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Geheimes, D719

First line:
Über meines Liebchens Äugeln
March 1821; published in December 1822 as Op 14 No 2
author of text

The enchanting elegance of this little song make it one of the jewels of the repertoire, and it has a beautiful and ingratiating vocal melody. But so strong is the character of the accompaniment—which is made up of repetitions of a single rhythmical idea—that it is the piano writing which is undoubtedly the song’s most memorable feature. A crotchet chord is phrased away to a quaver, followed by a quaver rest—a wilting little figure on tiptoe which is secretive, cheeky, full of longing, like the inward groan of a frustrated lover who can scarcely wait for the next time. This music is as suggestive as a wink, and as delicate as a blush. In it we hear not only the singer’s feelings; we are also somehow able to see his lover’s coquettish responses. This figure governs all but five bars. The people who dislike this song (and I have known people who, to my annoyance, laugh out loud at Peter Pears’ recording of it) do so on the grounds that the constant repetition of the motif, and what can easily be an all-too-exquisite and over-phrased response from the singer, can, on occasion, make for cloying preciousness. Of course much depends on the performance, but it is true that these constantly repeated little sighs are a daring notion on Schubert’s part: seldom in an accompaniment does he milk a single idea with such determination. It takes some nerve on the part of the pianist to observe the phrasing and all those rests, again and again; it also takes a great control of touch at the keyboard to make the diminuendo effective in each bar as the crotchet falls to the quaver. The pianist feels that he is walking a tightrope on points, and the danger is a fall into parody, where this music can be made to echo with all the worst mannerisms of ‘arty’ Lieder-performance.

Of course we should not be embarrassed by this borderline flirtation with archness, for it is possible to carry off this song by negotiating that danger with the help of good legato singing. The more one looks into this song, the more one admires it, for the word-setting alone is a miracle of inventiveness. The special accentuation of ‘meines’ in the second bar implies a proprietary pride; the ache of ‘Liebchens’ is conveyed by a longer note which falls into a graceful quaver descent for the word ‘Äugeln’ which perfectly paints the vivacity of her glance, with a flutter of the eyelashes perhaps. The upward rise on ‘Stehn verwundert’ makes everyone else stand on tiptoe in their admiration for those legendary eyes. The word ‘Ich’ is separated from the rest of the phrase (‘der Wissende, dagegen’) with a crotchet rest; this conveys either a sharp intake of breath from a besotted courtier, or the swagger of satisfaction from someone who knows himself to be the preferred one. (Both interpretations can be successfully encompassed by singers of different temperament.) At the major/minor alternation of the repeated phrase ‘Weiss recht gut’ another song in A flat major comes to mind, also of Oriental inspiration—Lachen und Weinen from the summer of 1822. As in that song, Geheimes is another textbook example of Schubert’s creative use of the juxtaposition of bright and dark harmonic mood: the change into the minor seems to mean a frown of concentration as the singer carefully scans the face of his inamorata the better to read the meaning of her glance. The momentary shift into A flat minor is nothing to do with sadness: the flattening of the third degree of the scale implies something which goes deeper, as in a search for greater understanding. The melismatic second setting of ‘bedeute’ is a curvaceous turn of phrase, which seems emblematic of secrecy and covert romantic activity, pregnant with hidden meanings. At ‘Denn es heisst: ich liebe diesen Und nicht etwa den und jenen’ there is another alternation of major and minor tonalities, this time between E flat major and minor—‘I love this one’ (major-key radiance) ‘not that one!’ (minor-key disdain).

As in Versunken and Ganymed, two other settings of erotic texts by Goethe in the key of A flat, there is Schubert’s favourite excursion into C flat major in the middle section (at ‘Lasset nur, ihr guten Leute, Euer Wundern, euer Sehnen!’). On this occasion the modulation betokens an aside in which the singer inwardly challenges and mocks the curious onlooker as he notices the futile glances of longing directed towards someone whom he knows belongs to him. The return to A flat (the musical recapitulation at the words ‘Ja, mit ungeheuren Mächten’) is engineered by an astonishingly simple, yet divinely beautiful, chain of chords under the elongated setting of ‘Sehnen’. This seems simultaneously to paint the meaning of the word, and cheekily to mock the longing of the outsider who can never hope to experience such a love as this. There is another major/minor juxtaposition with the repeated phrase ‘Ihm die nächste süsse Stunde’. The C flat on the second ‘Ihm’ emphasises a sense of mystery about the identity of the secret ‘him’; he is of course the singer himself, but no one knows this. The elongation of the second ‘nächste’ is also masterful, for it implies the bittersweet agony of waiting for that happy hour when the two can be alone together at last. Fischer-Dieskau notes a similarity between this musical phrase and one of Florestan’s lines from Beethoven’s Fidelio—‘Ist das Glück von mir gefloh’n’. Schubert’s phrase is about the prospect of future bliss; Beethoven’s about a happiness that is lost for ever. What these phrases have in common is that both composers are illustrating love imagined and longed-for, whether the outcome is likely to be successful or hopeless.

Schubert seems to have thought himself into the Oriental background of a seraglio. Perhaps the young suitor is dallying with the Sultan’s wife and there is danger that they might be discovered. Despite the protagonist’s boasts to us, the privileged listeners and his confidants, the relationship is a thing of discretion and secrecy. Seldom has a song been truer to its title. The added frisson of forbidden love is heard everywhere as the constantly-repeated motif in the accompaniment engenders a type of tension, as if the breath is held while playing it. At the heart of this song is the confession of a liaison unknown to others, and one can only think of how many times this state of affairs existed among the young inhabitants of Schubert’s Vienna. It may not be surprising then that the song was dedicated to perhaps the most romantically active member of the composer’s circle, Franz von Schober. Schubert lavished on his friend the dedication of these Opus 14 songs, the heavenly Suleika I and Geheimes, two of his greatest romantic songs, both with erotic overtones. There is no other example of a song of this intensity being dedicated to any of the composer’s other male friends. When the songs were being prepared for publication, the composer was staying with Schober, was much in his company, and had earlier completed the opera Alfonso und Estrella to his friend’s libretto. At the very least, the dedication of these particular songs shows an enormous complicity between the friends, as if Schubert knew all the details of Schober’s private life, and enjoyed being his confidant. If there was a phase at which friendship between composer and poet became physically intimate (which would almost certainly have been hidden from the rest of the circle), the dedication of these two songs would be even more significant. The first Suleika song is about the essence of love itself (‘Ach, die wahre Herzenskunde’); and the covert selection of ‘diesen Und nicht etwa den und jenen’, as in Geheimes, depicts a situation where intimacy can only be expressed in public by fleeting eye-contact, and an exchange of glances which no one else understands.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997


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