Masterclass: Schubert's Schwanengesang

Gramophone Mon 30th January 2017

Graham Johnson and Thomas Quasthoff lift the lid on Schubert's final songs

THE PIANIST'S VIEW

Graham Johnson

There's still disagreement about whether or not Schwanengesang is a cycle. The assumption that the Rellstab and Heine songs were not intended to be combined has recently been questioned, as the manuscript in Schubert's fair copy runs seamlessly right through with songs numbered consecutively.

Rellstab's poems are said to have been passed to Schubert by Anton Schindler, Beethoven's assistant. Without Beethoven's connection I doubt Schubert would have set Rellstab's archaic verses at all. But because of the link he set seven songs, plus one further one called 'Herbst', unaccountably left out of the cyde except that it does not relate in any way to love or its absence; almost every song in Schwanengesang is linked by this theme shared by Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte. Beethoven's song-cycle appeared before Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. It would be very strange if it had no echo in Schubert's life at all, and I believe Schwanengesang is the echo.

Schubert discovered Heine in 1827, and was one of the first to recognise this Romantic voice that was going to change literature: he couldn't have found anybody more modern, more dark, more stirring - in the sense of both exciting and making trouble. So there's a polarity in the cycle: the right-wing, very conservative Rellstab; and the left-leaning Heine. The past and the future - where the Lied had been via Beethoven, and where it was probably going in the future.

The first song, 'Liebesbotschaft', is one of Schubert's last pieces of water music. It's quite difficult to play, but actually reasonably grateful in the original key of G major. The problem comes only when you have to play it in E major for baritones, or in E flat for bass-baritones! It's hard, too, to get the right liquidity, the right grace and the right silvery water textures. Again in 'Frühlingssehnsucht' you've got to judge the tempo because the singer has got a lot of words to get through. A lot of the cycle's rich in terms of the chording; the prancing staccato in 'Abschied' makes it really like a tightrope dance.

It's fashionable for people to reorder the Heine songs, and sing 'Atlas' last because they think it makes a better end. But the strongest argument that Schubert meant the cycle to be in the published order is the fact that 'Die Stadt' ends unresolved on a diminished seventh with a low C. No composer in Schubert's time would actually end a piece unresolved, but since it resolves in the opening of the following song 'Am Meer', starting with the same C, my argument is yes, he did want them in that order, otherwise he wouldn't have played around with that sort of musical pun.

'Taubenpost' is like the epilogue after the drama. It also has a poignancy as the last song that Schubert wrote. We know that the ardour Schubert felt towards certain people was not readily reciprocated, nor the understanding that Goethe describes: 'Only he who's known longing ['Sehn sucht'] knows what I suffer'. In 'Taubenpost', 'Sehnsucht' is the name of the pigeon which flies out and doesn't ever come back. But, like the pigeon, Schubert dispenses his love in music without self-pity, never allowing the well to be poisoned. And in a sense the poem is still to do with 'An die ferne Geliebte' because who are you sending the pigeon to except a 'ferne Geliebte'?

THE SINGER'S VIEW

Thomas Quasthoff

Schwanengesang's not a cycle like Winterreise where every song is connected. Yet there are some people who insist you have to keep its original key relationships. For me the main thing is to be able to sing it in a perfect way for my voice, so the most important thing is to put each song in the key in which you are able to sing it well. Anyway - maybe this sounds a little bit bad - I don't think audiences really recognise the different keys.

I'm not a huge fan of 'beautiful' singing. I'm much more interested in giving a special colour to each song - some times through the words, sometimes only the vowels. For example there are parts in 'Doppelgänger' where I think it's absolutely useful to reduce the vibrato, to have this incredible ghostly atmosphere, and then this huge crescendo. Of course this song is a little bit more grateful to sing than say 'Fischermädchen', which is a very flowing piece whereas 'Doppelgänger' is mysterious, foggy, but I try to take everything seriously. Of course, the words are important: im agine singing Dichterliebe, and nobody understanding one word! But I think the emphasis sometimes needs to be different.

Combined with Schubert's music, the poems are incredible: Rellstab's verses are lifted up on a different level. Heine is a little bit outside of this because he was a poet and writer of genius. I especially love his sarcasm. But in Gerrnany if you perform a cycle like Dichterliebe or even Schwanengesang, journalists often say, 'Oh he didn't get Heine's message - it has to be sarcastic or ironic.' They love to put hats on heads: it doesn't matter what Heine writes because it has to be ironic. I do not agree completely with this - 'Atlas' is not ironic. So my approach to these songs is not influenced by the reputation of these poets. It depends mainly on the lyrics themselves.

HOW IT WORKS

Schubert's Schwanengesang

Following Beethoven's death, his assistant, Anton Schindler, forwarded to Schubert a number of Rellstab's poems, letting him know that they had been intended for his master. Schubert was inspired to tackle those poems Beethoven had marked to set to music. He subsequently set six Heine poems, maintaining the Beethoven connection with an apparent quotation from his last piano sonata (see 'Der Atlas' below). The set's final song, 'Die Taubenpost', acts not only as an envoy but also - in Schubert's original key scheme - brings the entire set back to the 'home' key of G major in which it embarked.

In 'Liebesbotschaft' the narrator, upstream from his beloved, imagines how the brook will comfort her as 'she sinks into dreams' on the bank: Schubert suggests her dreamy state by doubling the singer's note lengths at phrases containing the word 'Träume'.

In 'Kriegers Ahnung' a recruit lies awake at night, recalling his wife or lover, knowing that a battle from which he may not survive awaits him the next day. The accompaniment's quasi-military dotted rhythm and the original key of C minor has suggested to some a subliminal reference to the funeral march in Beethoven's Eroica.

'Frühlingssehnsucht', a paean to spring, is joyous but for the bare harmonies accompanying the almost pained questions at the end of each stanza: the answer - a grim acknowledgement rather than joyful resolution in Schubert's setting - arrives with the final stanza: 'Only you can free the Spring in my breast'.

In 'Ständchen', the singer serenades his lover with a heartmeltingly beautiful melody ; Schubert skilfully depicts both his hope and his several moments of minor-key insecurity.

'Aufenthalt' depicts a both defiant and apparently heart-broken narrator, his lonely, wind-swept abode suggested by his singing a duple metre at odds with the triplet chords of the pianist's right-hand accompaniment.

'In der Ferne', a bleak masterpiece about a heart-broken lover driven away from his family and hometown, is set in the key associated with Schubert's most despairing music, B minor. In 'Abschied', an apparently more light-hearted narrator leaves town, refusing to show any sorrow.

The protagonist in 'Der Atlas', the first of the Heine settings, appears to have been associated in Schubert's mind with Beethoven: the song's opening quotes the principal theme of the first movement of Beethoven's Op 111.

In 'Ihr Bild', the poet stares at a portrait of his beloved, and weeps as he realises his loss. The external stillness of this event is reflected by music that starts from an unharmonised unison and develops only into the barest harmony.

'Das Fischermädchen', a carefree song of seduction, provides a light interlude before Schubert's three darkest Heine songs.

'Die Stadt' portrays the poet being rowed across the mist-shrouded sea towards the town where he has lost his be loved. The steady to and fro of the boatman's oars are captured in the piano accompaniment's sinister rippling of a diminished-seventh arpeggio.

'Am Meer' opens in an almost sullen C major. The poet, seated with his beloved by the sea, is 'poisoned' by her tears: the prelude's implacable music sounds almost sardonic at its return as postlude.

'Der Doppelgänger' starts with hollow-sounding harmonies on the piano. The poet sees the house where his beloved used to live and a man wringing his hands before it; to his horror, he recognises his own face (2'20"), the piano's sinister, chromatically rising line heightening the tension.

The lilting G major charm of 'Die Taubenpost' (setting a poem by Seidl) effectively dispels the dark tensions of the previous Heine poems.

This article originally appeared in the August 2001 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe

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