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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Schubert's Swansong

In the last few years of his life, Franz Schubert - probably the greatest composer of art song in western music - composed two magnificent song cycles. Die Schöne Müllerin (The Fair Mill-Maid) was composed in 1824 and Winterreise (Winter Journey) in 1827, the year before his death. Both have been surveyed in earlier posts in this blog:

Die Schöne Müllerin here

Winterreise Part 1 here

Winterreise Part 2 here

In both of these cycles Schubert sets the poetry of a single poet and both cycles have a narrative element to them. Both the cycles, and especially Winterreise, show how Schubert was able to take good poetry and clothe it in music that would make a devastatingly powerful impact upon the astute listener.

However much we might admire these two great narrative cycles, this attitude was not always shared by Schubert's contemporaries. One music critic of the time had written a strongly negative response to his creation of long narrative song cycles. This, and Schubert’s unquenchable development and curiosity, probably led to him creating - or starting to create - a song cycle of a very different sort in the final year of his life. What we know of that cycle is the subject of this post.

Rieder: Franz Schubert (1825)

In May 1829, six months after the Schubert’s death, the publisher Haslinger released a cycle of fourteen songs by Schubert under the title of Schwanengesang (Swan Song). This title is not Schubert’s; it was added as a posthumous recognition of the fact that these were indeed among Schubert’s final utterances as a composer. Controversy has also raged over the fact that, unlike the two earlier cycles, there is no obvious narrative running through the fourteen songs in Schwanengesang. Furthermore, the collection is made up of settings of poetry by three different poets. Surely, many have said, this could not have been Schubert’s intention.

Title page of the first edition of Schwanengesang (1829)

Well, yes, and no. The desire by some musicologists to enforce a narrative onto this collection of songs ignores the possibility that Schubert intended this to be a different sort of cycle to his earlier ones. And the fact remains that the first thirteen songs in the cycle were prepared in their published order in a fair copy by Schubert himself. The decision to add the last song in the published version, setting a text by Johann Seidl, was made by the publisher. In any case, what was published in 1829 comprises, regardless of what may or may not have been Schubert’s intentions, the final songs by the greatest of all song writers.

In this post I’ll link to a playlist of the songs from Schwanengesang which has been uploaded to YouTube. It’s a classic recording by two of the most famous and respected performers of Lieder: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone, and Gerald Moore, piano. The scores run concurrently with the sound.

Ludwig Rellstab

The first seven songs set poetry by Ludwig Rellstab, a German writer of poems, librettos and novels who was also a trained musician and a music critic. The cycle opens with one of Schubert’s most beautiful songs, Liebesbotschaft (Love’s Message). The poem speaks of a murmuring brook which conjures in the poet reminders of his beloved. [listen]

In Graham Johnson’s essay on Schwanengesang (in the notes to this recording) he suggests, with considerable justification, that Schubert’s thirteen songs (remembering the fourteenth was added by the publisher) all in some way pertain to a distant beloved (providing an overall theme rather than a strict narrative), and as such the cycle might be viewed as a successor to Beethoven’s only song cycle which is called An die ferne Geliebte (To the Distant Beloved), dating from 1816. Poignancy is added to this by the evidence suggesting that Schubert himself was, in the last year of his life, in love with a woman with whom any prospect of a relationship was impossible.

The second song in Schwanengesang is Kriegers Ahnung (Warrior’s Foreboding). A soldier is preparing to go into battle and his heart is heavy. Before he goes to what will surely be his death, he remembers his beloved, so far away. [listen]

Returning to nature (a common theme in Schwanengesang), the third song is called Frühlingssehnsucht (Spring Longing). The delights of nature - the breezes, the brooks, the sun, the forests - are beautiful but only serve to raise in the poet a longing for the distant beloved. Schubert sets this reference to her in the minor key at the start of the fifth stanza. The song ends with the poet acknowledging that only the woman he loves can free true springtime within his heart. [listen]

The fourth song in Schwanengesang has a melody which has become one of the most popular, adapted and arranged melodies in the world. Its use in Lilac Time and ab-use as muzak has meant that perhaps more than ever it’s vital to try to hear this song afresh. Simply called Ständchen (Serenade), the poem is a song sung by a man up to the window of his beloved. Schubert’s piano part immediately suggests the serenader’s guitar or lute, but the minor key creates a mood of sadness.

The flirtations with the major key don’t suggest to us that the lover gets his girl. The final utterance of beglücke mich! (make me happy!) is desperate and clearly the cry of a man who has loved and lost. [listen]

Nature appeared in Ständchen in the form of moonlight and nightingales. In the next song, Aufenthalt (which can translated as Dwelling, or Domain), Rellstab’s poem is much more aggressively masculine in its references to mighty rivers, forests and waves, even though the words mention the gender of neither the poet nor the cause of his tears. Nature here is turbulent, a reflection of the sorrow of the lover who cannot have the person he loves. Of course, Schubert matches these images with music perfectly. [listen]

The Jägerzelle (now Praterstrasse) in Vienna (1825)

Schwanengesang’s sixth song is In der Ferne (In the Distance, or Far Away). Rellstab’s poem is contorted into repetitious meters and full of overwhelming rhyme; Schubert was very brave to set it to music at all. But he does so with an eye to the poem’s anguish, describing as it does the poet’s journey into the world, away from the woman who has broken his heart. [listen]

The final Rellstab poem set by Schubert in Schwanengesang is Abschied (Farewell). Here the poem describes a man leaving his town forever (a situation depicted powerfully in Winterreise). He tries to keep his chin up, a fact supported in Schubert’s distinctly cheery setting, but a reference to the stars near the end tells is that he’s leaving at night. Why? We’re not told, but something serious has happened, and the beloved implied between the lines will soon be very distant indeed. [listen]

Oppenheim: Heinrich Heine (1831)

The next six songs set poetry by the German poet, prose writer and critic Heinrich Heine. Here Schubert is in a different literary - and therefore musical - world.

Der Atlas uses the analogy of Atlas, holding the world on his shoulders, as an illustration of the poet holding on his shoulders the crushing weight of sorrow brought upon him by “an endlessly wretched, proud heart”. [listen]

Anger in that song gives way to tragic sadness in the next. Called Ihr Bild (Her Picture) the poet here stares at a picture of the woman he has lost and dissolves in tears. Schubert’s setting is extraordinarily bare, reflecting a high degree of trust in the poetry almost to make its own music. [listen]

In the next song, Das Fischermädchen (The Fishermaiden), a lighter tone is struck. The poet is out to seduce a young fishermaiden, using whatever sweet talk is necessary. Schubert sets the poem simply and effectively, at face value. There’s no nastiness or subterfuge here; just a bloke out for a good time, hoping his maritime-infused chat up lines will work. [listen]

Graham Johnson describes the eleventh song as “one of the strangest songs Schubert ever wrote”. Here the composer’s flights of fancy seem to move into completely uncharted waters, which is an appropriate analogy. It’s called Die Stadt (The Town), and describes a town as seen from a boat through wind and fog, the place where the poet lost the woman he loves. For many it ranks as the finest and most original song in the cycle. [listen]

The watery imagery continues in the next song, Am Meer (By the Sea). Here the poet and the woman he loves are together, in body at least. They sit by the sea, side-by-side, but she weeps. He feels poisoned by her tears. The beloved here may not be distant in body, but she is emotionally a million miles away. [listen]

One of the most famous of all Lieder, the final Heine setting in Schwanengesang is called Der Doppelgänger. This is usually translated as The Wraith, which in German folklore meant an apparition of a living person, the appearance of which was regarded as a portent of that person’s imminent death. In the poem, the man walks, at night, past a house once occupied by his loved-one. She has long ago left, but seeing the house raises powerful and painful memories for him. In the darkened house he sees a ghostly apparition, which he recognises as himself; a wraith, mocking his pain but implying his imminent release from pain through death. [listen]

And so - looking forward to the release of death - end the thirteen songs in Schubert’s manuscript of his untitled collection. These songs were written in August 1828. The publisher, Haslinger, decided to add one more. This was Schubert’s very last song, composed in October 1828, the month before he died.

Johann Seidl

Called Die Taubenpost (Pigeon Post), it is a setting of a poem by Johann Seidl which tells of a carrier pigeon sent by the poet to the house of his beloved. (In this way, Schwanengesang begins and ends with the idea of sending a message.) The bird carries his thoughts, desires and love, but brings nothing back in return. Its story clearly appealed to Schubert, who like the poet had to accept what life gave - and didn’t give - with good humour. That a 31 year old man who knew he had little time left to live could write such a song is too moving for words.

I’ll let Schubert’s last song have the last word. [listen]

Schubert's glasses

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in October, 2008.

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