Schubert: Lieder – Vol. 14

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Songs by Franz Schubert, with Graham Johnson and Marie McLaughlin.


It is only relatively recently that the teaching of Latin and Greek has ceased to be central to the school systems of European countries. In the time of Shakespeare, classics dominated education: when Jaques in As You Like It speaks of the whining schoolboy ‘creeping like snail/Unwillingly to school’ we can be certain that had textbooks been supplied to pupils in the Bard’s time, the youngster would have been carrying a deadly Latin grammar in his satchel. Although curricula gradually diversified over the next three hundred years, nineteenth-century schoolchildren still took it for granted that a good deal of their time would be spent poring over the runes of the ancients. The classical languages were a byword for unproductive drudgery for centuries of students who longed to be parsed-over—spared the summons to construe their inadequately prepared passages of Livy and Virgil under the beady eye of a cane-wielding magister.

Franz Schubert had the advantage (at least as far as his Latin studies were concerned) of living in a Roman Catholic country; we know that he had a very pious upbringing, and that the sound of Latin, and its use in daily prayers, would have been part of his life from very early on. We know very little, however, about how skilful Schubert’s Latin and Greek teachers were, and whether they inspired affection or fear in their young charge. In terms of everyday existence, and the scant comforts of board and lodging, life was pretty spartan at the Imperial Konvikt—Schubert wrote to one of his brothers in November 1812 asking for more pocket money to buy extra food—but beyond a line in this letter which phlegmatically states that life was ‘satisfactory on the whole’, we are not told whether or not he actually enjoyed his studies. Of course there have been enlightened and inspiring teachers in every age, but generations of students in every civilised country in the West were made to learn classical languages by rote, without having the slightest idea why they were being made to do so.

Thanks to Deutsch’s Documentary Biography we can at least trace the pupil’s progress through the school system, and it is no surprise to discover that the authorities placed ‘Latin Language and Style’ second only to ‘Religious Instruction’ in the list of subjects in the curriculum. It is even possible that some of the prefects or instructors at the Konvikt taught their school subjects entirely in Latin. In the absence of any formal teaching of the German language, much less French or Italian (an interest in English was still a very rare eccentricity) it was, of course, from its attention to Latin grammar that the class took its name—those students in their first year in the school were said to be in ‘The First Grammar Class’. The title of English grammar schools also held out a similar promise to their students that they would be ‘lashed into Latin by the tingling rod’ as John Gay put it. It is possible that Schubert endured school life in much the same way that countless boys have survived the experience, scarcely questioning his lot, cursing his Latin assignments in time-honoured fashion, copying from his confrères and allowing them to copy from him, passing round a well-used crib and, in his case, resenting anything that took him away from thinking about, and writing, music. On the other hand, and even despite himself, he might have been fascinated by the neatness and efficiency of the Latin language, pared down to the bare bones and as cabbalistic as his beloved hieroglyphic key- and time-signatures. The intricacies of Latin inflections are akin to the science of harmony; one letter can change a word’s meaning in much the same way as a single note rising or falling within a chord can change the tonality of a piece of music. Schubert’s ebullient use of Latin twice in his life (or at least this is all that has survived in the documents) inclines me to believe that he rather took to Latin, despite the temporarily low mark he achieved for one term in the 1813 Latin class.

In both 1809 and 1810 (aged 11 and 12) Schubert received uniformly good marks in all subjects: Morals, Application, Religious Instruction, Latin Language and Style, Mathematics, Natural History and Physics, Geography and History—for such was the complete syllabus. The space on the report for ‘Greek’ was left empty, almost certainly because it was a subject reserved for older boys. Musical progress was noted in a separate report, in which of course singing, piano, and violin were all marked ‘s.gut’ (‘v. good’). In 1811 he was commended for ‘excellent progress … in all subjects’. Schubert’s Latin grammar professor was one Alois Vorsix in this year, and Matthias Rebel in the next, and it was in 1812 that the fourteen-year-old composer began his Greek studies under Benedikt Lamb (who also taught ‘Eloquenz’—elocution), achieving another high mark in this subject at the end of the year. With the onset of puberty, and as he became more involved in writing music, Schubert began to be very much his own person; it is probable that it was at this time that he began to develop that quietly rebellious anti-authoritarian streak which surfaced from time to time throughout his life. He probably got on better with some teachers than with others and, as every school pupil knows, this can affect progress in any subject. It is also possible that Schubert began to coast through his school work (he had always been a musical high-flyer) giving increasingly less of his attention to studies that did not seem relevant to music, but nevertheless achieving thoroughly decent marks. By 1813 his Latin grade had slipped, as had that for mathematics, his Achilles heel. Spaun’s memoirs make clear that the teacher of this subject, Josef Walch, was one of a number of ‘unpopular tormentors’, and this might well have played its part in this failure. Schubert left the Konvikt later that year, just possibly under a disciplinary cloud, so although he maintained good marks in Greek until he left the Konvikt, 1813 is the last we hear of his studying that language.

The young composer now moved on to the Normal Hauptschule, the teacher’s training college which would prepare him to work in his father’s school as an assistant master. Latin was still on the syllabus of that institution—by then Schubert had been working at that subject for five years. Something of his familiarity with classically-inspired versification is shown by a poem he wrote (and set to music) in honour of his father’s name-day in September 1813:

Ertöne Leyer (Resound, my lyre,)
zur Festesfeyer! (In festive celebration!)
Apollo steig hernieder (Apollo, come, descend,)
begeistre unsre Lieder! (And inspire our songs!)

Schubert goes on in this youthful effusion to talk about the shadows of Elysium. The next classical echo in his life is a patriotic inscription (perhaps written by the young composer himself, and displayed outside the schoolmaster Schubert’s house) in honour of the Emperor Francis who returned from Paris as one of the victorious vanquishers (temporarily at least) of Napoleon Bonaparte. Most of the poem (if such it could be called) is in German, but it ends in a Latin inscription to salute the returning conqueror:

Francisco Magno Victori Redeunti!

The significance of the raised capitals is that the Roman numbers (101, 100, 1000, 5+1+100, 1, 500, 5, 1) add up to 1814—the year of the Emperor Franz’s triumph. Perhaps Schubert was stimulated to an interest in mathematics only when problems of addition and subtraction were buried within a code of ancient literature.

Schubert’s first song to a classically-inspired poem is the Körner setting Amphiaraos D166 from 1 March 1815. It is tempting to date the composer’s real interest in classical themes from two years later in his career when he was much under the influence of Johann Mayrhofer but, as we have seen, his education in the classics was sufficient for him to respond in suitably grand manner to the text’s various allusions. It represented the first steps on a pilgrimage to Olympus, but there were other journeys (to Ossian’s Scotland, for example) which interested Schubert more in 1815. In that year there were only three other works with Greek-inspired texts, and they are all substantial settings of Schiller: Die Bürgschaft D246, the antique locale of which is not essential to the story (Schubert was to compose an opera on the same theme with the same title in 1816), Hektors Abschied D312 (by this time the young composer had heard such works as Cherubini’s Médée and Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride, and this duet has something of the marble-hewn nobility and grandeur of Gluck) and the epic ballad Klage der Ceres (Volume 5). Much of this music is superb, but it treats its mythological subjects as theatrical figures manipulated somewhat stiffly like puppets in a rattling good yarn. This is perhaps partly Schiller’s fault, but the composer had not yet discovered the spiritual link between Hellas and the dawning age of Romanticism; he had not yet felt the relevance of Greek civilisation to his own life and state of mind.

As early as 1800, Friedrich Schlegel foresaw that ancient literature was going to be a rejuvenating force for modern literature, and that the myths of the ancients, reinterpreted by the moderns, would be given a new lease of life. In turn, the moderns would benefit from having at their disposal a central corpus of what would much later be called archetypal myth. This would lead eventually to the Ulysses of James Joyce, and the blending of ancient myth and twentieth-century sensibility in T S Eliot’s The Wasteland. In this respect the work of Johann Mayrhofer, the poet who was second only to Goethe in the number of his poems that Schubert set to music, could be seen as an early and important fulfilment of Schlegel’s prophecies. This enigmatic, even somewhat shadowy, figure was ten years the composer’s senior, and they met at the end of 1814. Their artistic rapport does not seem to have been instantaneous; the very first Mayrhofer setting of December 1814, Am See (Volume 4) displays little of the unique relationship of word and tone that Schubert had recently achieved in Goethe’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, and which was, at its best, also to characterise his later collaboration with Mayrhofer. As time went on, the poet seems to have been emboldened to introduce his new young friend into his own special re-creation of the ancient world, far from the temporal cares and restrictions of Biedermeier Vienna. This exploration of Greek myth and allusion was to reach its apogee in 1817 but the first Mayrhofer song on a classical text, Fragment aus dem Aeschylus D450, was composed in June 1816. This is contemporary with the most important of Schubert’s lost works, the cantata Prometheus D451 to a text of Phillip Dräxler von Carin. Schubertians have never really given up hope of finding this substantial work; only a few phrases survive, reconstructed by memory by some of the composer’s friends who had heard it, and these include fragments of recitative for Prometheus and Gaia, and a chorus invoking nymphs and naiads. September 1816 saw the composition of Lied des Orpheus, als er in die Hölle ging D474 (Volume 11) and this introduces a mixture of sideways references to Gluck’s opera combined with echoes from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, itself a work with ancient Egyptian overtones.

The year 1817 began with Mayrhofer’s salute to Schiller’s Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, a song entitled Fahrt zum Hades D526 (Volume 2). It was in March of this year that Schubert had been introduced to Johann Michael Vogl (1768-1840), a famous opera singer whom he had long admired at a distance, particularly for his singing of Orestes in Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride. Vogl began his relationship with Schubert in condescending manner, but he soon found that the study and performance of Schubert’s songs was a wonderful second career; Vogl was the first singer in a position to appreciate that singing solo songs with piano accompaniment, provided they were the right songs, could make as much, possibly more, of an impression on audiences than an uphill struggle on the operatic stage. Vogl became in fact the first professional Lieder singer; his own prospects of continuing at the opera house had been thwarted by the Italian domination of that institution in Vienna, not to mention the fact that he was at the age when many a singer of heavy roles in the theatre begins to contemplate retirement. Vogl was nicknamed ‘Rara avis’ or ‘rare bird’ because his name happened to mean ‘bird’ in German, and because of his devotion to the classics; his favourite reading included the works of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius in the original. His much vaunted taste for classical subjects might have played its part in influencing Schubert and Mayrhofer to collaborate on a number of songs on classical themes. The Mayrhofer song Philoktet D540 dates from March 1817, the month of the singer’s first meeting with Schubert, as do Memnon D541, the duet Antigone und Oedip D542, Orest auf Tauris D548 (all Mayrhofer), and the immortal setting of Ganymed D544—the first time Schubert had broached Goethe in neo-classical mood. We know that Ganymed was one of the songs that Vogl read through in his first meeting with Schubert and it is tempting to conjecture that the song had been especially written for the meeting arranged between them through the good offices of Schubert’s friends Schober and Josef von Spaun. It is also possible that Mayrhofer had shown the Goethe poem to Schubert as a model of what he was also attempting to do in his own poetry: to recast Greek legends in a new light suitable for the romantic preoccupations of the modern age, and to look back to Hellenic times for guidance on the ethical challenges of life. Of course it is possible that the recently composed Ganymed merely happened to be in a pile of music carelessly presented for Vogl to browse through, but I would not put it past the solicitous Spaun to advise Schubert to have something new ready for Vogl on a classical subject. 1817 continues with songs in this vein. April saw the longest, and least performed, of them all, Uraniens Flucht D554, and in July Iphigenia D573—Volume 3 (both Mayrhofer, of course.) The second version of Schiller’s Gruppe aus dem Tartarus D583 was composed in September, as well as its much lengthier counterpart set in heaven as opposed to hell, Elysium D584 (Volume 11), and the mysterious other-worldly Atys of Mayrhofer, D585. At the end of the year, on Beethoven’s 47th birthday in fact, Schubert wrote an album leaf for his friend and fellow-composer Anselm Hüttenbrenner, himself knowledgeable in Latin, not only from his grammar school education but because he had spent a time as a monk in a Cistercian monastery near Graz:

Exiguum nobis vitae curriculum natura circumscripsit, immensum gloriae.
Cicero ex Orat. pro Rabirio
Francisc. Schubert
Vindobonae, 16/12, 1817

It is remarkable enough that Schubert should have known a quotation from one of Cicero’s orations, in this case in defence of the backbench Roman senator Gaius Rabirius, accused of perduellio, hostile activity against the State, in 63 BC. What is more moving is that the quotation is remarkably apt for Schubert’s own story: ‘Nature has defined our course as limited in life-span, but limitless in renown.’ The use of the locative case for Vindobona, the Romans’ name for Vienna from the first century AD, is a nice touch.

There are no classically-inspired songs in 1818, athough Schubert confessed to Schober, in a letter written from Hungary in August of that year, that he was ‘composing like a god’. From five months earlier there is an amusing inscription in a copy of the famous Trauerwalzer D365 No 2 which Schubert made for a fellow composer and friend, Ignaz Assmayr (1790-1862):

Illustrissimo, doctissimo, sapientissimo,
prudentissimo, maximoque Compositori
in devotissima humillimaque
reverentiae expressione
dedicatum oblatumque de
Servorum Servo Francisco Seraphico vulgo Schubert nominato.

To the most distinguished, the most learned, the most wise,
the most judicious, the greatest of composers,
in the most devoted and humble expression of reverence,
dedicated and offered by
His slave of slaves, Franciscus Seraphicus commonly known as Schubert.

Schubert was to show off his classical education again in his letters, and this was in May 1819 in writing to Anselm Hüttenbrenner, for whom he had made the album leaf inscription of Cicero in 1817. Hüttenbrenner had gone to live in Graz (a town which, eight years later, Schubert was to learn to love). After a bit of badinage about girls, Schubert refers to his friend’s provincial exile with the words: ‘Of course, you may say, like Caesar, you’d rather take first rank in Graz than second in Vienna.’ This is a reference to sentiment ascribed to Julius Caesar by Plutarch, and again by Bacon in his Advancement of Learning, on seeing a small town in Gaul: ‘Rather first here than second in Rome!’ The end of 1819 saw the composition of Goethe’s PrometheusD674, and the strophe from Schiller’s Die Götter Griechenlands D677.

Modern scholarship and paper tests have placed the opera Adrast D137 in 1819 rather than in 1815, as it is listed in the Deutsch catalogue. This is an incomplete but nevertheless quite substantial work to a Mayrhofer text. The libretto is the tale of the eponymous tragic figure of Adrastus (doomed to kill both his own brother, and Attis, son of King Croesus). Although Schubert’s high classical period was now drawing to a close, some of the very best songs to classically-inspired texts come from 1820, a year of bold experimentation and expansion—so much so that a reviewer from Leipzig accuses Schubert in the opera Die Zwillingsbrüder of attempting ‘to fly as high as Beethoven, without heeding the warning example of Icarus’. The boy whose wax wings melted in the sun might have been the subject of a Mayrhofer poem; instead there are three (possibly four) wonderful Mayrhofer settings from that year. The song whose date is in doubt is the beautiful Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren D360, which modern research dates from 1820, rather than from the beginning of the Mayrhofer collaboration in 1816. It is almost certain that Der entsühnte Orest D699 and Freiwilliges Versinken D700 both date from September 1820, and the magnificent Der zürnenden Diana D706 from December 1820 (although John Reed prefers to place the first two in 1817). These are the last of the songs which directly evoke mythology; the small number of remaining works in the canon which touch on the classics do so obliquely and are perhaps thus more deeply integrated into the musical and emotional preoccupations of Schubert’s maturity. In Bruchmann’s setting An die Leier D737 (1823) the poet Anacreon specifically abandons storybook blood-and-thunder heroism in favour of love, and this also seems to be the case in the composer’s choice of themes now congenial to him. Four of the remaining Mayrhofer songs (Aus Heliopolis I and IIAbendstern and Auflösung) are tinged with a feeling of the grandeur of utterance of the ancients, but on the whole they avoid direct classical allusion and inhabit an ideal imaginary world where classical precepts and idealism are antidotes to cheap modern values. Above all, this group of songs forms a hauntingly empathetic portrait of the psyche of the composer’s old friend Mayrhofer. Rather than a straightforward bow to mythology, Der Musensohn D764 (1822) is, it seems to me, a portrait of the timelesssly fleet-of-foot Goethe, perennially young and posing as a winged messenger and darling of the Gods. Like the other Goethe settings Ganymed and Prometheus the poet brings it home to us that the distant world bemoaned by Schiller (‘Schöne Welt, wo bist du?’) can be re-created by the artist’s imagination and his ability to accept that the basic concerns of humanity—love, life, freedom and death—are unchanging across the millennia. Drink and food are of course also basic human concerns, and the happiness of a rollicking party is conveyed in the uncomplicatedly jovial Dithyrambe D801 (Volume 11); the composer now seems happy to see the gods of Greece dethroned from their austere roles in song, and enjoying themselves as if at one of the great Schubertiads of these years. The song winks at us as if to say ‘these gods are really just like us, you see!’. Schubert’s last song drawn partly from classical inspiration, Hippolits Lied, is from July 1826.

It is obvious from studying the various enthusiasms in Schubert’s song-writing life that he went through phases which, like the enthusiasms of the rest of us, waxed and waned. Thus, among flirtations and love affairs with the works of many other poets, he went through a Matthisson phase (1813–1816), a Hölty phase (1815–1816), an enthusiasm for Klopstock in the same two years, and a much longer Goethe phase (which reached its peak in 1815, found a new lease of life in 1821–1822, but which was over by 1826 after he had returned for one last time to the Mignon poems first set in 1815). For whatever personal or artistic reason, Schubert had finished with Goethe well before he embarked on Winterreise. If it is excusable to regard that work as the culmination of the composer’s song-writing career, it is significant that Winterreise avoids those details which would place it in any particular era; the traveller could be undergoing his emotional ordeal in the past, present or future– and it is this which helps underline the music’s timeless significance. Historical context had earlier been of prime importance to the composer’s inspiration; just as Victorian architects could choose whether to make Gothic or classical designs for their public buildings and houses, Schubert happily disported himself in both these tributary streams which flowed into, and fed, the mainstream romantic flood of literary and visual creativity. He tapped the Gothic vein first of course, as exemplified by the ghoulish Sturm und Drang of some of his early ballads, the apotheosis of which is probably the gigantic Adelwold und Emma D211 (Volume 10). The songs from Goethe’s Faust(including Gretchen am Spinnrade) also fall into this period of medieval fascination, and the world of knights and minstrelsy is found in such sophisticated later works as the settings from Scott’s Lady of the Lake, and even in Eine altschottishe Ballade from the last year of his life (Volume 13). In the same way Schubert’s classical songs began as exciting stories from ages of yore and gradually (with Mayrhofer’s and Vogl’s guidance) became more specifically sensitive to the intricacies of mythological background. At the height of Schubert’s classical phase (1817–1820) there is no doubt that the composer was relishing this particular journey into the distant past, in much the same way as he had been inspired by Ossian’s Celtic twilit world in the two years before (1815–1817). Indeed it might be said the gods of classical mythology replaced Ossian/Macpherson in the Schubertian pantheon.

In the classically-inspired songs on this recording, the composer finds a special purity of harmony and depth of utterance—a lofty Attic style which is indeed top-storey Schubert. But like the other periods of passing enthusiasm, it was only one phase in his development; his ultimate achievement was not to leave marble monuments, or even to write about them, but to animate stone into flesh in the same way that the colossus of Memnon speaks to the dawn with the first warming dawn rays. It was not enough for Schubert to tell stories set in the past, whether ancient or medieval; his ultimate triumph was to be able to face reality both in his life and in his music. The distinguished Schubert scholar Walter Dürr has explained that there was something of a rivalry between the two main groups of friends in the composer’s life: those who went back to Schubert’s schooldays—such figures as Spaun, Kenner, Stadler and Mayrhofer, all from Linz in origin, and sharing a type of republican idealism suited to a study of the Greek classics, and, on the other hand, the Viennese group of friends headed by Franz von Schober. Without losing touch with, or affection for the first, Schubert gradually grew closer to the friends of the Vienna circle. He outgrew Mayrhofer’s friendship, perhaps because he sensed that the poet’s devotion to Greece was a type of escapism, giving him an excuse to refuse to face reality. Schubert was not of this mould; he knew that to scorn the present state of affairs was to blind oneself to the beauties of life itself, for it is only in the present that one’s life can be experienced. In his own Battle of the Books (Swift had imagined just such an allegorical battle between ancient and modern authors in a book of that name in 1697), Schubert came down firmly on the side of the moderns—one of his last poets was Heinrich Heine, the embodiment of a new age in German literature. The great songs of the last years by such poets as Leitner, Schulze and Seidl look us straight in the eye, unafraid of big emotions experienced in a no more an exotic setting than simple German house or garden, and all the better for that. Schubert’s destiny was to sing of the human condition as it has always been understood, and as we still understand it. It is a pertinent fact that Wilhelm Müller, poet of Schubert’s two great song cycles, was known as Griechen-Müller, ‘Greek Müller’. He was, among other things, a teacher of Latin and Greek, and yet his greatest interest was in the contemporary Greek struggle for independence, fuelled by a visit to Vienna where he met some of that city’s many Greek inhabitants. Did the pro-Greek Mayrhofer have any time for these immigrants, I wonder? I rather doubt it. Mller’s knowledge of the classics was simply fuel for a Philhellenism which aimed to be of practical help to the plight of a downtrodden people. It seems to me that Schubert would have been in sympathy with this use of old knowledge in support of new causes. In his maturity, the composer’s classical background becomes just that—a background to a fuller understanding of ordinary human beings (if anyone at all can be said to be ‘ordinary’) whom he finds every bit as interesting, and just as heroic, as either the kings, queens and knights of the Crusades, or the heroes, gods and goddesses of Olympus. This sense of wide historical perspective is said to be one of the great benefits of a classical education. Perhaps Schubert’s teachers are to be congratulated after all.

Graham Johnson © 1991


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