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An die Sonne, D439

First line:
O Sonne, Königin der Welt
June 1816; first published by Gotthard in 1872
author of text

In comparison to the quartet for men’s voices (TTBB), the quartet for soprano, alto, tenor and bass is a rarer Schubertian species. From early in his career Schubert had composed for this line-up religious music with orchestra, but piano-accompanied quartets for mixed voices were another matter. In Metternich’s Vienna, women did not mix as freely in male company, especially in public meeting places and inns. It is therefore no surprise that an evening of quartet-singing in Schubert’s time was largely a male affair, a bachelors’ night out. This camaraderie remained a strong tradition in Vienna and elsewhere, but it was nothing to do with family life and music-making in the drawing-room. Years later, the vocal quartets of Schumann and Brahms reflected the middle-class domesticity of a cosier era; married love is the theme of Schumann’s Minnespiel cycle, and Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer were the rage with Vienna’s cultivated bourgeoisie. There is something about this music which suggests a combination of Schubertian melody with the plush of late nineteenth-century life.

Schubert, of course, knew nothing of Schumann and Brahms. But Haydn’s little-known quartets for SATB and piano must have impressed him. Composed in 1799, these are among Haydn’s later creations: profound, humorous, philosophical, even self-deprecating (as in Der Greis, where he paints himself, tongue-in-cheek, old and weak, but still witty enough to have the music engraved on his calling-card). Schubert could not have failed to be delighted by this combination of musical grandeur and personal intimacy. Haydn, master of quartets of every kind, took the form as an ideal vehicle for the statements of his last years, whether philosophical in a light-hearted way, or God-fearing (texts from poets like Lessing, Gleim and Gellert). It is perhaps for this reason that Schubert’s SATB quartets are largely (though not always) works with metaphysical overtones. This is certainly the case with An die Sonne, where the deliberately Baroque musical style matches the eighteenth-century text of Haydn’s contemporary, the devout Johann Uz.

Haydn’s influence figures here in another important way. He had been astounded by performances of Handel’s oratorios in England, and had returned to Vienna with the inspiration to write an oratorio of his own – that great work of his late years, Die Schöpfung (The Creation). This, in turn, was a seminal work for Schubert; its influence (especially concerning musical motifs to do with moon, stars and so on) can be detected in the illustrative details of a large number of the younger composer’s vocal works, including An die Sonne. This quartet, and others like it, owes a great deal to Haydn’s example in more than one respect.

The teasing and charming intimacy of a work like Naturgenuss is not to be found on this broader canvas. If the Schubertian ballad was ‘opera in the home’, this is ‘home-made oratorio’. Indeed, one is surprised that the accompaniment of An die Sonne is as pianistic as it is; it could, at a pinch, work with organ accompaniment, but the percussive nature of the piano is built into the music’s grandeur. The opening solemn invocation to the sun in F major is introduced by the double-dotted rhythms which are taken up by the singers paired, according to sex, antiphonally. In contrast, at ‘erhellt, in lichter Majestät’ (where the music modulates into C major, the tonality Haydn used to signify the creation of light) soprano and tenor sing together, followed imitatively by alto and bass. This is typical of the fluidity of this music; ingenious part-writing varies the texture as imposing block harmonies alternate with linear counterpoint. At the end of the first verse, and at the close, the piano writing pulsates in syncopated quavers between the hands at ‘Und Sterne hingesät’ – an early attempt to depict the electrical energy of the stars in the heavens. We have to wait until 1827, and the accompaniment to the Leitner setting Die Sterne, to hear a more developed version of this idea twinkling humorously in dactylic rhythm.

The words of the second verse are heard twice, the first time in conventional pomposo style in dotted rhythms, relieved by a delightful little piano interjection in triplets after ‘Im Wald’ as if the composer has imagined the distant sound of hunting-horns in the forest. When we hear ‘Noch heute seh’ ich deinen Glanz’ for the second time, Schubert allows himself the more personal, conversational tone implied by the word ‘ich’. In gently layered solo lines the individual characteristics of the voices are allowed to shine briefly; all is here simple, sweet goodness in the manner of Haydn. The rise of a semitone in the bass line at the final ‘Der Vögel buntgefiedert Heer’ (from F to G flat) introduces a note of wonder, as if the singer were watching nature with curiosity and awe. This passage sets up a modulation into G flat major.

It is in the poem’s third verse, and in tonal regions far away from the home key, that we find the most exceptional music of the piece, and certainly the most Schubertian. This reminds us that this composer was a contemporary of the budding Romantic movement, and of neither Haydn nor Uz. The vocal line, marked ‘pianissimo’, has the four singers breathing as one: ‘Ich fühle, ich fühle, dass ich sterblich bin’. This is far removed from horror, threat of hellfire, and dry-as-dust renunciation. Instead we hear something nearer to the music for a sensually swooning Ganymede, floating heavenwards as he asks ‘Wohin, wohin?’. The piano writing in flowing quavers is similar to that which accompanies the shepherd boy’s ascent to Olympus. Apart from Ganymed, the mood of this music also prophesies the Novalis setting Nachthymne where the prospect of death is also addressed in ecstatic, rather than fearful, terms.

At ‘Wer weiss, wie unerwartet bald’ the return of dotted rhythms implies the majesty of the Last Judgement. The hushed unisons of ‘Komm wieder in den Staub!’ are typical of Schubert’s response to music of the grave (the stentorian and frightening men’s chorus Grab und Mond of 1826 comes to mind). The third strophe is now repeated. ‘Ich fühle, ich fühle, dass ich sterblich bin’ returns with the same melody, but this time in D flat major and with a simplified accompaniment. The words ‘welkt wie Gras dahin’ are now heard as a solo for the bass. The dotted rhythms of ‘Wer weiss, wie unerwartet bald’ are set to music a semitone lower than before – Schubert’s tonal juggling to ensure that ‘Komm wieder in den Staub!’ comes to a close in C major. This, in turn, ensures a strong return to the F major of the opening. The work closes with a 24-bar repeat of the opening pages. The quartet is thus framed by two identical musical pillars, as if the sun were solemnly greeted at both dawn and dusk. The inventive music which lies between these two poles has been substantial enough to make this reprise seem inevitable and satisfying.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1999


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