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Schatzgräbers Begehr, D761

First line:
In tiefster Erde ruht ein alt Gesetz
November 1822; published by Sauer und Leidesdorf in August 1823 as Op 23 No 4
author of text

Most of the commentators are agreed that this is an unusual song, and this is because of the poet – Capell is frank in apportioning the blame: ‘All that invalidates it is something puerile in Schober’s intention – something would-be bloodcurdling and grotesque …’ But there also seems to be some hidden agenda in these stanzas which, though fairly typical of their time (Eichendorff was to write his own Der Schatzgräber where a treasure-seeker digs his own grave) seem aimed at a specific audience. The likelihood is that the poem was written in anger and self-pity as a type of rebuttal. We have no way of knowing how far in advance of the music the words were written, but if they date from earlier in 1822 they would be contemporary with the composition of Alfonso und Estrella, the most substantial collaboration between Schubert and Schober. The composer and his librettist were deeply enthusiastic about their prospects of creating together a large work for the theatre, despite the fact that Domenico Barbaja had taken over the opera house. They were, in fact, strung along by the Italian’s wily political manoeuvres (not wanting to enrage the German opera partisans, he had half promised that a new opera from Schubert would be considered) but the two young men seem to have rushed into the project where angels might have feared to tread.

In later years Schober more or less admitted that the libretto was a botched job, and that he was responsible for the work’s failure. The opera, full of beautiful music, lacks any sense of ongoing drama and has languished ever since. The person who was convinced from the start that the whole project was wrong-headed and ill-conceived was the singer Johann Vogl, the most experienced of all Schubert’s friends in the world of opera. ‘You are wasting your time’, he had more or less said, no doubt loftily and patronisingly, and Schober no doubt replied with something along the lines of ‘Nothing venture, nothing gain’. The pair of young creators seem to have been fired by an ambitious enthusiasm to get on with something mighty. We have seen how this was the period, the year before his illness, when Schubert thought himself capable of great things, feeling certain that nothing could stop him. This poem defends the position of the aspiring artist as something glorious and avers that the metaphorical search for treasure, even unto death, is as fulfilling in itself as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The poem has a slightly makeshift and defensive air as if it were aimed at unsympathetic ears. The use of the words ‘ihr Lieben’ in the last strophe makes it seem that the entire Freundeskreis had grumbled about the new project, and that that the poem was meant as a general explanation and apologia on behalf of both poet and composer. In fact it was probably Vogl who scotched whatever chance the opera had of a hearing, and one cannot help wonder whether vanity, pride, and the singer’s jealousy of the composer’s closeness to Schober played as much of a part in this as musical perspicacity. (Even if this poem was composed to fit a certain situation, Schober retained it in the volume of verse he published in 1842, a collection which notably excludes An die Musik, no doubt because that poem was plagiarised from Schulze’s Die bezauberte Rose.)

The song itself may not be Schubert’s most distinguished in its own right but, appropriate to its name, it is a veritable treasure-trove of ideas for future use and recycling. (In the same way, it must be admitted, much of Alfonso und Estrella is musically marvellous, whatever its other failings.) In Volume 4 of the Peter’s Edition, Friedländer, surely to prove a point, places Schatzgräbers Begehr next to the Schiller setting Der Pilgrim, which is a near relative of this piece. That much greater poem is similar enough to suggest that Schober knew it. It is also about the striving of a soul after truth and understanding, but Schubert’s treatment of it (1823) with the restless striding left-hand bass octaves in the old Baroque manner, and the texture of a chorale with richly woven inner voices, stems from the workbench where Schatzgräbers Begehr has been hammered into shape. And of course the key of D minor/major (interchangeable with D major/minor) had been a sign of the travelling quest for some time in Schubert’s song-writing syntax – as early as the composition of Goethe’s Der Schatzgräber in 1815. The solemn Der Kreuzzug from 1827 is another such song, as is Gute Nacht of course. Indeed, this opening song from Winterreise joins hands with Schatzgräbers Begehr, both in its tonality and tempo marking: Schubert marks the Schober setting ‘Gehend’, and the initial marking for Gute Nacht was ‘Mässig, in gehender Bewegung’. The winter traveller sets out in the dead of night on an impossible mission of self-discovery under adverse circumstances – he is as doomed as the equally determined Schober the librettist, but at least he has the consolation of knowing that the work in which he finds himself will be heard more often than Alfonso und Estrella. There is a magical, and crucial, change from D minor to D major towards the end of both songs. Other works which derive indirectly from the restless harmonic burrowings of Schatzgräbers Begehr are Totengräbers Heimweh, and Totengräberweise.

The solemn walking mood is established right at the beginning, the melody a manly chorale, with most of the struggle implied in the piano writing where both hands delve into the bass clef as if in the act of digging and peering at the ground, the occasional semiquavers running through the fingers like earth sifted and scrutinised to no purpose. We move into the major key for the lure of the golden net of earthly temptation, and the judgmental tone of ‘Du wirst die Müh’ und Zeit umsonst verlieren’ suggests the finger-wagging of unimaginative pedantry as it sticks largely to one note. But the poet gives as good as he gets, and his riposte (‘Das soll mich nicht in meiner Arbeit irren’) is equally obstinate, and also centred around a single note a fourth higher – as if parodying and mocking the tone of his accuser. The rising sequence for the two ‘Ich grabe glühend fort’ phrases turns the screw of tension and suggests the tenacity of the fanatic. The third strophe is a moment of unexpected calm. Acceptance of fate is suggested by the gentle undulations of B flat 7 under the vocal line, an indeterminate sea of cloudy harmony. This passage progresses through a sequence of dreaming flat keys until G flat major turns into F sharp minor, and the wistful fantasy of repose returns to a more active mood as the voice plunges an octave to illustrate ‘Ich steige gern hinab’.

The final strophe can be most affecting in performance, although the message is ‘Let me carry on with my own life. If I dig my own grave, so be it!’ Here the music is at its most demanding for the singer with a mezza voce line at the top of the stave as earthbound cares give way to a longing for the peace of the grave. There is an air of self-indulgent bathos to these lines suggesting that the unsuccessful artist is somehow a martyr to be admired as much as the successful one (Schober covers himself on all fronts). This brings to mind the posturing of some of Todesmusik already remarked upon earlier in this commentary. Even Schubert’s great genius, and his loyal enthusiasm for his friend’s portentous utterances, cannot quite alleviate the base metal of this rhetoric and turn it into unalloyed gold. The open fifth of the last bar of the postlude suggests a bleak and empty end to a career of fruitless striving. The whole of Schober’s life – as unsuccessful businessman, bad actor, dud librettist, social sponge and assistant to Liszt in Weimar (he thus attached himself to the coat-tails of another great musician) – seemed to be a defence of the concept of ‘mediocrity with honour’. But Schubert loved him and, in trying to understand why, we should try to see the best of him – good-looking, charming, diverting, energetic, sexually magnetic and, above all, deeply musical.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997


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