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Bertas Lied in der Nacht, D653

First line:
Nacht umhüllt
February 1819; published c1842
author of text

Bertha is a character in Grillparzer's first published play Die Ahnfrau (The Ancestress) which received its first performance, by coincidence, on the night of Schubert's twentieth birthday in 1817. It is an unlikely tale of the ghost of the adulterous ancestress of the Borotin family, and this spirit's Intervention in the affairs of Bertha and Jaromir von Borotin who are tragically in love, and without realising it, brother and sister. This poem was an afterthought that never found its way into the play proper, or in the view of Schubert's older contemporaries, no doubt, improper. Like the song In der Mitternacht, the music starts with those ominous doublings of voice and piano which are a sign that the composer is in an atmosphere-spinning mood, and that the subject is night, dreams, and a world of whispering spirits and imaginings. It seems obvious to say that no Schubert song is like any other, but Bertha's song has a feeling ali its own. There is something about the awkwardness of the vocal intervais that sets it apart, the almost Wagnerian chromaticism, and the brooding mezzo-soprano tessitura (like Die Mutter Erde, Volume 5) have a timeless Erda-like aura. Or at least this is what one thinks on hearing the first verse. Then something seraphic happens: a thatched roof of repeated notes is woven in the pianist's right hand, a pedal in reverse, holding within its frame a wonderful cello tune in the tenor register, and suddenly time and place are suspended in the magic of the night. Something similar happens in another ghostly song Schwestergrüss (1822), and it seems that Schubert is very aware that these words belong to a play which deals in the supernatural. As rewarding as the accompaniment of this song can be, there is something about the piano writing, its density and layout, that suggests a short score (I have already mentioned cellos, and I can hear ail sorts of woodwind effects too). Could it be that Schubert hoped that the song would be adopted into an actual performance of Grillparzer's play, and that he intended to orchestrate the piece as soon as he was asked? The fact that invitation never came was the Viennese theatre public's loss (though which actress could have hoped to sing it competently?) and our gain.

Franz Grillparzer was one of Schubert's most famous and celebrated contemporaries. His plays still hold the stage, particularly in his native Austria. Like Schubert, he was born in Vienna, but unlike the composer he moved in a milieu of well-connected aristocratie privilege. Despite his work in the Court Library Service he was never a great favourite with the Establishment, and was capable of enraging the powers-that-were with his writings. His relationships with women were turbulent and manifold, but the most important of them was his lifelong friendship (never quite extended to marriage) with Kathi Fröhlich, sister of Anna and 'Pepi' who feature strongly in Schubert's story. Grillparzer was quite a close friend of Beethoven (the reason that Fischer-Dieskau puts forward for Schubert's wariness in his relationship with the poet) and provided him with Melusina as a libretto. Although primarily known as a man of the theatre, Grillparzer wrote a number of Novellen, as well as a good deal of poetry. He had a long and distinguished life; he was in contact with almost every important German man of letters, and he was widely travelled and much honoured. He wrote the somewhat controversial epigram on Schubert's tombstone 'The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even fairer hopes'. Although well-meant, this facile phrase suggests a lack of inside knowledge of the composer's output, but it was, after all, a viewpoint shared even by those who knew Schubert better. Einstein suggests that despite the poet's fame, Schubert was not impressed with his work; 'Grillparzer was one of those not unusual German poets … in whose poetry the ideas scarcely ever achieve complete purity of form'. Mayrhofer, it seems, although struggling and unknown, was another matter. Who could possibly say that in literary matters, Schubert was not his own man?

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1990


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