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Viola, D786

First line:
Schneeglöcklein, o Schneeglöcklein
March 1823; published in 1830 as Op 123
author of text

For Schubert, 1823 was a year of big projects. The opera Fierrabras and Die schöne Müllerin were the two big vocal works: twenty-five ensembles and arias gathered together to make one opera, twenty songs to make a song cycle. But Schubert was also always experimenting with other means of joining strands together to make a satisfying musical sequence. Goodness knows he had done his apprenticeship in the composition of long ballads, and the flower ballad Viola was one of the pieces where all this earlier work paid handsome dividends. Here is a piece of vocal chamber music where the unified feeling of an instrumental sonata finale is brought to the Lied. The poet, Franz von Schober, was perhaps Schubert's closest friend. Whether or not he deserved the composer's admiration and devotion has been a moot point among Schubertians ever since. He was half-Swedish, handsome and gregarious; he was also feckless and idle. It was said to be Schober who encouraged the composer to enjoy himself at a brothel towards the end of 1822. By the early months of 1823 the terrible (and finally fatal) consequences of that expedition were evident. At a time when Schubert felt very ill indeed, the two men who had caroused together collaborated in writing a song about a lovesick and abandoned flower. A century later this amused a writer like Capell who said that he felt inveigled into a tour of a horticultural show, but at second glance the choice of subject seems horrifyingly apt. Trampled innocence and wasted potential, succumbing to powerful blighting forces, are all in this song. As Tovey (who wrote an analysis of the piece) says, 'It's love and longing too great for its strength, Viola wastes away in solitude and shame'. In 1823 Schubert understood the feeling.

Unlike many of the ballads, the structure of the piece gives a feeling of seamless continuity. It is in fact a rondo with re-statements of the opening theme at verses 5, 14 and 19. We shall never know whether this was originally Schober's idea or a structural refinement at Schubert's suggestion. Despite the different note values, the tempo of the refrain remains the same; as Reed points out, this is an example of so-called structural acceleration. The style of 2, 3, and 4 is ceremonial, suggesting the priapic energy of spring. Between verses 6 and 8 there is music of the utmost delicacy and excitement where the skilful change from 4 to 3 in a bar and the elegant phrasing of the piano's left hand enhance the feeling of the flower's feminine grace. At verse 9 and the advent of the minor key, a chill enters the song, and a feeling of incipient panic. By the end of 10 everything has come to a terrified halt. The music of 11 suggests an ominous succession of shivers, and frozen trepidation. Viola's flight (second half of 11 until the end of 13) is hugely effective, with a type of long arch-like sweep that could come from a violin sonata; the return of the main theme at 14 is nothing less than a masterstroke. The music at 15 is a beautiful aubade with the voice singing in counterpoint with a courtly bassoon-like bass line. Meanwhile back at the ranch spring festivities continue and at 16 we once again hear the music of verse 2. This skilfully winds down to the point where Viola is missed and a search party is sent out in double quick time. There is a good deal of walking, strolling and sauntering in Schubert's music (his figure probably governed the speed of his country excursions), but this is a rare example of running. At 17, with music of the tenderest simplicity, we find the crushed flower. The enharmonic modulation from this plaintive D minor to the home key of A flat (and the final and poignantly inevitable refrain in requiem) is, as Tovey points out, especially fine.

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. 3 - Ann Murray
CDJ33003Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Schubert: The Songmakers' Almanac Schubertiade
CDD220102CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) — Archive Service


Track 13 on CDD22010 CD2 [13'44] 2CDs Dyad (2 for the price of 1) — Archive Service
Track 10 on CDJ33003 [14'49] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 1 on CDS44201/40 CD27 [14'49] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

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