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Gebet während der Schlacht, D171

First line:
Vater, ich rufe dich!
first published in 1831 as part of volume 10 of the Nachlass
author of text

There is nothing quite like this song in all Schubert, certainly from the pianist's point of view. The nearest thing one can imagine to it in terms of the challenge of the accompaniment is Der Atlas (Heine) from Schwanengesang, written right at the other end of the composer's song-writing career. A similar tremolo in the right hand shivers and rumbles underneath the voice and provides almost an orchestral background to the noble tune – half prayer, half battle-cry – of the vocal line. In terms of the mood of apprehension before a battle (and the warrior's brave grandeur, even tenderness, in the face of certain death) another song from Schwanengesang comes to mind – Kriegers Ahnung – this time a Rellstab setting.

The first page of music (which contains the poem's first verse) is perhaps the most inventive. It begins with the main tune with which we are to become familiar (perhaps too familiar) throughout the song, but after this initial statement ('Vater, ich rufe dich!') a description of the sights and noises of battle prompts Schubert into exceptionally excited activity. In the left hand there are rushing demisemiquavers and ominous trills; after 'der Dampf der Geschütze' a cannonball of a scale rushes up the stave. The repeated leaps of an octave in obsessive dotted figuration under 'sprühend umzucken mich rasselnde Blitze' are nothing less than convulsive; they have an eccentric insistence and instrumental impracticality that puts us briefly in mind of Beethoven in a certain mood – the sublime madness of the rhythmical jerkiness of the Grosse Fuge for example. After all this tumult four bars of recitative bring this curtain-raising (and hair-raising) section to a close. The mood of 'Vater, du führe mich!' is an oasis of calm, slow and religious; a short piano interlude of solemn chords ending on a cadence in the dominant prepares us for the song proper.

After this the music is strictly strophic and it is this perhaps which makes Capell level the charge of monotony against the setting. One cannot leave out a strophe without doing violence to the poem which depends on an enchaînement of ideas whereby the last line of each section is repeated to provide the opening of the next – a type of poetic relay race of ideas. This repetition gives the whole song the air of a religious litany as if the warrior were telling his beads or going through a catechism. The comfort of such ritual in moments of strife is obvious and the composer has every good reason to conceive the setting in such a manner; continuing illustrative diversity for which the opening strophe has whetted our appetite is the only thing lacking. The tremulous oscillations which support the first six notes of melody yield to a more controlled throb of semiquavers which are a constant factor in the setting, like the ceaseless vibration of pounding cannonfire in the distance. The accompaniment stays in the lower register of the piano and this contributes to the darkness of the mood, as if the whole landscape inhabited by the song is obscured by swirling gunsmoke.

It is interesting that Fischer-Dieskau declined to record this song in his 1970s survey of the Schubert Lieder. It is difficult to ascribe this only to the fact that it does not belong in the first rank of the young composer's creations; indeed the great singer recorded many songs much less musically interesting than this. It seems obvious that German-speaking artists of Fischer-Dieskau's generation found distasteful the jingoism inherent in poems of this kind, and the almost frightening intensity with which Körner greets thoughts of battle and death with something approaching the zeal of Liebestod. There is even a pagan feel to the work, as if Wotan or Thor were being addressed rather than the Christian God. The collection Leyer und Schwert from which the poem comes was a favourite present for German boys who were born in the first quarter of this century. (There were plenty of sabre-rattling war poems anthologised for young Britons with the same 'educative' purpose). The modern listener may still find disturbing the dark emotions stirred up (an appropriate expression for such a churning accompaniment) by this song. It is clear that the composer's personal link with Körner, and the exceptional historical factors which governed people's lives in March 1815 (Napoleon had just escaped from Elba and was on the loose again), were sufficient to push the composer into a once-in-a-lifetime mood of jingoism. If we feel with some justification that the sentiments of this song are rather un-Schubertian we should be grateful that our composer lived the majority of his working life in a Europe at peace.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994


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