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Der Jüngling und der Tod, D545

First line:
Die Sonne sinkt, o könnt ich mit ihr scheiden
Second setting. March 1817; published in 1872
author of text

The key is C sharp minor—very unusual for Schubert. It is the key of the song Der Wanderer, and the opening of the slow movement of the piano Fantasy (D760), inspired and named after that celebrated Lied, irresistibly reminds us of the introduction to Der Jüngling und der Tod. C sharp minor was also the key for the composer's first thoughts on Nachtstück (Volume 4) where a similar Handelian overture serves to announce not only nightfall, but a drama which will unfold under cover of darkness. We should not forget that Schubert's idol Beethoven chose C sharp minor for a piano sonata which was popularly identified with moonlight. There are a number of other Schubert songs (An die untergehende Sonne, Freiwilliges Versinken) which deal with the majesty of sunset, the vocal line falling by degrees, the accompaniment stately and portentous. Although the opening of this song belongs to that tradition, the grandiose workings of nature quickly yield to a touching human drama where the youth begs for death in words which deliberately reverse ("rühre mich doch an") the pleas of Claudius's maiden. There is no attempt to make the youth's music manly, brave or nonchalant (as the words might have suggested). Though more expansive, his pleas are every bit as musically delicate and subtle as the girl's; the vocal line palpitates and sighs on many a melting appogiatura and dying fall. Although it might be argued that Schubert meant this song to be sung by a woman, he is always less concerned than some other composers to paint stereotypes. He knows that at a crucial moment of life or death, a man is likely to be every bit as vulnerable, child-like and afraid as a woman (who might well, in her turn, be strong and defiant). There is a good deal of trepidation mixed in with this masochistic, even erotic, desire for union with death, and the music pulling in two directions at once makes the poem more believable.

The final section illustrates the maxim that the ideas which seem the most inevitable to us do not always spring immediately to the creator's mind. The first version of the song (D545A) has death singing in the depths of G minor which makes the work almost umperformable by a single singer. Surprisingly enough, in this first version the appearance of death is not prefaced by an interlude which uses the famous rhythmic and harmonic motifs from the Claudius song; neither is there a postlude to put us in mind of Der Tod und das Mädchen. It is only in the second version that this seemingly inevitable self-quotation takes place. The key is now D minor (could death in Vienna speak in any other key since Mozart's Commendatore?) and the tread of the predator/liberator is the familiar one. For those who feel tempted (almost everyone) to take the slow-looking minims and crotchets of the Claudius setting at a funereal pace, it is instructive to see that Schubert has on this occasion written out the death interlude in notes of half the value. The scythe of the Grim Reaper, gliding forwards for his harvest, has cut time into a gliding two-in-a-bar. The speed of the passages in both songs is certainly meant to be the same.

Josef von Spaun came from a well-to-do and semi-noble Linz family. He was a good nine years older than Schubert and had been a student at the Imperial Seminary in Vienna two years before the young composer won a scholarship there on the strength of his singing. From the very beginning the older boy took an interest in the younger's talent, ensuring that Schubert had enough music paper on which to write his increasingly adventurous compositions. When Schubert was in his teens, Spaun introduced him to the poet Mayrhofer, to the fun-loving dilettante Schober, and to the opera singer Vogl; all three men were to have a crucial influence on Schubert's lif. Spaun also made every effort, albeit unsuccessful, to interest Goethe in Schubert's songs. Goethe's failure to answer his letter on Schubert's behalf may have had something to do with the fact that the lion of Weimar knew that Spaun's uncle Franz Seraphicus, who lived in Munich, was a virulent opponent of his work. Spaun returned to his home town when he was appointed to a magistracy in Linz. There is a grain of truth in the comic exaggeration of forsaken comradeship in Herrn Josef von Spaun (Volume 4) for his absence from Vienna must have been keenly felt: this was in the very period (1821-26) when Schubert most needed good advice and comfort in times of illness and tribulation. It is generally agreed that the composer never had a better friend than the generous and stable Spaun who went on to become a distinguished civil servant. If he lacked the fantasy and daredevil freedom of some of Schubert's other friends, notably Schober, his written memories of the composer have proved the most reliable, and his judicious ability to see the events and persona of the epoch in perspective show him to have been a man of tolerance, insight and loyalty.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1989


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