl down to the ground. What makes it stiff and old-fashioned is exactly what would have appealed to the bass-baritone in his fiftieth year. It has attitude – it strikes a musical pose as surely as the performer struck one, or more than one, and was lambasted as a ham by some (though not all) of the members of the Schubert circle. Any lieder singer of today who was as mannered a performer as Vogl was would expect a sharp critical slap on the wrist. One can hear in this music many moods which are neatly parcelled, and skilfully varied: military determination; soulful desperation; lyrical cantilena which bends to temptation; the contrast between decisive recitative and spinning a line (Vogl was good at the latter in more than one way). Here one has the advantage of being seen as a person moral enough to insist on rectitude, but vulnerable and, yes, human enough at least to contemplate adultery. All of this was grist to the mill for the singer-cum-tragedian in a century when such people were expected to be larger than life; apparently Vogl rarely disappointed in this regard.

There is something slightly slavish about an artist giving an important person exactly what he wants, especially when he could have done better by following his own instincts. A few of Schubert’s other works have this stamp of ‘political’ expediency, and two of the most renowned songs were conceived for a Vogl pupil, the exacting Anna Milder-Hauptmann. Suleikas zweiter Gesang and Der Hirt auf dem Felsen were both written for this singer who pronounced the first Suleika song too ‘beautiful’, i.e. it did not show off enough of her technical virtuosity. In this pearls-before-swine pronouncement, we hear the voice of the ambitious career-building diva, rather than of the true musician. But the composer had admired Milder since he was a boy, and he gave her the benefit of the doubt: he duly wrote pieces for her which displayed high notes and coloratura, and in the Der Hirt auf dem Felsen we have a cantata similar to Der Kampf, where soulful depression and joy are counterpointed as cleverly as legato and staccato, high and low, fast and slow. And all calculated to bring the public to its feet at the end of the performance.

1. The opening is marked ‘Feurig’ (fiery), and this movement is an early Schubertian essay in symphonic song-writing, which is to say an on-going musical structure; the motifs of the accompaniment (here announced in the dotted rhythms of the opening, unison octaves which bounce up the stave, full of nervous energy) are developed in a symphonic way. This technique is noticeable in some of the greatest Schubert songs of the composer’s maturity (Suleika I, Der Zwerg, Die junge Nonne); here the manner in which the vocal line is carried forward by the energy and development of the accompaniment is prophetic of things to come. After eight stormy bars in, and around, D minor, the voice’s entry on an emphatic ‘Nein’ is a textbook beginning, in operatic manner. We are so swept up with the clever musical development of the motif that we do not notice a lack of a real tune per se. The whole thing is really a glorified recitative, as is much of the song. After ‘dieses Opfer nicht’ there is a spacious fermata on a G major chord. This sets up the ceremonial C major of the following section.

2. The second strophe is preceded by one of those manly gestural tunes which we associate with many of the Schiller settings, for this poet always brought out Schubert’s Beethovenian streak. This is music for the swearing of an oath, with solemn octave leaps, from high to low, in the vocal line. The chromatic rises beginning at ‘Hier ist dein Kranz’ echo a similar passage (also accompanied in dotted rhythms) in Gruppe aus dem Tartarus (also Schiller) composed a few months earlier. The words there deal with faces in hell distorted with pain; the implication here is that the singer is also undergoing self-inflicted torture. The vocal line continues to rise until, at the end of the strophe, there is a marvellous shift from F major to F sharp major at ‘und lass mich sündigen!’. There is something irresistibly sensual about this change of key, as if a monk had suddenly decided to abandon the contemplative life in favour of wine and roses.

3. The F sharp major chord is an obvious bridge to B major and a change to 3/4. The dotted rhythm prompted by the first word ‘Zerrissen’, the violent image of tearing, is prophetic of a song from 1821: the final section of Der Unglückliche, where the words ‘Zerrissen nun sind alle süssen Bande’ prompt similar sequences (this time in B minor) of rhythmic shuddering derived from the pomposo manner of Baroque oratorio. Once again the piano writing continues in the octaves between the hands established from the beginning, a familiar Schubertian metaphor for courage and determination. As this falters, a tender six-bar interlude in sighing crotchets (as if an oboe solo) melts into an arioso section: this begins with ‘Sie liebt mich’ – a phrase which stretches to a higher note on its repetition, as if to emphasise the singer’s disbelief. The composer’s response to someone who claims to be ‘drunk with ecstasy’ is to provide a waltz, the lilt provided by the single bass note in the left hand, followed by the second and third beats phrased away in the right. This sweetness is ironic – the same type of madness and disorientation illustrated by Täuschung in Winterreise. The words depicting a fall from grace – ‘den tiefen Fall’ – are set to a downward jump of a tenth, a spectacular chance for any singer with a bass voice to show off his bottom register. The final ‘verschmerzt’ actually descends to a low E, one of the few occasions in Schubert’s lieder when this note is required. Here, and throughout the song, we notice how Schubert seems to be allowing for one of Vogl’s main technical weakness: a shortness of breath. The vocal line is showered with rests which are made to work toward the overall dramatic effect. The bottom E is the last of a four-note phrase with two full crotchet rests before it; anyone who has worked with singers will know that unless one is working with someone of peerless technique, such a descent requires a full and generous preparatory breath. This passage ends in E major, and this paves the way for a change of key signature into that very tonality, and a change of tempo – Langsam.

4. And here is a melody at last! Schubert is here very ingenious in writing a bel canto tune (rather a beautiful one) where no single phrase lasts longer than two bars before a quaver rest, when the singer is able to take another breath. As always there is a literary reason for the snaking elegance of the vocal line – in this case, mention of the worm gnawing away at the flower of the singer’s youth. Here, Vogl would have been proud of his legato singing, full of Affekt and pathos, much aided by references to mention of life’s vanished springtime. This is the Italianate section of the piece, where gently gliding triplets in the accompaniment are subservient to the shaping of a moving melody. But even here, promise of a full-scale aria does not actually materialise. The triplets yield to recitative at ‘bewundert still mein heldenmütiges Entsagen’, although there is a sudden return to the tune at ‘Misstraue, schöne Seele’. This is a clever elision on the composer’s part because it disguises the beginning of the fifth strophe in a song where there are already too many divisions between the sections.

5. The mood of sinuous ruefulness lasts for one line of the strophe. Mention of military arms (‘Dein Mitleid waffnet zum Verbrechen mich’) brings those familiar dotted rhythms back – this time suggesting not so much strides and bounds as a knight on a galloping charger (cf. the accompaniment for Normanns Gesang). This emphasises that the singer feels that winning fair lady requires less of a faint heart and more daring. It is a nice touch that this jangling militarism disappears and melts into lyricism at the rhetorical question – ‘is there one thing [Schubert’s chooses to emphasise the word] more wonderful than you?’. This seems a backward glance at the poet’s threatened virtue, and the word ‘einen’ (in the phrase ‘gibt’s einen andern schönern Lohn’) is highlighted with diminished-seventh chords dallying on expressive minims emphasising both the sweetness and the anguish of the dangerous primrose path.

6. The inscription ‘Recitative’ which Schubert places for the phrase ‘das ich ewig fliehen wollte’ seems superfluous. More or less the whole song has been an exercise in accompanied recitative, including the blustering, and rather hackneyed, section accompanied by rumbling bass octaves at ‘Tyrannisches Geschick!’ which is arioso at best. It is at this point that one can get irritated with a song which is imposingly packaged but somewhat lacking in substance. Once more we notice that Schubert is always at his weakest when the poet does not pull his weight with inspiring imagery. This is the type of derring-do passage that the composer revelled in when dashing off ballads like Der Taucher, but by 1817 he is growing out of such spear-shaking and becoming more of a musical Shakespeare. A double bar-line, and a return to the D minor of the opening, announce the song’s coda, everything which Vogl might have relished in terms of an imposing finale. There are moments of subtlety: the jump of a fourth at ‘der einz’ge Lohn’ is mirrored, in canon style, in the piano’s bass octaves. In this dialogue between lust and conscience, the one stalking the other, the forte phrase is repeated quietly, the jump of a fourth this time initiated in the accompaniment. We might have expected a loud and decisive end to this scena, but apart from the two final loud chords, Schubert provides a get-out clause whereby the question is unresolved. Perhaps the tortured lover will do the ‘right thing’ after all, and not yield to temptation. The vacillating minims of the postlude, marked ‘pianissimo’, signify the internal struggle more eloquently than stormy tremolandi. One can imagine what that great old-fashioned actor Vogl would have made of these bars in terms of facial expression and by-play. He and Schubert were yet to give the first-ever lieder recitals, so it is hardly surprising that he had never been told anything about the etiquette of lieder-singing.

With Der Kampf we publish the last of Schubert’s 43 solo song-settings of Schiller, a poet whose Der Jüngling am Bache initiated Volume 1 of the Schubert Edition. Volume 16 was devoted exclusively to this poet, and accompanying it there is extensive biographical material about Schiller, and Schubert’s relationship to his work.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/40Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 34
CDJ33034Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Track 8 on CDJ33034 [5'56] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 1 on CDS44201/40 CD20 [5'56] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

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