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Die Blumensprache, D519

First line:
Es deuten die Blumen der Herzens Gefühle
1817 (?); first published in 1868
author of text

The language of flowers goes back to Roman times when poets were crowned with laurel. The Elizabethans were versed in its mysteries – Ophelia in Hamlet says 'There's pansies, that's for thoughts.' The oriental language of flowers was brought back from Constantinople to England by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in the early eighteenth century, and from this developed a European language of flowers which reached its height in England during the Victorian era where the combination of a love of nature (women were continually encouraged to draw and paint flowers) and sexual repressiveness made for the creation of an elaborately coy and roundabout means of conveying passionate feelings via the euphemism of carefully chosen garland and posy.

The practice was probably too artificial and high-flown for most of Schubert's everyday circle; it is extremely doubtful whether he was interested in the Byzantine rules governing the language of flowers. Schumann on the other hand, as his diary testifies, was fascinated by this as by all matters of cryptography; his song-cycle Myrthen is named after the myrtle which was said not only to create love but to preserve it. But Schubert did write two songs – Die Blumensprache and Der Blumenbrief – which refer to this fashionable craze among young courting couples. Both songs seem to have something to do with his summer stay in Zseliz in 1818 with the Esterházy family. We know that Der Blumenbrief (Schreiber) was written there; the composer's musical charges, the countesses Marie aged 16, and Karoline aged 13 (the latter said to have been loved by Schubert), were certainly of the age and background to be interested in this etiquette of romantic wooing. There was also been a fair copy of Die Blumensprache in the possession of Karoline Esterházy which makes it a distinct possibility that this song was written for her in 1818. Schubert could have taken it with him to Zseliz (the date of October 1817 which Deutsch and Reed ascribe to this song would suggest this) but it seems rather more likely that the choice of text was chosen in deference to the young countesses' adolescent preoccupations, and composed on the spot.

The music is that of 'an exquisite Valentine' (Capell), according to Fischer-Dieskau 'whimsically typically Viennese'. The song certainly has the air of the salon about it – extremely ingratiating drawing room music with the perfumed charm (and the same key of B flat) of the popular Heimliches Lieben. The poem's three verses (Schubert ignores the fourth) suggested the straightforward ABA structure. Each six line strophe is divided into three phrases – two of seven bars and one of fourteen. The blossoms are planted within this ground plan, and sway gently cossetted by the summer breeze depicted by the rippling accompaniment; over this the voice dances in almost constant dactylic rhythm.

The poem for Die Blumensprache has been traced back to an 1805 almanac, where it was signed by the letters 'Pl.' This is said to have been the poet Anton Platner although it is possible that his first name was Edouard. Fischer-Dieskau sums up Platner's strange career thus: 'He had been a shepherd near Innsbruck. He had taken Holy Orders after University, but then turned eccentric, writing poems and diaries in his isolation.' Platner was eighteen at the time he was supposed to have written Die Blumensprache; he may been a precocious lyricist or he may simply have been wrongly credited with this link with Schubert – his only small claim to immortality.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993


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