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The Magic in Schubert’s Songs

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Gustav Klimt: Schubert at the Piano, 1899; destroyed by fire in May 1945

“Truly,” Beethoven remarked in 1827, “in Schubert there dwells a divine spark.” Franz Schubert himself worshiped the older composer and was a torchbearer at his funeral. In the following year, he asked for one of Beethoven’s string quartets to be played at his own sickbed, days, if not hours, before he died at the age of thirty-one. Many of Schubert’s works contain homages to Beethoven: the Fate theme of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the animating motif of Schubert’s terrifying song “Der Zwerg” (The Dwarf). His “Auf dem Strom” (On the River, for voice, piano, and horn) takes up the theme of the Eroica’s death march. And the unusual tempo marking of the first song of the Winterreise cycle (Mässig, in gehender Bewegung, moderate, at walking pace), written in the year of Beethoven’s death, might be seen as a valedictory reference to the latter’s piano sonata “Les Adieux” of 1809–1810.

For Schubert’s contemporaries, Beethoven was the colossus, a figure whose titanic energy and sublime originality went on to define the cult of the hero-musician in the nineteenth century. His deafness added a strain of tragedy. And Beethoven could look the part, his image in paint, print, and sculpture portraying the rugged aesthetic adventurer. Schubert, on the other hand, was under five feet tall, bespectacled, and pudgy, “looking not like a god of music but like a harried Viennese clerk with a head-cold,” as a character in J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime puts it. His friends called him “Schwammerl,” mushroom. When the bodies of the two composers were exhumed in 1863, it was noticed that while Beethoven’s skull was thick, with a strong jawbone, Schubert’s cranium was possessed of an almost feminine fineness of construction.

The Austrian playwright Franz Grillparzer’s epitaph for Schubert, written for the monument that was erected at his grave in the summer of 1830, conveyed the sense that he had died young and, essentially, unfulfilled: “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even far fairer hopes.” Many of Schubert’s greatest pieces were, at that date, unknown or unappreciated. Compared to Beethoven, his longer works were for decades felt to be rambling or lacking in structure. Hubert Parry summed up a long-standing critique in 1893:

[Schubert] had no great talent for self-criticism, and the least possible feeling for abstract design, and balance, and order…. In instrumental music he was liable to plunge recklessly, and to let design take its chance.

As different styles of classical music have weakened the hold of the Beethoven model, Schubert’s “heavenly length” (Robert Schumann’s phrase for his Ninth Symphony) has come to be better appreciated and better understood, as has his harmonic language. It was the most successful composer of the late twentieth century, Benjamin Britten, who summed up the new appreciation of Schubert, in a lecture he gave on receiving the first Aspen Award in 1964:

It is arguable that the richest and most productive eighteen months in our music history is the time when Beethoven had just died, when the other nineteenth-century giants, Wagner, Verdi and Brahms had not begun; I mean the period in which Franz Schubert wrote the Winterreise, the C major Symphony, the last three piano sonatas, the C major String Quintet, as well as a dozen other glorious pieces. The very creation of these works in that space of time seems hardly credible; but the standard of inspiration, of magic, is miraculous and past all explanation.

This sense that at his death Schubert was an incomplete composer stemmed also from his preeminence in two fields of musical composition that lacked the requisite Beethovenian grandeur: song and dance. Beethoven wrote plenty of occasional music, to be sure, which lacked the touch of the sublime. Song was not one of his major interests (though he wrote one masterpiece for voice and piano, the cycle An die ferne Geliebte). Schubert, by contrast, wrote song compulsively, and achieved mastery in it as a teenager. It was as a composer of song that he first became famous; and his fecundity and sophistication in that genre, his gift for melody and his grasp of harmonic drama, both inner and outer, in turn lifted its status. If songs like “Die Forelle” (The Trout) or “An die Musik” (To Music) became popular, a cycle like Winterreise (Winter Journey)—twenty-four songs for voice and piano, seventy minutes long, profound in its impact on performers and audience alike—underwrote his increasing status as a musical giant.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, because of Schubert, song had become a musical form to rival the symphony, the string quartet, and the piano sonata. The harmonic experiments of the Second Viennese School, it has been argued, took place in the laboratory of song-writing. In Berlin in the two decades immediately preceding World War I, there was a lieder craze, an epidemic, as the composer Hugo Wolf called it. The Austrian tenor Richard Tauber brought Schubert songs to the cinema in the years before World War II; after it, the German singers Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Elizabeth Schwarzkopf used the leverage that their recordings afforded to bring lieder recitals to the great concert halls of the world, among them Carnegie Hall, the Royal Festival Hall, even the cavernous spaces of the Royal Albert Hall.

The lied is surely, however, an art form best suited to intimate spaces or, at least, to spaces that can fabricate a sort of intimacy. The retreat from the star lieder recital of the 1960s and 1970s has arguably created a healthier environment for the song recital in places like the Schubertiade in Schwarzenberg, Austria, or London’s Wigmore Hall.

It is true that, as the poet of Wolf’s Italian Songbook teasingly put it, “small things can also delight us” (Auch kleine Dinge können uns entzücken). But the lied is more than a bonbon or a frisson. Its aesthetic claims are complex and multifaceted: the response to text, the compression of drama (the thrill of the opera in a matter of minutes), a melodic sweep and harmonic language as worthy of attention and analysis as anything in Western classical music. In this sense the lied is a standing rebuke to classical music’s hierarchies, in which the biggest—or most expensive—is best. In instrumental music, it is the symphonic repertoire that draws large audiences and big money; in vocal music, it is the lavish business of opera. On the subject of hierarchy, here is an exchange between the musicologist Hans Keller and his friend Benjamin Britten in 1969: “I shall be as brutally factual as is my wont,” wrote Keller.

You have written magnificent pieces lately—works which could only have come from a great composer. But they are, diagnosably, a major composer’s minor works. The time has come for a major one.

Too many pieces for children, for small ensemble, or simply uncategorizable theater pieces like the church parable Curlew River, too many songs. Britten’s reply was bracingly direct; he refused, as an artist, to be constrained by the demands of hierarchy: “I don’t know what constitutes a ‘major’ work,” he wrote. There speaks the true Schubertian.

In his book Why Classical Music Still Matters (2007), the musicologist and historian Lawrence Kramer, in a chapter called “Love Song and the Heartache of Modern Life,” makes a bold connection between Schubert and the modern pop song. At the center of both is the “romantically disappointed protagonist” who comes to take on a privileged role as a “splinter of subjective life.” In the prototypical Schubert song, as much as in the pop song, expressive sincerity comes before vocal prowess; authenticity and intimacy are at a premium.

The lineage from Schubert via Cole Porter to Bob Dylan or the Beatles is not a straightforward one, but it was Schubert who more than anyone elaborated this model of vocal music. He gave actual voice to Goethe’s solitary vision of lost love in his poem “Erster Verlust” (First Loss), with its words “Einsam nähr’ ich meine Wunde” (alone I nurture my wound), which he set to music in 1815 at the age of eighteen. We sit and wallow in the pain of the wound, elaborate it through song—at the piano or fastened to the iPod, singing along in a half-voice, repeating the cherished melody. Yet we do not only nourish it, but it nourishes us, creating our sense of self, the modern self.

Graham Johnson, in his monumental three-volume encyclopedia of Schubert’s songs, gives “Erster Verlust” (D226 in the catalog compiled by Johnson’s most eminent Schubertian predecessor, the German-Jewish exile Otto Eric Deutsch) masterly attention. He points to its concision, as part of an “elite group of single-page Schubertian masterpieces.” “Every note,” he writes, “every syllable, tells.” He goes on to provide a sensitive and detailed analysis of how the music works its magic, the harmonic and melodic bases for the song’s inimitable configuration of the ardent, the bittersweet, and the tenacious. A whole armory of detailed effects are woven together in a matter of a couple of minutes. To name only a few, these effects include typically Schubertian ambivalence between major and minor keys; sustained vocal lyricism; and syncopation in the piano. Despite the apparent high Romanticism of the song, Johnson is right to point out its lyrical classicism and affinity with the understated dignity of Gluck.

It is here that Johnson plays one of his trump cards, informing us that the poem was originally an aria, “assigned to the character of the Baroness in Goethe’s little-known Singspiel, Die ungleichen Hausgenossen,” whose libretto was at least partly based on Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. We are reminded in this song of Mozart’s Countess, as she recalls happier times with her errant husband in the arias “Dove Sono” and “Porgi Amor.” What had seemed an interior monologue, a lyric utterance by a lonely, and presumably, at least primarily, a male voice, is deftly relocated into an operatic scena, and with a different gender as well: it is less a lovestruck metaphysical engagement with subjectivity than the melting rerehearsal of an age-old domestic predicament.

What Johnson offers here is not prescriptive. As a singer, one is endlessly looking for the new and unexpected angle. Here we can reimagine “Erster Verlust” as the dignified but ultimately defeated outpouring of a prototype of the Countess Almaviva, a defeat laconically encoded in the brief piano postlude rather than in the vocal line. This is not directly helpful to the male singer in performance, of course. It does, however, offer a fresh perspective, and the possibility of a renewed engagement; not that it in any way disqualifies the notion of “Erster Verlust” as a vessel of iconic lyric subjectivity.

Schubert’s own emotional appropriation of songs confirms this. In a letter of March 1824, deeply depressed by the symptoms and, even more, the treatment for his syphilis, Schubert quoted the words of his first great masterpiece, the words of Gretchen entangled in her passion for Faust—“Meine Ruh’ ist hin, mein Herz ist schwer” (my peace is gone, my heart is heavy). In the case of “Erster Verlust,” another song that clearly meant much to the composer, Johnson notes Schubert quoting the third and fourth lines in a letter written in September 1824,

evok[ing] memories of a different kind of loss, of a vanished time of “united striving after the highest beauty,” of sitting cosily with close friends who shyly shared their latest work with each other while awaiting approval or criticism.

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Private Collection/Snark/Art Resource
‘Encounter between Beethoven and Schubert’; detail of a watercolor painting by Leopold Kupelwieser, nineteenth century

London, not Berlin or Vienna, is today the unlikely capital of art song, with two or three lieder recitals every week of the season at the Wigmore Hall. A large part of the responsibility for this rests with Graham Johnson. With his group the Songmakers’ Almanac and its series of inventive dramatic presentations of song through history and literature, he developed a new audience for the genre in the 1970s and 1980s. I heard my first performance of Schubert’s cycle Die schöne Müllerin (The Beautiful Miller Girl) as part of a Songmakers’ event in the early 1980s. With his encyclopedic recorded editions of the song literature on the Hyperion label—French song, Schumann, Brahms, and, most famously, Schubert—he has given the appreciation of lieder, mélodies, and art song a new depth and breadth.

Johnson has strong roots in the practices of the past: a protégé of Gerald Moore, the greatest lied pianist from the 1930s to the 1970s; an assistant to Benjamin Britten in the early 1970s; and a trusted friend of and collaborator with the tenor Peter Pears, Britten’s partner in some of the greatest recordings of the lied repertoire. He has by now almost single-handedly transformed the fortunes of the lied. Known for his lengthy and scholarly booklet notes for the Schubert edition, he has now taken the material, expanded and rewritten it, and produced what will surely stand as one of the great modern monuments of practical musicology, his vast three-volume encyclopedia, handsomely published by Yale University Press.

That handsomeness is crucial to one of the main and overarching achievements of the project. The book is overflowing with contemporary illustrations drawn from Johnson’s own collection of Schubertiana, making the book a unique imaginative resource for the performer or listener who wants to immerse him- or herself in Schubert’s world. We see editions of the poetry that Schubert may himself have used; portraits of the poets; frontispieces of the published songs; and later visual interpretations of the music, ranging from the mid-nineteenth-century sentimental to the uncanniness of the turn of the twentieth. Johnson’s entry on “Erster Verlust,” for example, is accompanied by the vignette from Czerny’s solo piano arrangement of the song (1838–1839), a female figure leaning back pensively on a chaise longue.

Johnson’s treatments of the songs can be, as we have seen, revelatory. Take another acknowledged masterpiece, “Sei mir gegrüsst” (I greet you), a song that Richard Wagner considered Schubert’s most beautiful. “It moved us to tears,” wrote his wife Cosima in her diary entry for January 15, 1875. Here is the first of the five verses, written by Friedrich Rückert in Persian ghazal form:

You who were torn from me and
   my kisses,
   I greet you!
   I kiss you!
You, whom only my yearning
   greeting can reach,
   I greet you!
   I kiss you!

Johnson worries about the song. He finds it replete with a chromaticism that was to become a Romantic cliché; burdened with a dangerously laborious tempo marking (langsam, slow); endlessly repetitive in its refrain. “We wearily come to the conclusion,” Johnson writes, “that this lover is a bore.” The solution, for Johnson, is another exercise in scholarly rediscovery. “If we accept the possibility that this poem, from the poet who wrote the Kindertotenlieder [set by Mahler], is an elegy after the death of a loved one, many of the conflicting images become clearer.”

Johnson is probably the first to notice that the song is dedicated to the mother of Schubert’s close friend Franz von Bruchmann, who had lost her daughter Sybilla in 1820. He illustrates the entry with the vignette that decorates the poem in Rückert’s Östliche Rosen, a funeral wreath. Rather than a piece of Romantic self-indulgence, Johnson wants to see the song as a lament, looking to Gluck rather than the Romantics: Orpheus missing his Eurydice. For Johnson this makes “the obsessiveness of the many repeats” seem “less banal.” “Such a change of emphasis,” he writes, “makes an enormous difference to the performer: charming the audience should not be the first priority.”

I remain committed to a more sensuous view of the song, finding in it not so much charm or schmaltz, but rather an edge of eroticism that is enhanced by a slow tempo and by the very repetition that, for Johnson, risks the banal. Obsessive, harmonically withholding and then yielding, yielding and withholding: no wonder the Wagners loved this song—it is Tristan in miniature. If the dedication to Frau Bruchmann is an oddity, surely the poem’s roots in the tradition of the ghazal point to something more dangerously sexual, a contained ecstasy: “I wonder what was the place where I was last night,/ All around me were half-slaughtered victims of love, tossing about in agony” (translation by Amir Khusro).

It is a song difficult to bring off; and like so much in performance, it flirts with failure. The very aspects that can bring success—repetition and a certain pulsating languor—can, without the requisite intensity, guarantee a flop. That said, it is certainly inspiring to have Johnson’s alternative take on the piece, to have another mode of performance available. Schubert’s songs are multivalent. That is their strength.

We are doubly aware of this once we begin to consider the vexed relationship between word and music in song. Mahler said it best:

With songs one can express so much more than the words directly say…. The text actually constitutes only a hint of the deeper content that is to be drawn out of it, of the treasure that is to be hauled up.

There will always be so much more at stake in song than the mere setting of words by music. Faithful, responsible setting can issue in limp, drab music (I think particularly of Gerald Finzi’s Hardy settings, so literate, so musical, and yet so uninspiring). The best Schubert songs involve bodysnatching, ripping the heart out of a poem and giving it back to us again, transformed. That is why great songs can be made out of even very bad poems; one of the greatest, Schubert’s “Der Zwerg,” is frightful to read, but powerful to hear, in and through and with its music. And this is not despite the poem: for the poem, with all its patent and latent meanings, with all its consonants and vowel sounds, is a crucial part of the song’s success.

Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs includes general subject articles on a wide range of topics, from Accompaniment to Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, via Chronology, Dedicatees, Friends and Family, Ornamentation, Tonality and Transposition, and a host of others. As a young and headstrong singer, I had my own run-ins with Johnson as pianist over the tempi of some Schubert songs, so his essay on tempo markings is fascinating to read: wise and measured, crucially focused on the intelligibility of text as a factor in choice of tempo. All the same, extremes of tempo, whether slow or fast, can work, in practice if not in theory. To hear and see a master lied singer like Matthias Goerne with his pianist Eric Schneider take over nine minutes to deliver the last song of Die schöne Müllerin—Fischer-Dieskau and Moore take six, and the song is marked mässig or moderato—is to realize that music lives in performance, and that rules are made to be broken.

Every pianist, every singer of Schubert songs, should read Johnson on the use of the pedal. His accounts of Schubert pianists and Schubert singers are generous, his treatment of rubato exemplary. There is even an article on the guitar, which was so often the accompanying instrument in early performances of Schubert’s songs, and whose qualities of intimacy and delicacy are sometimes a better match for the early piano than the supersized Steinway of modern times.

Most of the entries in these indispensable volumes are, however, necessarily concerned with the poetic sources, the poetic text, and musical analysis of the resulting song. Johnson provides an incomparable foundation for performance and for listening—for singer, for pianist, and for audience member alike. All the information one could possibly require is gathered in one place. Once prepared, the magic can take over and, in Mahler’s words, the treasure can be hauled up, taking us to places poet or composer may never even have dreamed of.