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Verklärung, D59

First line:
Lebensfunke, vom Himmel entglüht
first published by A Diabelli & Co in Vienna in 1832 in volume 17 of the Nachlass
author of text
translator of text

This is an early Schubert song, but it does not pale in comparison with its later companions. Einstein believed that the composer could not have done any better with this text many years later in his career; it is indeed a very considerable achievement for a sixteen year old. Schubert's preoccupation with the diffuse ballad form is so great in this early period, that we can all too easily overlook the handful of much smaller songs that are imitations of the past, and intimations of Schubertian glories to come. In the ballads he was influenced by Zumsteeg and Reichardt, but in the miniatures there are other models: the Mozartian melody of Der Jüngling am Bache (D30, Volume 1), the poise and gravity of Zelter in the exquisite miniature Klaglied (with Rochlitz's words themselves an imitative tribute to Gretchen's plaint at the spinning wheel), and the mellifluous meanderings of the Matthisson setting Die Schatten, (again Mozartian) where we hear an early attempt to create a vocal line that is half way between recitative and aria. These pieces however do not attempt to grip or surprise us, only to delight. Verklärung is a new departure for Schubert in that it seeks to do a ballad's stirring work in a very short time; within the miniature format of song, it unites stretches of aria with the colour and drama of story-telling recitative (the pathos here of 'Die welt entweicht … sie ist nicht mehr' is utterly simple yet amazingly telling). The drama of death (and the rather English uppity lip of a stiff's defiance) is stylised in pompous and old-fashioned oratorio style, its rhetorical and exalted tone brings to mind Handel and some of C P E Bach's settings of poems by Gellert and Sturm (particularly the blood and thunder of the latter's Der Tag des Weltgerichts). Many and various were to be Schubert's successes when he shifted between recitative and aria at text-inspired will, but here we encounter the mélange for the first time in a manageable song-sized serving. It might however be argued that Verklärung is a cantata fragment more than a true Lied because it lacks idiomatic piano writing; it could be most felicitously accompanied by strings with touches of oboe. In this way it is related to the aria exercises written (in Italian of course!) for Salieri, although none of them is as good as Verklärung; the mother tongue is what makes the difference. Whatever the mature composer's feeling for the faith of his fathers, it is probable that in 1813 he was a papal enthusiast; both Popes after all were good Roman Catholics. Schubert was yet to meet his anti-pope friends (Mayrhofer, Schober and others) who fostered the schism between the composer and establishment attitudes.

Alexander Pope is one of the tiny band of British writers who came into Schubert's song writing catalogue (the others are Shakespeare, Walter Scott (Volume 13), Colley Cibber (Volume 14) and Abraham Cowley (Der Weiberfreund, Volume 10). Pope's Essay on Man was to be translated into German in 1822 after which he joined the ranks of Milton, Ossian, Goldsmith, Shakespeare, Scott, Byron and Marlowe as a European classic. Herder's translation of The Dying Christian to his soul dates from as early as 1786 however, and was part of an essay entitled How the Ancients looked at Death. Pope's greatness as poet, satirist, epigrammist and polemicist needs no explication here.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991


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