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Der Liedler, D209

First line:
Gib, Schwester, mir die Harf’ herab
January 1815; published in 1825 as Op 38
author of text

How different in scale and density this music is from the ballad Der Taucher where Schubert depicts kingly pomp and circumstance with mighty flourishes for voice and piano. He had composed that in 1814 so the comparative simplicity of Der Liedler is a retreat from that ornate style and more appropriate to a tale of a simple youth. The poem evokes a world of more-or-less medieval minstrelsy—a popular setting for stories of the time, including the libretti of numerous Singspiel operas and even more complex works like Weber's Euryanthe. The melodramatic meanderings of the fake Celtic bard Ossian also influenced the poet.

Verses 1-2: The time signature is 2/4 which Schubert often uses for songs sung by guileless characters whose rustic demeanour suggests folk music: e.g. the miller boy (in Das Wandern and elsewhere), Der Wanderer an den Mond, Alte Liebe rostet nie. The key is A minor and the poignant chromaticism and the high placing of the left hand chords suggest a work which Schubert undoubtedly knew—Mozart's Rondo for piano, K511, in the same key. The piano textures are as bare and simple as befits a humble lad without a background. As he consigns his heart to God's guidance the music steers him to the remote key of E flat—his wanderings have begun. From now on his story (with the exception of a few lines) is assigned to the narrator.

Verse 3: The tender compassionate cantilena in A flat major is prophetic of other songs in which calm triplets underpin a seamless Italianate aria; the Hölty setting An den Mond comes to mind as well as Am Bach im Frühling. It is not coincidence that Mayrhofer's Am Strome is also such a song: this section of the ballad refers to the banks of the Rhine and Danube, and Am Strome also tells of life's journeys and experiences bounded by a river.

Verses 4-5: Impassioned arioso (the slow section 'Im Tod ist Ruh', in A flat, is prophetic of the end of the ballad Viola, D786, in the same key) leads to music which seems to chase its own tail, the futile commotion of unsuccessful suicidal heroism. A marche militaire is strongly related to 'Bella vita militar' from Mozart's Così fan tutte, and in the same key of D major. The canvas is suddenly peopled with an army of jaunty compatriots who awaken the minstrel's homesickness.

Verses 6-11: A recitative accompanied by an undulating dominant seventh eerily evokes the majesty of mountain tops glistening from the homeland. The tonality appropriately returns to the home key of A, but this time nostalgia colours those distant pastures in the major key; the longing for home in the celebrated Der Wanderer ('Wo meine Freunde wandeln gehn') is prophesied in this music. The 6/8 rhythm and a touch of exoticism in the harmony also bring Mozart to mind again, this time Pedrillo's Romanze from Die Entführung aus dem Serail. When the minstrel returns to the wintry reality of home the minor key re-establishes itself. The piano doubles the voice in bleak desolation; the arioso frets and worries. The C minor music at 'Ich hab' nicht Rast' echoes Schäfers Klagelied which was written the year before, and is also the music of an unhappy man standing on a mountain and looking into the valley.

Verse 12: Some of the simplest but most expertly paced music in the piece now depicts Milla's wedding procession at the same time as the minstrel's mounting fear that she can no longer be his.

Verses 13-15: Music of heartbroken inactivity is the lull before the storm; it precedes sudden silent-film heroism and implausibility. The werewolf, a lupus ex machina, livens up the story and the music with dislocations of limb and tonality and the rushing scales appropriate to a scaly monster. Milla faints on a descending vocal line and our hero first of all sacrifices the very thing that makes any self-respecting minstrel a minstrel, his harp … and then loses his strength. Will he live to fight another day? Is he powerless to help Olive Oyl, alias Milla?

Verse 16: … But no, in the absence of spinach, one glance at her gives him the strength to dive into an abyss (conveniently situated) taking the werewolf with him. It is a type of kamikazi mission, prompted by selfless love.

Verse 17: It is a measure of Schubert's greatness that the song can survive the preceding episode. The reprise of the music of (3) lifts lad and story from the depths and brings the work to a touching close. When he wrote this piece Schubert was hopelessly in love with Therese Grob, a girl who sang at the parish church of Liechtental. There was some money in her family and Schubert who had no prospects was ineligible from every point of view. This poem about love until death, and a supreme sacrifice made for love (including in a sense the renunciation of music itself) must have made many a string sympathetically resound in the heart of the poor young minstrel of Vienna. Other members of the circle were moved by it too. In 1822 Moritz von Schwind sketched seven illustrations based on the ballad, the only Schubert song to be so lavishly honoured by Schwind's art in the composer's lifetime.

Josef Kenner, three years older than Schubert, was born and brought up in Linz. In 1811 he came to study at the Imperial College in Vienna where he met the fourteen-year-old composer as a fellow student. Schubert's three Kenner settings date from early 1815 when the composer was pressed into a life of schoolteaching and Kenner was continuing his studies to be a lawyer. Together with Josef von Spaun, Anton Stadler and Josef Holzapfel he often heard Schubert who returned to his old school to play his music for friends. Thirty years after the composer's death, Kenner described to Ferdinand Luib those extraordinary times in the freezing cold piano room of the Imperial College:

It was there that his earliest compositions were first tried out and discussed and it was there that I was surprised by the dedication of the 'Liedler', which was handed over to me. You cannot possibly imagine how humble I felt at this mark of distinction, at this dedication, and at the truly friendly way in which it was done, because you know neither my admiration for Schubert's artistic greatness nor my opinion of my own very humble merits. I did indeed know that Schubert craved merely for words which were fairly manageable and that therefore I had no reason to be in the least conceited because mine were chosen.

Conceited, perhaps not, but devoted to Schubert for the rest of his life, certainly, even if as the years wore on they had less in common. In 1816 Kenner went back to Linz to take up an appointment in government service; he kept in touch with the Schubert circle through Spaun and others, though there are no letters between composer and poet. Schubert probably saw Kenner on the occasions he visited Linz. Kenner's memoirs are particularly hard on Franz von Schober who entered Schubert's life in the autumn of 1815 and whose influence on the composer Kenner probably resented from those early times. He certainly blamed Schober for encouraging the composer into the pathways that led to his final illness. There is something of the provincial puritan in Kenner's attitude, but also the solicitude of an older boy at school protecting a younger charge. After all, that dedication of Der Liedler turned out to be the high point of Kenner's life.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1989


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