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Sonett III, D630

First line:
Nunmehr da Himmel, Erde schweigt und Winde
December 1818; first published in 1895 in the Gesamtausgabe
author of text
Sonnet 164
translator of text

In the 1817 Mayrhofer setting Erlafsee, an expressive falling sixth in the piano introduction (and again in the opening of the vocal line) is emblematic of the beauty and silence of a lake—'am stillen Erlafsee'. In Sonett III the same interval is used to even greater effect; this time there is a sequence of descending sixths in piano and voice because the canvas is larger, yet the images are similar: silence, watery depths, the sinking sun, and the emotional ambivalence of 'so wohl, so weh'. This phrase in Erlafsee is matched by the Petrarch/Gries 'dolce e l'amaro / Süss' und Herbe' ('both sweet and bitter'). The original key is C major and the time signature is 12/8. Another 1818 song (composed two months earlier), this time in C minor, comes to mind, Blondel zu Marien. This is also in 12/8 and is also marked 'Sehr langsam'; it has similarly ornate vocal writing with Italianate melismas, and an accompaniment that suggests operatic aria. It is obvious that Petrarch's nationality is not lost on the composer. The piano interjection after the poem's first line is an augmented triad on the dominant, an expressive emotional sigh. Richard Kramer in his Distant Cycles (University of Chicago Press, 1994) has identified this chord as 'something of a code' in the Schlegel settings. The music in general is reminiscent of other grand Schubert nocturnes: the introduction to Der Unglückliche is foreshadowed in the triplet-quaver repeated chords which dominate the accompaniment in this song's first page, heralds of night's mystery in both pieces; the impressive slide downwards of the voice on 'senkt in seine Gründe', a scale which is continued by the piano to even murkier depths, is worthy of Freiwilliges Versinken. It is a measure of how little this Petrarch setting is known that one is tempted to compare it with no fewer than four other Schubert songs in the space of a few lines, and measure its achievements first and foremost in comparison to other fine works. But Sonett III is vintage Schubert of the period in its own right, and worthy of much more serious consideration than it has been accorded by the commentators.

After a splendid page evoking the beauties of night, the words 'Nun wach' ich, nun sinn' ich' are ushered in by a tiny bridge passage, an arpeggio plus a chromatic scale in the piano, which seems to raise the curtain on a picture of Petrarch himself. We hear him gently emerging from his slumbers, the sweetness of the half-waking state evoked by the same leaning chromatics which imply obsession. The dotted crotchets on 'Nun', an unimportant word which Schubert himself repeats and which would not usually be accorded such a protracted setting, underlines not only the sense of 'only now' but also illustrates the stretching of tired limbs. Not until Wolf's Schon streckt' ich aus im Bett die müden Glieder from the Italienisches Liederbuch would a composer again strike this mood of glowing devotion combined with sleepiness. The vocal line climbs high in the stave and modulates to A flat in a manner which suggests that it has a wilful direction of its own which surprises the singer himself, the perfect analogue for 'sweet torment' out of control. 'Krieg ist mein Zustand, Zorn und Missbehagen' produces appropriately agitated music, quasi-recitative with staccato bass notes and rumbling piano figurations, which brings us back to the home key of C major. This sets up another interlude where the singer can enter the A flat major world where he dreams of Laura. The bridge to this arioso is the phrase 'Nur, denk' ich sie' which is repeated in a rising sequence punctuated by soft mezzo staccato triplets. These bars of recitative, moving from F minor to B flat minor and thence into A flat major, contain all the wonder and sweetness of Petrarch's love for Laura; they seem saturated with the exotic fragrance of the beloved, and it is no wonder that they bring the perfume of Dass sie hier gewesen to mind. The arioso itself (beginning 'winkt Friede mir gelinde') is of the greatest tenderness, as if Schubert has really thought himself into the poet's predicament. There is something about the demanding tessitura of 'winkt Friede mir' which suggests happiness out of reach: the peace which beckons is only a chimera.

The Italian sonnet is traditionally composed of the opposition of two moods. The first eight lines (octave) state a problem, ask a question, or express an emotional tension. The last six lines (sestet) resolve the problem, answer the question, or relieve the tension. For this sonnet's clinching sestet Schubert has planned a masterly return to the dropping sixth motif of the opening, beginning with an elongated setting of the word 'So'. Thus we feel a sense of summing-up, of drawing the strands of the poet's argument together with an even greater sense of architectural design in the music than in the other two settings. This is no real repetition of the opening music, however, for the motif is used as an upbeat to a different melody, now in 6/8, and the accompaniment flows in watery semiquavers which reflect the poet's idea of all emotions, both sad and happy, flowing from a single source. We have arrived at last at the main aria of the piece, for in these Petrarch settings Schubert reserves the most lyrical music for the final section. The flattened inflection of 'Süss' und Herbe' is reminiscent of the 'so wohl, so weh' at the end of Erlafsee. The tonal ambiguity and wandering between keys at 'Dieselbe Hand gibt Heilung mir und Wunden' is extraordinary even by Schubert's standards. It suggests the helplessness of someone in the grip of a fever, so disorientated and lovelorn that he has no idea of where to put himself. A similarly wayward piano interlude brings us to the chord of G major and the middle section of the aria. The singer sings a D (on 'und') and for a moment we expect a passage in G major. The piano diverts this note into part of its chord in B flat major, and we are launched into an Italianate middle section with a touch of the sob of operatic desperation implied by the singer's ardently repeated notes which see-saw around that pulsating D. The suspended animation of this line, where the singer is caught within the upper third of the stave, and turns hither and thither in a fruitless attempt to find an escape, illustrates the poet's metaphor about being trapped between living and dying, a type of exalted state such as we find in the Novalis Nachthymne set by Schubert only a month later. The denuded setting of 'So weit entfernt noch' with its implication of A minor in 6/8 rhythm is strongly prophetic of 'Ach! der mich liebt und kennt, ist in der Weite' from Lied der Mignon of 1826.

With the words 'zu gesunden' Petrarch's sonnet ends, but Schubert decides on a repeat in the interests of musical symmetry. We thus return to the beginning of the sestet and hear the aria once again ('So strömt, was mich ernährt') which is now musically modified: 'gibt Heilung mir und Wunden' here stays in C major rather than modulating into G. This enables the composer to construct a closing section of gentle dreaminess, the plagal oscillation between F major and C major emphasising the holy nature of the poet's love for Laura. It is perhaps only on this final page that we feel let down: this ending, beautiful though it is, does not seem worthy of a work of this size, and one so full of musical riches, although it might be argued that to conclude with a whimper is true to the helplessness described by the poem. Sonett III just misses being classified as a Schubertian masterpiece, but not by a wide margin. The twenty-one-year-old composer has here attempted something extremely ambitious, and by and large he has succeeded.

Sonett III was translated by J D Gries. It appears in the Blumensträusse italiänischer, spanischer, und portugiesicher Poesie, the same anthology of translations from the romance languages where Schubert found his two other Petrarch poems and for which Schlegel was both contributor and editor. It is included in this recital otherwise devoted to the Schlegels, because the three works obviously belong together in musical terms. In a moment of abstraction Schubert wrote Dante's name at the head of this manuscript. Capell points out that there is a line in the Inferno ('Mentre che 'l vento, come fa, si tace') which bears a passing resemblance to the opening line of this sonnet. This was perhaps why Mandyczewski in the Gesamtausgabe also ascribes the poem to Dante, a rare mistake from an editor of such great literary knowledge.

Johann Diederich Gries was born in Hamburg to a wealthy family. He was later to lose his fortune, and much of his translation work was undertaken in his later years out of financial necessity. During his studies in Jena he met Goethe, Wieland, Herder and Schiller, and his first poems were printed in almanacs edited by these influential patrons. He seems to have been friends with almost everyone of importance of the time—August von Schlegel, Novalis, Brentano, Eichendorff and Uhland. He wrote some original poetry, but his main interest was in translation where he specialised in Italian and Spanish works, for which he was much admired. This translation from Petrarch is considered (by Einstein among others) to be particularly fine.

Francesco Petrarca was among the most important poets and men of letters of all time. He was born in Arezzo, Tuscany. When a boy, his family moved to Avignon, and he studied in Montpellier, returning to study in Bologna in 1320. After his father's death he was free to abandon his legal studies and took minor ecclesiastical orders in Avignon where he lived a life of elegance and dissipation. It was reputedly on 6 April 1327 that he first saw Laura in St Claire Church in Avignon. She has traditionally been identified as Laura de Noves, but no one is certain of her identity and some scholars have even doubted her existence. From then on the poet continued to grow and deepen both as a scholar and artist. Petrarch travelled throughout Europe and became increasingly famous in his own lifetime as a writer and thinker; he was one of the founders of European Humanism. He mixed with the powerful and mighty, but found refuge in the beauties of the Vaucluse, not far from Avignon, a town he detested. As well as the poems in the vernacular for which he is most famous, Petrarch also wrote a great deal in Latin, and his writing covered many aspects of history, philosophy and religion. The poet's chaste and distant love for Laura became a lifelong obsession; he continued to write of her even after she reputedly died during the Black Death on 6 April 1348, exactly twenty-one years after the poet had first seen her. His Canzoniere are divided between the 263 poems of Rime in vita Laura and the 103 poems of Rime in morte Laura. Of these, more than 300 are sonnets. These were imitated everywhere, particularly among the Elizabethans. One of Petrarch's achievements was to evolve a sequence of poems where each single unit was part of a larger cycle - something which was also eventually to have significance for music, for Schubert also sought a solution to this problem for the songs of his earlier career. Petrarch's poems traced a biographical story, evolving from his falling in love with Laura, to his final invocation of the Virgin as he realises that 'worldly pleasure is a dream', and putting his final trust in God. The evolution of the modern lyric owes much to Petrarch, as do the sonnet cycles of English writers like Sydney, Spenser, Drayton and Shakespeare. Writers from all over Europe accepted the strict discipline of Petrarchan forms and there is no doubt that this poet, second only to Dante in the Italian pantheon of poets, was one of the most important founding fathers of the European literary renaissance.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996


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