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An Silvia 'Gesang an Silvia', D891

First line:
Was ist Silvia, saget an
July 1826; published in early 1828 as part of Op 106
author of text
The Two Gentlemen of Verona IV:2
translator of text
published in volume 2 of the Wiener Shakespeare Ausgabe

This lyric is from the play The Two Gentleman of Verona which is difficult to date. It is taken by many scholars to be an early Shakespeare play, but it was first published in the 1623 Folio and there is no record of a pre-Restoration performance. It features two lovers (Valentine and Proteus), two ladies (Silvia and Julia) and two servants (the quick-witted Speed and the bumpkin Launce). This shows a debt to the writing of the Bard's predecessor John Lyly, but there is also a strong commedia dell' arte influence. The plot concerns the wooing of the lady Silvia, daughter of the Duke of Milan, by three suitors: Valentine, the preferred lover; Proteus his rival; and Thurio, a poltroon. This song takes place in Act IV Scene 2. The true lover Valentine has been banished from Milan, his plans to elope with Silvia betrayed to the Duke by Proteus. Thurio has also been duped by Proteus into believing that he has a chance to win Silvia's hand. At Proteus's suggestion, Thurio engages musicians to serenade Silvia in front of her bedroom window – and thus this lyric is sung by neither of Silvia's serious suitors, rather by a small men's chorus. The question as to Silvia's finer qualities may be taken to be the genuine curiosity of outsiders hired for a gig; in context the lyric has a humorous edge which recalls the artistic efforts of the mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Capell writes that the piano here is 'idealization of a rustic music'.

Capell also rightly says that 'Schubert has ousted the gentlemen of Verona and made Silvia his own'. It is clear that the composer is enchanted by the lyric. As he sat in Schober's house at Währing, outside Vienna, his thoughts must have been on his friend Eduard von Bauernfeld who was having a holiday in the very same part of the world where the composer had spent such a wonderful summer the year before. Bauernfeld's literary skills embodied Schubert's operatic hopes, and the composer was impatient for the libretto of Der Graf von Gleichen to which he knew the poet was putting the finishing touches. What better home-coming present for Bauernfeld than a setting of his own translation (from the Wiener Shakespeare Ausgabe of 1825) of such a lyric?

The strummed-lute accompaniment of the right hand in quavers is already familiar from such a song as Florio. The mood here is utterly different however. Instead of tortured melancholy, merry geniality holds sway. The composer has decided to give the tenor 'lead' to a single voice, but he is true to Shakespeare in that the accompaniment suggests more than one musician. The left-hand figurations are those of a born comedian, a jazz bass player before his time, expert in cheeky interjections which add that essential ingredient of 'swing' to a hit, and which render him as much of a soloist as the singer. As the phrase 'Who [dotted minim] is Silvia?' is elongated by the voice in languid rapture, the bass more impatiently asks 'Who is Silvia?' in diminution, very properly treating the name as having only two syllables, and nudging the music forward as if to say with a wink, in this staccato version, 'Go on, tell me!' From time to time this bass figure yields as the pianist's fingers are put to more legato use: the words 'Flur preist' are echoed in the soprano register as the left hand crosses the right, and gently sighs its approbation on a swooning suspension. There is another echo (modified this time for harmonic reasons) after 'Auf Himmels Gunst und Spur weist', although its most touching use is in the second strophe after the words 'Dort heilt er seine Blindheit'. Here the pianist should have the feeling that in stroking the balm-like chord of the ninth which resolves on a dominant seventh, it is his very fingers which are healing Cupid's blindness, like Oberon's magic potion rendered into music. The melody itself is a miracle of inevitability; even the octave jumps in minims at 'Dass - ihr al-les' which seem eccentric on paper (and which are perhaps not the best German word-setting) are unarguably right. After having taken a lot of trouble (in vain) to make certain that his Scott songs could be made to fit the English originals, Schubert seems to have completely underestimated the potential of this song (and that of Ständchen) as far as the English market was concerned. Both songs can easily be sung to the English texts, but it seems unlikely that Schubert had access to these in Währing.

The manuscript of this song, written in a small book of pocket size with staves ruled by the composer himself, came to light in Hungary as recently as 1969. This shows us that the legend behind the Shakespeare songs (that they were written on menu cards and so on) was apocryphal, although one of the composer's friends might have mistaken this small book for something the size of a menu. Schubert seems to have written the song down as both first draft and finished copy – although we can see in looking at the manuscript that the echo effects, as the pianist crosses hands, were added as an afterthought.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996


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Track 6 on CDA67315 [2'39] Last few CD copies remaining
Track 1 on CDA66136 [2'51] Archive Service
Track 12 on CDJ33026 [2'55] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 11 on CDS44201/40 CD32 [2'55] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
Track 6 on HYP200 [2'55] Super-budget price sampler — Deleted

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