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Die verfehlte Stunde, D409

First line:
Quälend ungestilltes Sehnen
April 1816; first published by Gotthard in 1872
author of text

In some ways this is a companion piece to the Matthisson setting Entzückung earlier on this disc. It is a better song, but it takes similar risks. In Entzückung, the tenor’s outpourings are so difficult to sing as to be almost unperformable. With Die verfehlte Stunde, his second setting of the poetry of August von Schlegel, Schubert writes one of his most demanding songs for the female voice. The singer here needs to be of a similar temperament to the tenor of Entzückung: over-the-top, especially in terms of tessitura. We are also reminded of Schubert’s ability to find a specific tone of voice for his women’s songs far from the gentle femininity favoured by, for example, Robert Schumann. Gretchen am Spinnrade had marked him out as having an extraordinary insight into female psychology; but by 1816 Schubert had also written songs for Goethe’s heroines Mignon and Klärchen, Schiller’s Thekla, Amalia and Andromache, and settings of the poetess Gabriele von Baumberg. Almost all of these are musical portraits of strong characters, passionate and decisive rather than demure.

Die verfehlte Stunde is also a portrait of a woman who knows exactly what she wants, and who is volubly articulate on the subject. The male who awaits his lover in Die Erwartung is a wimp with a limp tryst by comparison. Schlegel’s poem tell us of the heroine’s need to surrender and to be possessed, but the manner of her telling is that of an independent spirit; the text dates from 1791, the heady days of the French Revolution when women were equal citizens of a new order. The contemporary poems of Gabriele von Baumberg have a similar self-possession (Der Morgenkuss, for example). It comes as no surprise to know that Schlegel had spent a great deal of time as the literary adviser and travelling companion of the formidable Germaine de Stäel. One can imagine that Madame de Stäel in love would present a formidable challenge to the lucky gentleman of her choice. If the lover fails to materialize in Die verfehlte Stunde, it is possibly for fear of being eaten alive for breakfast.

A certain hysterical tone in the music is to blame for this, and this is because of the tessitura which screws the tension to the maximum. (The placing of the phrase ‘Nur in Träume kurzer Lust’ is particularly impractical; Schubert should have known that the word ‘nur’ on a high A flat would make him no friends among sopranos.) But the stratospheric vocal line of Die verfehlte Stunde is only one of this song’s technical challenges. The metre of the poem makes long-spanned phrases inevitable: a glance at the dense first page of music shows that there is not a rest to be seen – the singer is forced to snatch breaths between long phrases which seem to hover relentlessly in the most awkward part of the voice. And, of course, Die verfehlte Stunde requires stamina. It is a strophic song where the mounting tension of the scenario requires all four strophes to be sung. Because of this it is more than twice the length of Entzückung.

The key is F minor. This, and the pattern of the accompaniment, bring Mozart’s wonderful Das Lied der Trennung to mind. The piece is marked ‘Unruhig’. The pulsating semiquavers, nudged forward by left-hand quavers on the beat, represent the restless beating of an impatient heart. The word ‘Liebe’ is set as a descending chromatic wail which lasts no fewer than five beats. This audacity is highly effective in the first verse – much less so in the second where the word ‘und’ receives much the same treatment. Each of Schlegel’s strophes is twelve lines long; the poem seems too unwieldy for easy musical setting, and a more cautious composer would have thought twice about choosing it. But Schubert, once engaged, battles gamely on. The poet indents the last five lines of each verse, and the composer engineers a new mood and a new speed (the rarely-used marking ‘Schnell’ – ‘fast’) for this section. Although the words fit awkwardly into the musical metre, the characterization of a woman beside herself with longing is helped by the resulting dislocations of stress and symmetry. Scuttling semiquavers in A flat major (ideally descriptive of ‘Süss berauscht in Tränen’) suddenly cease for ‘Das nur stillt mein Sehnen!’. The stilling of longing stills the movement of the music itself. The vocal line is now in minims perched high in the stave and supported by sliding chromaticisms in pianissimo crotchets which temporarily take the music into the distant regions of C flat major. The repeat of these words then leads into a marvellous, and typically Schubertian, use of a chromatically decorated 6-4 cadence on the tonic at ‘Das nur stillt mein Sehnen!’. The final word is set to an expressive melisma in which an F is sung against an E flat7 chord before plunging a seventh and surfacing to return to the tonic. The eloquent four-bar postlude which concludes the song is built of feminine dreams and sighs; a submissive cadence (where we hear the ‘stillt’ 6-4 progression again in the penultimate bar) gently returns the music to A flat major.

But this has been anything but a submissive song. As far as Schubert’s nameless heroine is concerned, the gentle tenderness is a case of ‘reculer pour mieux sauter’. Another strophe looms, and more restless F minor anguish. As we have pointed out, the subsequent strophes are not as aptly illustrated by musical imagery as the first. It would be some years before Schubert mastered the art of incorporating the verbal subtleties of various strophes into the same music doing multiple service for different images. He has, however, made good use of the fact that each of Schlegel’s long strophes ends with five lines of veiled sexual imagery (ideal for those fast pulsating semiquavers in all four strophes) and that ‘Das nur stillt mein Sehnen!’ is the refrain that ends each verse. In a performance we hear this passage four times, and each time it sounds extraordinarily modern and inventive. If Die verfehlte Stunde cannot be counted one of the great songs, it is clearly by a great composer. It is surely forgivable that his youthful enthusiasm, and his identification with a text of unfulfilled longing, should have led him to ask his singer to live dangerously, and at the limits of vocal practicability.

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. 32
CDJ33032Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Track 18 on CDJ33032 [5'05] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 20 on CDS44201/40 CD13 [5'05] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

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