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Suleika II, D717

First line:
Ach, um deine feuchten Schwingen
March (?) 1821; published in August 1825 as Op 31
author of text
attributed to and adapted by Goethe
author of text

It is generally conceded that this song, marvellously inventive and unusual though it is, is less touching as a piece of music than Suleika I. For a start, it is less vulnerable. In the first Suleika song, she waits for news and hangs breathlessly on Hatem's wind-borne message; in the second however, despite the bereft tone of some of the words, Schubert's music implies that Suleika is mistress of the situation – it is she who is using the West wind as her messenger and her almost imperious wish (who could disobey a diva capable of a high B flat?) is its command. The miracle of Suleika I is that it manages to be both epic and intensely personal – we are drawn to the heart of the girl's longing in a way inconceivable in an aria. On the other hand, Suleika II was almost certainly deliberately shaped as a virtuoso display piece for both voice and piano. When Schubert is in this mood to show that he can write public as opposed to private songs, an operatic dimension creeps into the music at the expense perhaps of the still small voice, not dependent on show or scale, which lies at the heart of his greatest Lieder. On the other hand, this song is no empty vehicle for high notes and digital dexterity – it is filled with the most sumptuous and subtle detail; when the two Suleikas are performed as a pair (as they almost always are) it provides an effective foil to the profundities of the first.

A number of the reviews of the time emphasise the oriental character of the piece and the piano writing is certainly unique in all Schubert. The broken octaves which sidle around the keyboard do splendid service in simulating the wind it is true, but there is a voluptuous feminine sway, redolent of the harem, in this slinky music; in the right hand the tiny bells of head-dresses and ankle bracelets seem to be tinkling in the breeze. Janissary music (emulating the Turkish sultan's bodyguard with their bells, cymbals and drums) was still very much the rage in Vienna, and a number of Viennese piano makers made pianos which incorporated Janissary effects. There was for example a piano by Georg Haschka (according to C F Colt a fine accompanying instrument for the voice) made in Vienna circa 1825, which apart from the four normal pedals (including bassoon stop and una corda) had a pedal with cymbal and bell effects on the bottom octave of the strings. Could it be that Schubert, in his attempt to write popular music 'addressed to a wide public', incorporated the latest tricks of the piano makers to further enhance the oriental character of the piece? If this were the case, the composer seems carefully to have planned where the sound of bells would be appropriate: quieter passages of the song's accompaniment do not venture deep into the bass clef, but at jauntier or more passionate moments, the left hand plunges down to the lower octave on the first downbeat, only quickly to leap high out of the area of the piano where the percussion pedal was operative. There is also often a convenient semiquaver rest in the right hand coinciding with the downward leaps which would have allowed the exotic sound to be heard without drowning the rest of the accompaniment.

The shape of the opening vocal line ('Ach, um deine feuchten Schwingen') recalls 'Ach, die wahre Herzenskunde' in Suleika I, although the mood and the key (here B flat major) are different. The chromatically rising phrase on 'was ich in der Trennung leide' is also reminiscent of passages in Suleika I. These similarities may seem to be ammunition for those who believe both songs date from 1821, but Schubert was quite capable of returning to his Suleika frame of mind after a three year gap. In any case, if both Suleika songs had been written in March 1821 (as the Deutsch catalogue suggests) why had they not been published as a pair at the end of 1822? The last two lines of the strophe are repeated; there is a great deal more repetition of lines and whole verses in this piece than in Suleika I, and this adds to the its quasi operatic character. The accompaniment of the second verse shrinks in scope as does the range of the vocal line – as if Suleika is drawing the West Wind nearer to her in order to address it in confidence. The sparkling beauties of 'Blumen, Auen, Wald und Hügel' are all innocence in F major (staccato quavers in the left hand like drops of dew) but on the repeat of the words a shift into D flat major has coloured the scenery into an exotic landscape worthy of the roses of Ispahan. After the repeat of 'stehn bei deinem Hauch in Thränen' (D flat major to D flat minor with 'breath' and 'tears' eloquently prolonged) there is a piano interlude with a melting return to the music of Verse 1. This sophisticated variation of strophic song technique is exactly the same used by Schubert in Suleika I. The music for this verse is the same as Verse 1 until the heart-stopping interrupted cadence on 'sehn ihn wieder' which seems to sum up all the ache of Suleika's hopes; the song hurtles passionately forward through a number of keys as the last two lines of this verse are repeated in rapturous vocal embroidery, and then repeated yet again. The piano interlude at the end of this section with its juxtaposed G major and G minor figurations sounds particularly eastern in inspiration. However this element of pastiche and staginess prevents the music from moving us as much as does the equivalent passage in Suleika I.

The closing section (Etwas geschwinder) comprising the last two verses of the poem, is as much a virtuosic scherzo as the closing of Suleika I is a beguiling nocturne. The shape and rhythm of the vocal line at 'Eile denn zu meinem Lieben' seems to derive from the first Suleika's 'Und so kannst du weiter ziehen'. The composer now makes the pianist's life difficult: instead of a left hand leap once in a bar the accompanist now has to leap downwards at every beat; on top of this, the right hand has a dancing, clipped three-note figure which entails rapid repetition of the first two of three semiquavers. It is a task which Gerald Moore likened to walking a tightrope. It is not hard to see that Schubert is wearing his hat as a composer of dance music (the influence of the 'wide public' again?); the brisk tempo and left hand leaps make this a 3/4 relative of the Galopp. Alternation of B flat major and minor is again reminiscent of the same device in the peroration of Suleika I. The words for the last verse 'Sag ihm, aber sag's bescheiden' initially herald another drawing-in of the reins: the key change to G minor gives the pianist a moment of respite from left hand athletics – but only for four bars; 'freudiges Gefühl von beiden' signals a note of triumph and panting (of pianist and repeated words) which leads ineluctably to the crowning high B flat – Milder's pay-off. To end here would have been too obvious and an artistic defeat for Schubert. The coda is a repeat of the first two lines of the last verse ('Sag ihm, aber bescheiden') and it restores a mood of dreamy delicacy to a work which, alongside the performers, has walked the challenging tightrope every composer knows who has undertaken a commission to someone else's specifications. Would the work have been even greater had Schubert not attempted to satisfy Milder? Was she even aware of the concessions he had made to her sense of self importance? But at least in this song we have a a great deal more than a fluttering vocalise in imitation of a moth.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/40Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 19 - Felicity Lott
CDJ33019Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Track 18 on CDJ33019 [4'25] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 11 on CDS44201/40 CD24 [4'25] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

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