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The story must have appealed to Schubert greatly because it is the only one of his songs that gave rise to an opera with the same subject and title. It is not known who was the librettist of this unfinished work of May 1816 (Die Bürgschaft D435, operatic fragment of sixteen numbers) but in terms of its connection with the classics it is not unreasonable to suppose that Johann Mayrhofer (whom the composer had met at the end of 1814) played some part in directing Schubert's attention to a story rich in features close to his own heart. Mayrhofer was enthusiastic about classical antiquity; as a frustrated censor secretly highly critical of Metternichs regime he would have appreciated the poem's politically subversive undertones. Above all, the homosexual poet would have recognized that the bailad could be read as a hymn to the exalted male friendship of classical times. Although the point is scarcely laboured in the story, the death of the hostage is unthinkable to Möros not only because he has given his word that he will return, but because he loves his friend, as it were, better than himself. In classical terms this is related to the stories of the Theban Sacred Band, to Homer's Achilles and Patroclus, and to the story of Nisus and Euryalus in Virgil's Aeneid. In Schubert's opera the hostage (whose name becomes Theages in that context) is furnished with a wife and two children; these extra characters averted the danger of an ali-male cast which would have been a box-office catastrophe. The libretto of this work (derived from Schiller's ballad without using his words) is held to be one of the worst that the composer ever attempted to set. In 1822 it was mooted that Beethoven should share the composition of an opera on this subject (the libretto was by F L Karl) with Thaddeus Weigl. This came to nothing, and six years later Schubert's friend Franz Lachner applied successfully to take over the libretto. The premiere of this opera took place in Pest scarcely three weeks before the death of Schubert who had hoped to travel to Hungary for the occasion.
The music for Schubert's ballad has been criticised by some commentators as being inferior to that for the other famous Schiller work of gigantic proportions. The supernatural terrors of the deep in Der Taucher (Volume 2) are a gift for a composer like Schubert, and the presence of the compassionate princess adds a feminine touch completely lacking in this, a Billy Budd of ballads with an all-male cast. There are those, however, who see Die Bürgschaft as a superior achievement to Der Taucher because of its tighter formal structure. There is here a tremendous sense of pace, as if the performer is excitedly reciting the ballad to us as poetry with little time to luxuriate in being a singer. At times we are hardly conscious of the music but remain involved with what is happening in the story. Much of the action in the poem is telescoped into the minimum number of words, and the composer follows suit with the minimum number of notes, both sung and played. The action is held up only at very rare moments along the way, which results in a build-up of tension which leads ineluctably to the terrific cries to the hangman, just in time, three verses from the end. In short, it may be argued that the comparative plainness of much of this music is intentional and finely calculated not to interfere with the telling of the story. If this is so, Schubert is doing his best to adhere to the established traditions of ballad composition as practised by Reichardt and Zumsteeg, and approved of by Goethe. It is perhaps worth mentioning that the sharp-eared may detect at various points the Beethovenian 'Fate' motif (a three-note anacrusis plus down beat) from the Fifth Symphony. Schubert was later to employ this unequivocally as the main motif of Der Zwerg (Volume 3) but his use of it here may well have been unconscious; in any event it is less systematic.
Verse 1: The approach of the conspirator and his arrest are over in a flash; the word 'schnell' stands at the top of the piece. The ascending chromatic scale of the introduction never gets anywhere. In musical terms it is an abortive coup, promising more than it delivers. Within seconds of the opening, Möros (re-named Damon in later editions of the poem) is clapped in irons and we hear him briefly interrogated by the tyrant (a mean little recitative full of slithery chromaticism) and in great musical contrast his simple and straightforward answer. After a mere crotchet's rest, in an almost offhand manner, he is condemned to be crucified.
Verses 2-3: There is no change of pulse here, only an expansion of note values to allow Möros to sing a very reasoned (under the circumstances) aria in D minor to the King. He accepts the verdict with stoic courage; there is a courtly gallantry (not to mention chutzpah) in the way he asks for time to take part in his sister's wedding. This is obviously an epoch where 'family values' are taken seriously. The solid long lines and reliable harmonies of his set piece contrast with the devious chromatics of Dionysus's reply. It seems that the tyrant will take a sadistic, almost voyeuristic, pleasure in monitoring the outcome of what seems to him an untenable bargain. He speaks peremptorily and, despite his power in the land, emerges in Schubert's music as some what of a petulant, even lightweight, figure.
Verse 4: This section (D major) is prefixed by the word 'Ruhig'. Möros has involved his friend in a grisly bargain without first asking him, but there is no sign of panic on either side. This is the type of friendship which Schiller wrote about between Posa and Don Carlos and which Verdi was to depict in noble duetting of baritone and tenor. Schubert provides music of almost preternatural cairn and tenderness for a monologue for Möros (the pace of the poem does not permit the hostage to express himself verbally; a speechless embrace must suffice) in which he explains the situation to his friend. Perhaps Schubert intends the long succession of semibreve chords accompanying this aria in simple unquestioning fashion to stand for a strong, silent and supportive character rendered mute by the speed of Schiller's pen, but whose constancy in the background is the mainspring of the action.
Verse 5: The Wedding. The first two lines of this strophe are recitative, quickly dispatched. Schubert marries off the sister with an interlude of old-fashioned courtly wedding music in B fiat major marked 'Lieblich'. Is the shy appearance of the Beethoven 'Fate' motif in this gentle piano music a reminder that, in the midst of the festivities, Möros is mindful of his own fate? There has been a time gap of two days, out of the three that the tyrant has allowed to Möros for the conduct of his affairs. Further recitative places the traveller on his way homeward to face his sentence.
Verses 6-9: The Flood. The four verses which make up this episode are joined together in one large musical structure, more or less in D minor. The patter of non-stop semiquavers ('Geschwind') in the pianist's right hand (and jabbing quavers in octaves in the left) throughout Verses 6 and 7 paints the relentless fall of rain. This is relatively gentle at first but gathers force apace. The hero's calls of distress resound on a long line of Ds (melody is suppressed in order to suggest shouting) supported by strident sforzando chords on the off beats. The Beethoven 'Fate' motif appears in the pianist's left hand after 'Die Ströme schwellen' in Verse 6, and again in the small interlude after Verse 7. Verse 8 starts in the same hurried way but the mood changes at 'und fleht die Hände zum Zeus', a recitative of prayer to the gods. The shape of the vocal line as the voice soars imploringly heavenward is most affecting. The rain has caused a flood. Heavy swollen quaver chords, flowing water, contrast with the falling water (lighter semiquavers) of the previous verses. Bass octaves climb ever upwards in semitones as the river overflows. The tremendous effort of the swim for survival is mirrored by a vocal line which also climbs ever higher until it reaches the bank of a high G fiat on the word 'Gott'. Möros has strained every muscle and only allows himself to collapse after reaching his goal; the words 'hat Erbarmen' allow him to relax for a moment and to sink gratefully into the key of G fiat. We do not remain there long as more trouble is afoot.
Verses 10-11: The Robbers. No sooner are the last words of Verse 9 sung than Verse 10 begins, two beats later. The traveller's trials now come thick and fast. It seems that Schubert is more in the mood to respond to natural disasters than man-made ones; this episode seems to have engaged his attention least in terms of illustrative detail. The felling of three villains is effected without much vocal or pianistic effort. At least the story is quickly told and the retreat of the defeated hooligans is amusingly commented on by the piano after 'die andern entweichen'. Although it seems that the composer has missed certain opportunities here, there is no doubt that the quick dispatch of this part of the story benefits the pace of the whole.
Verse 12: The Sun. Even Goethe questioned the wisdom of this verse and wondered if it was likely that after a heavy dousing in rain and river the hero would be in danger of death by thirst a few hours later! The first three lines are weary recitative drugged by heat, supported by a blurred haze of tremolandi. At the fourth line of the strophe ('O hast du mich gnädig aus Räubershand') there is a set piece arioso-prayer in E minor of great humility; we also glimpse the tenderness felt for the friend, 'der liebende'. After a great deal of hectic music this seems the right musical moment for a moment of repose.
Verse 13: The Stream. It is the music from this section that Schubert chose to use again in his opera of the same name a year later. In Number 14 of Die Bürgschaft at the 'Poco andante' section we find a reappearance of this aria note for note, the strings weaving the piano's watery accompaniment and the oboe playing the beautiful melody at 'Und horch! da sprudelt es silberhell.' It is little wonder that the baritone in the opera sings in counterpoint to the main tune rather than being entrusted with the D major melody itself which is in a most uncomfortable high-lying tessitura; by 1816 the composer was more aware of the differences between instrumental and vocal ranges. Nevertheless, this little moment of respite in the ballad is one of the most notable pre-echoes in the composer's output of the immortai hymn to love of 'O Bächlein meiner Liebe' from Der Neugierige in Die schöne Müllerin. In the cycle and in the opera (and in this ballad) this stream is so life-saving and so important that it has a magical quality; it bubbles forth with a type of holy water—holy at least to Schubertians.
Verses 14-17: The B flat section (marked 'Langsam') of 'Und die Sonne blickt' seems almost too leisurely for someone who needs to hurry at all costs. However, the solemn moment which registers the beauties of nature is soon over. (Could there ever have been more confusing climatic conditions within a space of a day, and within a few miles, than in this story? Let us be charitable and put everything down to the changeable island weather of Sicily which Goethe, if not Schiller, knew at first hand!). From 'Und zwei Wand'rer sieht er' we return to a substantial fast movement (marked 'Geschwind') which balances the storm music earlier in the piece. The shape of the accompanying figure here is prophetic of the music for Viola (Volume 3) from the sixth verse, 'Du Viola, zartes Kind.' Möros overhears two travellers talking of the imminent crucifixion of his friend, and tension mounts as we move into the final lap, always pushed forward by urgent quavers in the accompaniment. In the little scene with the majordomo Philostratus (a confrontation between master and retainer which is often found in Greek theatre) there is a touching melody in Verse 16 at 'Von Stunde zu Stunde', but by this time we almost want to shake the old man as he slowly recounts his news ('Etwas langsamer') when every second now counts. But this is part of the plan; in terms of tempo we have to reculer, pour mieux sauter. The tempo becomes more agitated as our hero decides to return even if he is too late, and whatever the consequences. The statements of Verse 17 are the ultimate articles of faith of friendship. The piano interlude after und glaube an Lieb' und Treue' is of a tempestuous Beethovenian turn of phrase. The music is very directional; it bears down on the key of E flat as if pushing aside any onlookers and following a narrowing road into a city.
Verses 18-19: In a final burst of energy, Möros approaches the site of the dreadful crucifixion, and of course he is just in time. Schubert manages to save one of the most powerful moments in the piece for the heartfelt cry of '"Mich, Henker!" ruft er, "erwürget!"'. It seems to hit exactly the right note of distress and great-hearted self-sacrifice. The hushed piano interlude after his outburst is very simple but leads effectively into the dumbstruck music of the astounded crowd of verse 19. The euphonious thirds of friendship (Verdi much later used the device to suggest the closeness of Don Carlos and Rodrigo) throughout this section and especially under 'Da sieht man kein Auge tränenleer' are harmonie balm on emotional wounds, and they accurately presage the reconciliation which is now about to take place. (20) Schubert keeps one masterstroke for the last page of the work. These are the four blocks of chords separated by rests which effect the conversion of the tyrant—juxtapositions of fortissimo harmonies which reflect quizzical disbelief as well as the miracle of something extraordinary being revealed to someone formerly blind. John Reed finds this music prophetic of Scarpia's chords in Tosca. If this is so one has to imagine here a converted Scarpia, or rather a Saint Paul on the road to Damascus. The final aria for Dionysus is warmly genial, and suddenly humanised. Fischer-Dieskau says that this has "too much Viennese Gemütlichkeit in it to be wholly effective." But the point is that the tyrant has become a civilised Mensch in the miraculous twinkling of an eye, and for the young Schubert this means that he has the new-found ability to be charming and urbane and forgiving. He could pay the tyrant no higher compliment than to clothe him in new garments, the musical apparel of his own home town. Like many another ballad (including the longest of all, Adelwold und Emma, Volume 10) the work ends with such a tiny postlude that it seems almost unworthy of the size of the preceding song. (Almost all innovations and inventions in Lieder belong to Schubert, but it was not until Schumann that it occurred to a major song composer to finish a large vocal work with an extended piano postlude.) Perhaps Schubert thought it sufficiently significant that these two bars at the end should contain Beethoven's 'Fate' motif in an unexpectedly warm and genial metamorphosis.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993
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