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Dem Unendlichen, D291 Second version

First line:
Wie erhebt sich das Herz, wenn es dich
c1815; first published in April 1831 as No 1 of volume 10 of the Nachlass
author of text

We know that Schubert admired the Klopstock odes; he attempted to write one of his own in the poet's high-flown manner sometime in 1813, but the manuscript is now lost. Even today it is hard to resist the grandeur and eloquence of the style when Klopstock is on a 'roll', a word as suitable for his writing as for the imposing vibrations of a clap of thunder. He was one of the earliest poets (in terms of historical chronology) whom Schubert was to set with relative frequency; Klopstock's old-fashioned language seems ideally suited to his subject matter which, with the exception of some exquisite love lyrics, is largely religious or historical (cf the Teutonic ballad Hermann und Thusnelda). Pyrker was indebted to him, of course, as were numerous other poets of a later generation who composed on religious or patriotic themes.

The song seems to require delivery from the pulpit, so closely does it simulate the fiery oratory of an inspired preacher. We perform here the second version (which begins in Fmajor) rather than the third version which begins in G major. There is some likelihood that the third version represents the composer's final thoughts; but the song recorded here is the version familiar to most singers through the Peters Edition, and the most often heard in recital. In actual fact the variations between versions are scarcely discernible to the average listener. There is a crucial, yet small, modulation in the opening recitative, and this is the major difference; the main body of the song, the long paean of praise to God in E flat major, is essentially the same in all versions, although there are some alterations to the layout of the accompaniment.

The music begins with dotted rhythms in the style of Handel, a dotted quaver in the bass followed by the reverberation of fanfare-like demisemiquavers—the first grounded in the earth, the second aspiring to heaven. There are two such flourishes, and then, as if an idea were gathering force and conviction, they spread like wildfire across the stave, the original dotted-quaver fanfares spawning chords in dotted semiquavers which almost convulsively traverse the keyboard in ecstatic proclamation. We land on a C major semibreve, and the voice, alone and unfettered by accompaniment, begins with 'Wie erhebt sich das Herz'. This is a style of which the eighteen-year-old Schubert is already master—recitative which is also imbued with the outlines of memorable melody. The upward gaze to heaven is then mirrored by a glance downwards on the inadequacies of man, as if from above. The piano's fanfares in the middle of the keyboard are more muted, and the vocal line is also pulled downward into the chest register by the imagery of night and death. The four-bar piano interlude with its ceremonial mezzo staccato quavers consists of a sequential flourish heard in three different registers. These phrases seem to ponder mortality with a heavy heart; this is music reminiscent of the deathbed musings of Verklärung, a setting of a Pope translation and one of the exceptional songs of 1814.

The recitative continues ('Allein du rufst mich aus meiner Nacht') and, true to the meaning of the words, the music begins once more to struggle towards the source of heavenly light. The voice is supported by the piano at crucial points. This succession of phrases is remarkable for superb word-setthing living is created before our very eyes. Suddenly the basses slide down a third and we emerge into the sunshine of Cmajor, the elemental key which suggests the brightness of the Creation itself. We remain there just long enough to look God in the face for an off-beat setting of 'Herrlicher!' which plunges an octave between the first and second syllables, and then the voice is launched into one of the most remarkable passages of recitative in the composer's whole output. Goodness knows how on earth (or heaven) Schubert brings this off! The depth of 'Grab' ('grave') and the height of 'Tron' ('throne') are pointedly contrasted, yet all within the extraordinary power of a vocal line which shines a spotlight on the heavens so wide-ranging that it seems in danger of blowing a fuse and spinning out of control. The voice goes on a high, starry walkabout, but it is the piano which holds the reins of power. We hardly notice the inexorable rise of the accompaniment's basses (a long progression from low F to B flat in semitones) but it is the tension generated by this slow ascent deep in the heart of the music which makes the launch into the next section so thrilling. The vocal plunge into the new E flat aria ('den dankend entflammt kein Jubel genug besingt!') is supported by a ringing B flat 7 chord; the arrival of the spinning E flat major sextuplets of the new section seems as inevitable as the turning of the world, or the progression of the seasons.

In all of Schubert's songs which are divided into recitative and aria there could never have been a more effective build-up to a ringing peroration. And the aria itself (marked 'Langsam, mit aller Kraft') does not disappoint. This is mighty music, painted with a generously broad brush, and it is foolish to suppose that any but a large voice can really do it justice. Schubert must have had in mind a substantially-voiced singer like Anna Milder, whom he had earlier heard in the great Gluck operas. Dem Undenlichen would certainly have been beyond the powers of Therese Grob, the soprano in Lichtental parish church choir and, it is said, the earliest object of Schubert's affections.

Throughout this hymn to the Creator the right hand is engaged in flowing sextuplets. With typical Schubertian ingenuity these represent, all at the same time, the wind-blown undulations of the branches of the trees of life, the arpeggios of sacred harps, and the rustling of crystal streams. When we connect the music associated with this last image with one of Schubert's most famous songs, we hear a powerful pre-echo of the brook music for Wohin? in Die schöne Müllerin—particularly at the words 'Ihr lispelt und rauscht' with the diminished-chord harmony suggesting something secret and confidential. The right hand, however, is relatively unimportant in this music; the source of its imposing grandeur lies in the glorious interplay between the majestic vocal line and the left-hand octaves. These variously thunder and resound, definitely more in the trombone register than that of the 'choir of trumpets' suggested by the translation. The German word 'Posaune' covers both: 'trumpets' seems more elegant in English, but surely Schubert had the larger instrument in mind, bearing in mind that trombones were commonly heard in Vienna at the graveside equali of burial services.

At the end of the third strophe the word 'Gott' stops the music in its tracks, as if in awe and veneration. The sextuplets cease. As the singer holds on to the word for nearly three beats on an E flat, the piano shifts from chords of E flat major to C minor to A flat major, each of these represented by a single sforzato crotchet. This surely represents three ways of looking at God- a trinity of viewpoints. This is the only time this happens in the song. At the end of the phrase 'den ihr preist!' the sextuplets resume and the voice traverses an octave, finishing on a stentorian low B flat.

The final two strophes recycle and develop the music already heard, with subtle changes of tonal emphasis and tessitura which ensure that there is an overwhelming sense of climbing excitement and fervour, and that the final vocal cadence ends in the tonic of E flat major rather than B flat. Settings of the word 'Gott' on the song's final page are a subtle succession of rising notes of ever-increasing intensity: first a simple minim, then a crotchet tied over the bar line with a semitone ascent only on the last quaver; then a high G flat which seems poised to shine for ever in the heavens. This is, in fact, only a minim tied to a dotted quaver, with the two final words 'ist es' brilliantly added when one thinks that the singer must be nearly out of breath. The effect is of a gush of dizzying emotion such as someone speaking in tongues might experience. Everything about this great song is extraordinary. It blazes with such inner fire and fervour (it is a mistake for performers to conceive this music as simply overwhelmingly loud) that taken on its own it would be evidence enough of the composer's passionate belief in God and all his works. But knowing Schubert's enormous gift for empathy with his poets it could also be seen as a portrait of Klopstock's own convictions, a tribute to the Messianic faith of an earlier epoch.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1998


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