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Trinklied vor der Schlacht, D169

First line:
Schlacht, du brichst an!
first published in 1894
author of text

The unique thing about this piece in Schubert’s output is its casting for two unison choirs and the use of a type of antiphonal arrangement which would sound well from different corners of St Mark’s in Venice, à la Monteverdi. It seems that two German squadrons placed at different parts of the battlefield are mustering their courage for the onslaught. The story of soldiers singing together from opposing sides of the trenches in the Great War reminds us that Körner’s Leyer und Schwert enjoyed its greatest vogue in Germany (to judge by the numbers of sumptuously gilded editions to be found in all the second-hand book shops) in the years between Bismarck’s establishment of the Reich and the First World War.

English-speaking people sometimes find it difficult to tune into the inevitable connection between heavy drinking and the pondering of mortality which lies at the dark heart of this kind of Teutonic conviviality. It seems altogether natural in a German drinking song of this kind to see the affirmation of brotherhood and the sharing of a cup of wine as a prelude to ‘crossing the bar’ (rather than having it close at eleven in the English manner). At least there is nothing lachrymose or sentimental about this setting which has a energy derived from the rolling left-hand basses which simulate the rumbling of drums. It has something of the same grim triumphant mood as Die Trommel gerühret, Klärchen’s song from Beethoven’s music for Goethe’s Egmont. The music is marked ‘Schnell und feurig’ and the speed and fiery nature of this little chorus betokens great bravado until the end of the strophe and the final high A. There a hint of panic and terror in this note because of its tessitura; after all, it is just as unlikely that a regiment will be full of heroes as it is that a chorus will be overflowing with Pavarottis. No doubt Schubert designed this ending to propel the singers headlong into battle, but musicians are not often the best warriors.

The poem is the second last in Körner’s collection Leyer und Schwert. It was written to fit an extant tune with words by Karl Gottlob Cramer (1758–1817). This Kriegslied beginning ‘Feinde rings um!’ achieved the status of folksong (it was later set by the Bohemian composer Franz Gläser who was Schubert’s contemporary in Vienna) but Körner must have known and sung a much earlier version.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/40Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 20
CDJ33020Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Track 19 on CDJ33020 [1'05] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 17 on CDS44201/40 CD5 [1'05] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

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