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Minona oder die Kunde der Dogge, D152

First line:
Wie treiben die Wolken so finster und schwer
first published 1894
author of text

This ballad is either ignored by the commentators, or dismissed in the most damning terms. It has not helped its case that the poet Bertrand is something of an unknown quantity; John Reed thinks that he may have been, like Kenner, a member of the Schubert circle, but as the poem was published in Leipzig in an almanac entitled The Pocket-book of Sociable Pleasures as early as 1808, this seems highly unlikely. As far as I know the song has never before been recorded; it was left out of Fischer-Dieskau's mammoth compilation (as was the other Bertrand setting, the gigantic Adelwold und Emma) and this has not added to the song's chances. A number of Schubert's songs from the early period need the advocacy of living artists before they come to life, for only a fine singer is able to recreate what Schubert himself heard in his imagination; more harm has probably been done to the Schubertian cause by snap judgements made at musicologists' pianos than by anything else. It has to be admitted that the Ossian-influenced poem of Minona is not of the first rank, but it is nowhere near as ridiculous as Gothic fantasies like Romanze and Die Nonne, set by Schubert in 1814 and 1815 respectively, and protected from total derision by the standing of their poets, Matthisson and Hölty. There is nothing like a blood and thunder poem from an unknown pen to get the critics shouting thud and blunder. Minona actually gives Schubert a number of splendid pictorial opportunities; it is much more concise than some of its fellow (or sister) ballads. It is rather too easy to heap critical opprobrium on a song which has not found an advocate in one hundred and seventy-five years. The more that is written against it, the more likely it is to remain unperformed.

Section 1: The piano's opening introduction is powerful and dramatic, a slow build-up like a bank of clouds obscuring the light, and obfuscating the harmony. Three strong octaves in the left hand announce the key of A minor, but we stride inexorably into B minor and then C sharp minor via right hand suspensions, for suspense is the intention. The vocal recitative is heavy with a premonition of doom. The piano's raindrop music uses a figure that Schubert may have remembered from the development section of the first movement of Mozart's A major Piano Concerto (K488). The battle of the spirits is reflected by a type of piano figuration that we will hear again in Rastlose Liebe written a few months later.

Sections 2,3,4: This is recitative of a high quality, initially more effective and spine-chilling because it is without pianistic support. Although the lines beginning 'Und über die Heide' are now in E flat, they are underpinned by the same harmonic sequence that opened the ballad. If we had not guessed from her name that Minona was supposed to be a Scottish (or rather Celtic) heroine in the Ossianic mould, the invocation to someone called Edgar would confirm our suspicions. The use of simple B flat harmony over a stretch of piano writing is most effective: the flute solo of the right hand suggests a touch of desolate (and potentially deranged) grief. This together with the name of the hero makes these two bars a ghostly pre-echo of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor a full twenty years before that work was written. It shows that a feeling for the deserted moor and the ancestral hall of Scotland was very much in the European air and ear. A not very serious attempt to illustrate the movement of arrows and snorting dogs is followed by a magical cantilena in B flat which again suggests the world of Italian bel canto (Schubert's debt to Salieri in this regard is seldom sufficiently acknowledged). We return to the key of A minor at last on the words 'Wohl minnen die Toten uns nimmer'. The tune sung by the soprano here is repeated Leitmotif-like at the very end of the piece by the piano. It seems to me to be Schubert's way of showing that he regards this phrase, and its meaning, as the heart of the work. He had already known bereavement in his life with the death of his mother. One should also not forget that Schubert was experiencing a great deal of trouble from his father at this time. Minona defies the terrible vengeance of her father to love whom she pleases, even if it can only be in death.

Sections 5,6,7: This recitative has some wonderful touches; the unexpected modulation on 'Was frommt es?' and the nobility and sadness of the dying fall of the harmony on 'zum Bette von Erde gemacht'. The piano interlude in B minor (marked 'Klagend') is among the most beautiful in all the ballads. It is the dog's music—whining, troubled, panting, and gentle despite its size. The Kupelwieser drawing of the Schubertiad, with the dog Drago sitting comfortably under Schubert's piano, shows that the composer was comfortable with canines. From time to time he depicted animals in music but nowhere more cleverly than here; it is after all simpler to depict a fish in water than a dog pawing at a door with mezzo staccato half-sharpened claws. The composer somehow manages to find the right fretful, imploring harmonies, going around in circles, appropriate for bad news in a dumb language.

Sections 8,9: As Minona follows the dog on her last tragic journey it is the spirit of Mozart which hovers over the music. The words 'es leuchtet so düster' seem to come straight from the'Recordare' quartet of the Requiem, and it is very significant that both Bertrand's text and the timeless Latin are about being summoned in judgement. Verse 9 has rather a more obvious chain of modulations—or rather, in this impossibly high tessitura, a chain-saw. One is reminded of the ballads of Schubert's earlier years which are sometimes unsingable in their vocal demands. The word 'Dräuschwur' (vow of vengeance) produces an instrumental flourish (brass?) worthy of the young Verdi.

Sections 10,11: The unlikely progression of the story from here on has moments of banality, it is true, but there are also sublime things. The silver harps of the spirits have a mystical breadth and majesty that recall (and prophesy) the confidence of Lohengrin, or even Das Rheingold. The simplicity and eloquence of the final bars of piano writing have already been mentioned. In the close of the work, like the opening of Der Liedler written the month before, the influence of Mozart's Rondo in A minor (K511) is very apparent.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1989


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/40Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 7 - Elly Ameling
CDJ33007Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Track 1 on CDJ33007 [11'01] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 4 on CDS44201/40 CD5 [11'01] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

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