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Punschlied 'Vier Elemente', D277

first published in 1892 in the Gesamtausgabe
author of text

This delightful little chorus is somewhat different from other drinking songs in the Schubert canon which mostly seem set on celebrating the grim link between booze and man's mortality. The German drinker in his cups seems inclined to turn lugubriously philosophical if given half a chance. Instead this song tells us how to make punch; we hear it being concocted step by step as the verses progress. As such, it is the only recipe song in Schubert, and one of the few in the entire song repertoire (Bernsteins's La Bonne Cuisine set is another such work) which takes us into the kitchen – a focal point (if his waistline was any indication) of so much of the composer's pleasure.

The word 'punch' is of Indian origin and comes from panca which means five. Punch is traditionally made from a combination of tea, rum, wine, sugar and lemon. Schiller contents himself with four elements – lemon, sugar, water and alcohol – although each of these has a deeper meaning in his recipe of life. As in Schiller's poem An die Freude (also set to music by Schubert but not in its entirety), wine is taken to be the drink of the spirit, and spirit (in its alcoholic sense) is an analogy for life itself – soon to evaporate and needing to be taken and enjoyed before it does so – 'eh' es verdüftet'. In his carpe diem recipe for punch, the poet undertakes to reflect life itself and the things on which the world is built. Only the great German poets (and perhaps only Schiller and his confrère Goethe) can get away with the loftiness of this, but it makes a change from the graveside banalities of bibulous poems from lesser writers.

Schubert rises to the occasion with a heartily memorable tune which broadens into harmony after two bars where voices and piano are in portentous unison. Drink is, after all, a serious business. The key is C major, but we meet G sharps as soon as the third beat, as if the composer regards such an accidental as a sharp ingredient (a twist of lemon peel perhaps) to be thrown into the punchbowl. Each of the short couplets of the poem is repeated to elongate the strophes into usable musical length. The postlude is one of his best in songs of this type: chords in sixths are underpinned by a churning left-hand tonic pedal. The feeling is vividly conveyed of much earnest mixing, stirring and whisking; after one ingredient is mastered (thoroughly squeezed, mashed, dolloped and poured) it is on to the next. There is a deliberate clumsiness here too (Beethovenian, as in so many of Schubert's Schiller settings) as if a group of men, unaccustomed to the niceties of the kitchen, are being a little less careful about the prescribed quantity of ingredients than they should be. One also has the impression that the alcoholic ingredient ('Tropfen des Geistes') is imbibed neat – and rather more than a drop of it – as the punch is prepared.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994


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