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Geheimnis 'An Franz Schubert', D491

First line:
Sag an, wer lehrt dich Lieder
October 1816; first published in 1887
author of text

There are other instances of composers who have set tributes to themselves, most notably Haydn's song O tuneful voice in which he makes a marvellous piece of music out of the somewhat embarrassing valedictory effusion of his London hostess, Mrs Anne Hunter. It seems fairly obvious that if someone you like takes the trouble to write a poem in your honour, the least a composer can do, by way of returning the compliment, is to set it to music. After all, one can too easily forget that each time a composer chooses to set a poem he is in effect complimenting the poet, declaring himself to be in mental sympathy with his literary partner. Mayrhofer probably wrote his poem in gratitude for the eight or so songs that Schubert had already made from his poems, and in hopeful anticipation of many more. In this he was not to be disappointed.

Mayrhofer praises the composer's unforced naturalness, and Schubert immediately seems to equate such a salute to his gifts with gratitude to his forbears Mozart and Haydn. He begins with a tiny piano prelude which quite unashamedly makes an elegant descent from the heights in a decorated B flat major arpeggio, an analogue for inspiration from heaven in its simplest form; this is followed by a tiny phrase which quotes from the theme of the slow movement in Mozart's last Piano Concerto, K595 in B flat. The use of turns and mordents in the accompaniment to the first two lines of the poem reinforces the impression of Mozartian elegance. 'You have conjured something from nothing' Mayrhofer is saying, and Schubert now evokes the Haydn of Die Schöpfung to describe the miracle of his own creation. The 'Land verschleiert im Nebel' is a tiny Lieder equivalent of the Chaos evoked in Haydn's oratorio and the emergence of the 'Sonnen leuchten' has a touch of the exuberance of 'Und es war Licht', the creation of light. The bouncing staccato quavers confirm the slightly old-fashioned and galant atmosphere of this bow in Haydn's direction.

The second verse is something of a puzzle. Reed thinks that Mayrhofer was stating that Schubert did not share his own preoccupation with classical themes ('Den schilfbekränzten Alten'). This may well have been the poet's single gentle rebuke to his young friend in an otherwise complimentary piece, and it might have signalled Mayrhofer's intention to take in hand the composer's classical education; certainly by the following year Schubert knew a great deal more about mythology. Perhaps this ancient figure is an obscure classical personification of Fate or Time who represents the hidden, controlling source of springs of whom the serene musician prefers to take no notice. Mayrhofer may be saying that the composer lived too much in the present, that he took the culture and learning of modern times for granted without realising how much inspiration the poets of the day owed to the ancients. On the other hand the poet may ruefully be admitting that the young Schubert, by virtue of instinct and talent, seemed to understand all the literary mysteries which others, like Mayrhofer himself, had to spend hours of study to master. In using water imagery in this passage the poet may have been the first to draw attention to Schubert's protean ability musically to depict that element. The change from A flat minor to E major in this section, a real Schubertian touch this, is a marvellous illustration of the enharmonic means of turning water (of the ancients) into wine (of artistic inspiration). One can almost hear the colour change as dull flats cede to sparkling sharps.

The final lines (from 'So geht es auch dem Sänger' ) are a source of confusion. Before them there is an extraordinary modulation from E major to F which suggests a change of subject matter or perspective. Who exactly is the singer referred to in the fifth line of the second verse? In his commentary, Fischer-Dieskau assumes that Mayrhofer is referring to Schubert who is astounded at his own creativity. I would suggest that a better reading would be to place Mayrhofer himself as the singer of Schubert's songs. After all, it is known that he was an amateur vocalist and guitar player of some accomplishment, and in 1816 Schubert had not yet met Johann Michael Vogl who was to be his definitive interpreter. Until the advent of Vogl, Schubert had to rely on his less vocally accomplished friends to perform his music. After the words 'er singt' there is an upward arpeggio as if Schubert is casting Mayrhofer in the bardic role of Orpheus doing his warming-up exercises. This may also account for the slightly over-dramatised way that 'erstaunt in sich' is set. The final two lines of the poem bring Schubert back into the picture after Mayrhofer has been describing his own emotions. As it happens, the key of F major in which this song ends is shared by the final section of Ganymed, a Goethe poem probably shown to Schubert by Mayrhofer in the following year, and also about the working of a miracle. The postlude there comprises a sequence of chords which rises heavenward as the boy is assumed into the realms of Olympus. The postlude of Geheimnis moves in the opposite direction; the god of music sends a rainbow of chords which falls to earth (and the tonic) in a gentle arc of sound.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993


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