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Auf einen Kirchhof, D151

First line:
Sei gegrüsst, geweihte Stille
published c1850
author of text

This remarkable song has been denigrated by many commentators because it is something of a carpet-bag, containing samples of all the song techniques Schubert was using in 1815. As a mixture of recitative, aria and arioso it shows an advance on the fist Mayrhofer setting, Am See from two months earlier (D124). Franz von Schlechta was not nearly as interesting a poet as Mayrhofer, but the lakeside melancholia and mawkish history lesson of the Mayrhofer piece is no less ridiculous (if we insist on judging this poetly by twentieth-century standards) than the graveside philosophy of Auf einen Kirchhof. Schlechta's fiery avowal of faith (the first of eight of his poems to be set over the next eleven years) has the distinction of being among the first poems from his circle of contemporaries, to be set by Schubert, but it is by no means the first to be preoccupied with death and mortality. It is certainly true that there was a great deal of death-orientated poetry about and not only from amateurs, but this was surely because, in those days, death touched people's lives with a more honest and unsanitised regularity than in our own time. Schubert's was no exception: he lost his mother as a teenager, and infant mortality (including that of his own siblings) was a common tragedy.

After a spread chord the song opens with a gentle hymn-like melody, a rising scale of four notes prophetic of the opening of he 1816 Uz setting Die Nacht. The tunefulness of this first verse changes effortlessly and naturally to a new mood for the second, when clouds and sunset (with a downward arpeggio to denote the sinking sun) seem to require the rhythmic haze of recitative. The third verse is a highly effective mixture of the two elements, flowering into the positively Mozartian melody and Magic Flute fommality of the fourth. This leads to more recitative (sextuplets briefly illustrate the grinding of the big wheel of the world's clock) ending with a beautiful cadence on the words 'bluhen wieder auf der Flor' which is echoed on the piano. The sixth and seventh verses (a section marked 'Massig geschwind') build up to the sort of expansive climax which would have crowned many a ballad by Reichardt; the slightly wayward feeling of these modulations is ideal for a wavering flame flickering across the moor. shafts of light piercing the mists as the harmonies pass through an arpeggiated thicket of deceptive sharps to the clarity of C major. The simple device of representing upwardly soaring tone with a somewhat lame rising arpeggio figure on the piano is a device from an earlier age, a last vestige of undigested Zumsteeg; it does not prepare us for the daring of the piece's last recitative (Verse 8). The worm writhes his way from C to B major, and thence to C sharp major. The fear engendered by this twisting journey is suddenly countermanded with speed and tenacity by a grand rebuttal. Such hypochondriacal imaginings as might be encouraged by the exotic presence of C sharp major (on the word 'Staub') are summarily banished: E sharps are flattened by the presence of A major anchored deep on the keyboard by the pianist's tolling left hand, the right hand articulating and flexing the music's rippling muscles. This is reminiscent of the triumphant music on the last page of Hektors Abschied D312 (also marked 'Schnell' and written eight months later) in which the Trojan Hedor proclaims that his love is immortal and impervious to Lethe. The finales to both Hektors Abschied and Auf einen Kirchhof are defiant assertions of belief in immortality, music of reckless bravery, not of quiet and passive conviction. Despite the Christian context of this poem (and Schlechta revised it greatly later, pruning it to six verses) the shades of Gluck and his pagan libretti are never far away. And it is certain that Schubert was on the verge of being influenced by the anti-Christian classicism of his new friend Mayrhofer.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1990


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