After the hero’s death comes the funeral; the music of death was never far from the composer’s mind in 1815. Schubert has chosen words by a poet from an earlier epoch who was known as much for his patriotic (and sometimes very warlike and jingoistic) poems as for enchanting lyrics like Das Rosenband
and his religious odes. At first glance the composer’s response to these words seems fairly conventional; but there is a brooding drama about the music which shows that the young composer was unable to stop responding to words even when he wanted to write a bleak and disciplined quasi-liturgical piece. The key is C minor, which reminds us of the terrible majesty of the Szene aus Faust
(a dialogue between Gretchen and Mephistopheles with interpolated choral writing) which was written in December 1814. The slow dactyls (a minim plus two crotchets) represent the figure of Death; the use of this motif was to reach its apotheosis in Der Tod und das Mädchen
. Note the gradual rise in pitch with Klopstock’s imagery: ‘sowing’ stays on one note (the notes on one level like so many seeds in the ground); with ‘blossoming’ the pitch climbs a minor third (on ‘blüht er auf’); finally ‘transfiguration’ changes B flat to B natural and opens up the music to a grand cadence on ‘Gott hinauf’. The opening of the second verse (‘Grabt mein verwesliches Gebein’) is an eerie dialogue between men and women’s voices. As one looks at the music on the page, the line of notes on the top two staves (the women mourners, perhaps) seem to be looking down at the buried tenor and basses whose music seems written in coffin outline. The music becomes more lively on ‘es bleibt im Grabe nicht’, a literal and musical differentiation between the quick and the dead. The pronouncing of judgement (‘Jesus kommt und hält Gericht’) has the solemn grandeur of an old-fashioned Handelian overture. The workings of the Almighty were to be similarly depicted in dotted rhythms in Dem Unendlichen
written a few months later. The third verse is something of a repetition of the first verse with an added coda melting into an old-fashioned tierce de Picardie of redemption. This piece has the grandeur of a state occasion; it is quite possible that Schubert was thinking about Körner when he wrote it.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994