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Klaglied, D23

First line:
Meine Ruh’ ist dahin
first published by Josef Czerny in Vienna in 1830 as Op posth 131
author of text

Nestling among the long ballads and the exercises, this jewel of a song is encountered with that frisson which is experienced by the song sleuth who can recognise a quintessentially Schubertian creation at a glance. The first thing to notice about it is that the opening words seem familiar: ‘Meine Ruh ist dahin, meine Freud ist entflohn’. Any Schubert lover will connect that phrase to Goethe’s ‘Meine Ruh ist hin, mein Herz ist schwer’. Of course this is Rochlitz’s re-working of Gretchen’s lament at her spinning-wheel, and it is meant as his homage to the already venerable poet whose Faust lyrics (first published in 1808) were well on the way to working themselves so deeply into the German consciousness that they acquired the status of folksong. It seems certain, however, that Schubert got to know the imitation before the ‘real thing’ – Gretchen am Spinnrade, the song which would place his songs on the world map, dates from October 1814 – and there was still a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of books to read, between D23 and D118.

One can, of course, hear the Italianate influence in this music, the result of long hours of exercises in the Salieri gym, work which has made these shapely vocal lines both muscular and flexible. The opening seems culled from the middle of a vocal score of an opera, the statutory two bars played as an introduction by the repetiteur before an audition excerpt. And then that florid little melisma on ‘Meine Ruh’ which brings to a German lyric the temperamental flourish of Italian ornamentation. We will notice the use of this device once again at the beginning of one of the earliest Goethe settings, Nachtgesang D119 of 1814. The accompaniment – a crotchet in the left hand followed by two anonymous quavers – gently nurses and nudges the vocal line along in the best tradition of the solicitous opera conductor. In some ways this is an Italian aria in all but name but, because the language is German, other influences come into sway: the Teutonic strength of the consonants gives the music a word-allied seriousness, a grandeur that the young Schubert can only achieve in his own language. At ‘in dem Säuseln der Lüfte’ the Bewegung of the accompaniment quickens into semiquavers, and the vocal line, singing of the breezes, floats above it with a heartbreaking little fragment of tune which seems imprinted on the memory from somewhere else. Where have we heard it – or something very like it – before? If you recall the cello melody at the opening of Schubert’s Piano Trio in B flat major (the third and fourth bar of that heart-stopping solo) you will detect the same creative hand. But if we go forward in this way to Schubert’s future, we can equally visit his past: in Lebenstraum D39, composed when Schubert was only thirteen, we have heard something similar on the phrase ‘Kein Lüftchen wehte’. The interrupted cadence on the first ‘Klageton’ followed by a clinching repeat of the strophe’s last line is also pure Schubert.

For a long while this was known as ‘Schubert’s first song’, and this rubric graces one of the contemporary manuscript copies. It is certainly not Schubert’s first vocal composition (the two Lebenstraum settings share that honour, and after them we have a number of ballads which jostle for chronological precedence). Mandyczewski preferred to think of Der Jüngling am Bache D30, a charming little Mozartian scena, and part pastiche, as Schubert’s first song creation, pur sang. But quite apart from the dates (D30 was written in September 1812 and this song could well have dated from earlier in the same year) one knows what the composer’s friends meant when they thought of Klaglied as the first Schubert song: it has an eloquent seriousness that defies analysis, and an emotional depth disproportionate to its length; and it is cast in the strophic mould, the traditional form for German Lieder (although words from later verses fit the music with difficulty). Above all, the song works a magic which is particularly Schubertian: these long-arched vocal lines have a way of stretching time and making it stand still; as in all the best of his songs, no matter how turbulent, there is a sense of a moment made immortal and held within a vast inner stillness – that heavenly cupola which encompasses Schubert’s fathomless creative span.

It is curious, and wonderful, how such a youngster of fifteen is able to identify so deeply with the emotional plight of a woman. Even earlier he had set part of a long poem, Lebenstraum, by Gabriele von Baumberg which recounted the story of her struggle for artistic independence. The first ballad Hagars Klage recounts the plight of a mother in the desert, and of course the first really famous lied, Gretchen am Spinnrade, reveals the psychical despair of a woman in trouble like no piano-accompanied song before it. Schubert had written Lebenstraum as a result of his own ambitions to dedicate his life to music; Hagars Klage, Leichenfantasie and Der Vatermörder seem clearly related to the composer’s own difficult relationship with his father. In this period of his life it is clear that his textual choices were subjective: he needed his songs to speak for him; they were worthy of the depth of his feelings in a way that none of his own words could match. Is Klaglied a song that similarly speaks for Schubert’s own state of mind? If so, as we listen to this lonely and bereft music, we can only guess at the pains, and perhaps passions, of the composer’s adolescence.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1999


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/40Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 33
CDJ33033Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Track 7 on CDJ33033 [2'28] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 6 on CDS44201/40 CD2 [2'28] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

Track-specific metadata for CDJ33033 track 7

Recording date
25 December 1999
Recording venue
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Martin Compton
Recording engineer
Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 33 (CDJ33033)
    Disc 1 Track 7
    Release date: September 1999
    Deletion date: May 2009
    Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
  2. Schubert: The Complete Songs (CDS44201/40)
    Disc 2 Track 6
    Release date: October 2005
    Deletion date: July 2021
    Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
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