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Morgenlied, D685

First line:
Eh’ die Sonne früh aufersteht
published by Cappi und Diabelli in May 1821 as Op 4 No 2
author of text

It is likely that Schubert encountered the poet and Redemptorist cleric Werner in the salon of Karoline Pichler. The original key of this setting is A minor with contrasting episodes in A major, similar to the almost contemporary Die Götter Griechenlands. A number of works in this, Schubert’s most magical tonality, deal with the concept of past and present, dream and reality. At the centre of this is the contrast of ‘then’ and ‘now’, ‘here’ and ‘there’. The distance between such opposite poles seems enormous in Abendstern, the song of the solitary star of solitary love; in Die Götter Griechenlands the ethos of classical Greece seems heart-breakingly irreconcilable with the mundane present.

Morgenlied is not quite in that class. But it too is a quasi-philosophical reflection on opposites – man and nature, youth and old age. Its mood might be termed populist, or ‘homespun metaphysical’ – like the preaching of Zacharias Werner himself, who was a famous Viennese evangelist. The song must once have been much more popular than it is today to have merited inclusion in Volume II of Friedländer’s Edition Peters selection of Lieder. And Schubert himself must have valued it too: he chose to publish this work as part of his Op 4 in 1821 and to dedicate it to the great cleric Ladislaus Pyrker, Patriarch of Venice. To the poets Werner and Schmidt (Der Wanderer) belongs the honour of being the first contemporary writers, apart from Goethe of course, whose work was published in conjunction with Schubert’s music. (Mayrhofer’s Erlafsee was in fact the first-ever published Schubert song, but that was as part of an almanac.) Today Morgenlied is a song which is rarely included in recital, but Schubert had apparently high hopes for its popularity. On the autograph the following words are scrawled in the composer’s handwriting: ‘NB I recommend this song very specially to the singer P and the pianist St!! 1820’. In this way, Pepi [Josefine] Koller and her accompanist Albert Stadler in Steyr were sent, probably via Vogl, the manuscript of a new song. There is a naivety in this music (an impression strengthened by the fact that the song is more or less strophic) which is very much a part of the composer’s natural response to these words. This may sound ‘twee’ to some, but audiences of yesteryear, not to mention many listeners today, would feel at home with the domestic Schubert and the felicities of Morgenlied.

The solemn opening melody in A minor, doubled by the piano, is very expressive of the grey misty hour which precedes the radiance of dawn. The first few bars of this introductory section are heard only that once; at ‘Herauf und herunter das Morgenrot weht’ we hear the dactylic snatch of melody which is incorporated into later strophes and which represents, as always with Schubert when employing this rhythm, the workings of nature (the arrival of dawn, the warming of the sun’s rays). Then follows a delightful contrast of speed and colour: the twitterings of birdsong at morningtide. The change of minor key to major lets in the light, and these winged messengers of unwitting philosophical bent take part in a delightfully merry dance (a can-can of worms perhaps) which is so up-beat and pretty that it borders on the kitsch. But no song composer ever lost sales by writing popular tunes, and there may have been an element here of consciously wooing the public on Schubert’s part. The piano interlude at the end of the first verse adds chirpy mordents to hopping quavers.

The next section of contrasted panels of minor and major takes the form of a dialogue in question-and-answer form. Jaded mankind can only regard this merriment among the birds as a thing of mystery. ‘What makes you so happy?’ they ask – in the minor key of course. We may have expected another bird-dance in reply, and this indeed will come, but not before we enjoy a more tranquil moment of vintage, not to say essential, Schubert. ‘We rejoice that we live and exist’ shows the inscrutable wisdom of the animal kingdom. It is a simple reply worthy of the composer’s own sane attitude to life, and his ability to rejoice in the here-and-now. Schubert makes of this music in the major key (at ‘Wir freu’n uns, dass wir leben und sind’) something strangely touching, with soft doublings in the piano relegated exclusively to the treble stave as if birds are too childlike and innocent to play the piano with both hands. This aura of trusting artlessness is underlined by horn music in thirds and sixths. The horn is the quintessential instrument of the great outdoors, and its sounds represent the depths of forests and, by extension, the depths of nature itself. Schubert’s musical language for the birds owes much also to his Schlegel settings where we find similar affectionate simplifications in such songs as Die Vögel, Der Schmetterling and Der Knabe. This last song also features horn music when describing the free-and-easy life of our feathered friends.

The music for the poem’s third verse follows the same pattern of slow introduction with a minor-key melody, doubled in the piano, and a merry and optimistic contribution from the birds. At ‘Der Mond allein, Der liebliche Schein’ Schubert loosens the strophic structure and allows a luminous reference to the moon in the key of D major; the plagal relationship to the home key makes this moment seem other-worldly, moon-struck. The gentleness of this softly illumined music is emphasized, by way of contrast, with the sudden reappearance of the sun, bright and jolly, in the major key. It is still nightfall of course, but even thinking about the sun can make these birds regain their high spirits.

As in a number of songs (Auf dem Wasser zu singen comes to mind) it is the last strophe (after earlier verses in which we revel in the beauties of Nature) which makes the allegory clear and which points out exactly what we human beings have to learn from the natural world. After a rueful repetition of the word ‘dahin!’ which emphasizes that the joys of youth have flown, the middle section (‘Wir Alten sitzen geduckt im Nest!’) is subtly different from the other appearances of this music: instead of a passage in the unambiguous tonic major, Schubert mixes major and minor as if to balance the sad effects old age with the continuing optimism of youth. The energy of the young may now be only an echo of former glory, but the memory is a sustaining one. The moral is that a life spent happily, in its earlier stages, on good terms with Nature, ensures an old age of equanimity. The three-bar postlude ends on a spread arpeggio in the major key with the fifth of the chord uppermost like a question-mark – ‘What next?’ says this music; ‘Whatever it is, we had a happy time while it lasted’ is the implicit reply.

This song is the most substantial of three Werner settings. The others are Jagdlied and Nur wer die Liebe kennt.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997


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