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Totengräberlied, D44

First line:
Grabe, Spaten, grabe!
first published in 1894 in series 20 of the Gesamtausgabe, Leipzig
author of text

One cannot say that with this song a great German poet joins Schubert’s work-list for the first time. This would be to ignore the Schiller settings Leichenfantasie and Der Jüngling am Bache. But after the likes of Baumberg, Schücking, Pfeffel and Rochlitz it is time for other mainstream literary figures to join the Schubertian throng. The first of these had been Friedrich von Matthisson, but the two ‘gothic horror’ settings of 1812 (Der Geistertanz) were not typical of the composer’s later relationship with that poet. In Hölty, a collaboration initiated by Totengräberlied, we have a great eighteenth-century poet to whom Schubert was to return some twenty-two times. Among these settings of charm and freshness (for there is a certain Arcadian flavour to Hölty in which Schubert delights) are a handful of masterpieces.

If this is not one of them, it marks the beginning of the composer’s fascination with what might be termed songs of the working people. These musical vignettes take us beyond Vienna’s drawing-rooms and palaces and spirit us into the Shakespearean world of homespun philosophers, naïve and poor by the standards of their masters, but wiser by far in their down-to-earth appreciation of life’s truths, and the lessons to be drawn from simple observation. The following list of Schubert’s ‘occupational’ songs includes shepherds, a nurse, hunters, a street-hawker, a carpenter, fishermen, a ploughman, a goldsmith and various gravediggers. It includes neither the drinking songs and war songs which are also full of philosophical viewpoints, nor the various songs which reflect on life without letting us know the trade or occupation of the singer.

Schäfers Klagelied (Goethe) D121 (1814)
Ammenlied (Lubi) D122 (1814)
Jägers Abendlied (Goethe) D215 (1815)
Wer kauft Liebesgötter (Goethe) D261 (1815)
Tischlerlied (unknown) D274 (1815)
Fischerlied (Salis-Seewis) D351 (1816)
Jägers Abendlied (Goethe) D368 (1816)
Pflügerlied (Salis-Seewis) D392 (1816)
Der Hirt (Mayrhofer) D490 (1816)
Der Alpenjäger (Mayrhofer) D524 (1817)
Wie Ulfru fischt (Mayrhofer) D525 (1817)
Der Schiffer (Mayrhofer) D536 (1817?)
Der Goldschmiedsgesell (Goethe) D560 (1817)
Fischerlied (Salis-Seewis) D562 (1817)
Der Schiffer (Schlegel) D694 (1820)
Totengräbersheimweh D842 (1825)
Totengräberweise D869 (1826)
Fischerweise (Schlechta) D881 (1826)
Jägers Liebeslied (Schober) D909

This list of songs mirrors contemporary literary preoccupations with the extraordinary qualities of ordinary people (a lesson that Goethe learned from Shakespeare, and one of the offshoots of the romantic age in literature which survives in our own time with docu-soaps). From the musical point of view we know that the young Schubert was a fan of such Viennese composers of popular operas as Joseph Weigl (1766-1846), but these were still considered high-class music. Apart from the example of Singspiele, Schubert no doubt picked up countless popular ditties sung on the Viennese street-corners by folk-singers, the so-called Bänkelsänger. These works depicting (as described by a contemporary witness) ‘the illustrated presentation of all the ages of man, the wicked world, the man who is beaten by his wife, and vice versa, a microscopic enlargement of the flea, and such’ were printed as broadsides and hawked on the streets.

It is clear from all this that in composing this song of the merry gravedigger – a living oxymoron perhaps, but no fool – the influence of such people as Salieri and Zumsteeg were far from the young composer’s mind. The soulful first setting for unaccompanied male voice trio (D38) has something of the Metastasio exercises about it, but in this solo setting we find Schubert on a day off – not the same as an off-day. The opening refrain (‘Grabe, Spaten, grabe!’) is addressed to the spade, tool of the protagonist’s trade. It was the composer’s idea to separate the first line from the rest of the poem with an exclamation mark, thus setting-up the opening six-note flourish, wide-ranging and marked ‘ad libitum’. Appropriately, the tessitura digs deep into the bass clef. This is in fact a witty touch because it leads us to expect a different type of song. We are rather surprised that this moment of E minor gloom is peremptorily banished and followed by a ditty marked ‘Allegro con moto’.

We are used to gravedigger’s songs of plaintive intensity (Totengräbers Heimweh and Totengräberweise are masterpieces of later years) but here gnashing of teeth and wailing are banished unless it may be said that this man is having a wail of a time turning over his gruesome spoils. The first verse finishes in G major with chirrupy flourishes in the piano part, for all the world as if this occupation was no more sinister than that of Papageno the birdcatcher. The second verse begins in C major and shifts into A minor after three lines. The corpses are obviously buried in different spots and this change of key perfectly maps the geography of the graveyard and the fact that the gravedigger has to move around his patch to show us his buried treasure. The interlude after this strophe includes three loud octave Cs, deep in the bass, as if a spade were suddenly striking bone. With the third verse we encounter erstwhile feminine charms, and this initiates an ingratiating accompaniment in oh-so-refined semiquavers. Irony there is here certainly, but in the relish of the setting, perhaps a hint of misogyny. This verse ends with the words ‘Gafften sich halb blind’. In the following interlude, it is fascinating for the Schubertian to identify a pre-echo of the accompaniment of a masterpiece from 1825, Der blinde Knabe. Here we find similarly-phrased exploratory semiquavers in the right hand, and the same staccato quavers in the left, as if a blind man’s stick were tapping along the pavement. The final strophe is an exact repetition of the first, including the E minor ‘ad libitum’ invocation, and with the addition of a few extra bars of semiquavers at the end. In these G major gruppetti preceded by grace notes we hear another 1825 song prophesied – this time Der Einsame. This motif, rather like a quiet chuckle, reflects the contentment of someone extremely happy with his lot.

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 12 on CDJ33033 [2'25] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 16 on CDS44201/40 CD2 [2'25] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

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