Autumn Lieder: Schubert, Schumann, Brahms

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The arrival of autumn yesterday in the Northern Hemisphere provides a good excuse to listen to the incredible art songs of German Romantic composers like Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. Autumn seems to have been a rich source of inspiration for these composers. In poetry, the season has been associated with death and cycles of life, as summer fades and winter approaches. In Friday’s post we’ll listen to Der Einsame im Herbst” (“The Lonely One in Autumn“) from Mahler’s The Song of the Earth. But let’s start with these three earlier songs inspired by autumn:

Schubert’s Herbst

In Franz Schubert’s Herbst (Autumn) D. 945, we are confronted with the terror of immortality. The piano’s continuous, running notes suggest a cold, howling wind. The ominous bass notes evoke something darkly supernatural, maybe even demonic. Listen for sudden harmonic shifts throughout the song. Notice the chord at 0:53 at the end of the verse, “Thus withers away the blossoms of life.” This is harmony which makes us feel trapped and forces us to confront the inevitable. As the line is repeated, Schubert’s harmony goes far afield to accomplish the harmonic resolution we originally expected.

The poem is by  Ludwig Rellstab. This performance features Matthias Goerne and pianist Christoph Eschenbach:

Schumann’s Herbstlied

Robert Schumann’s song places autumn in a cycle of death and rebirth. Listen to the way the music changes in the third stanza in the lines (around 1:00):

Love surely returns again
In the dear forthcoming year
And everything then returns
That has now died away

Read a translation of the text by Siegfried August Mahlmann here. The performers are Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Peter Schreier, tenor; and Christoph Eschenbach, piano.

Brahms’ Four Quartets

Autumn turns up in the second of Johannes Brahms’ Vier Quartette Op. 92. The poem, which Brahms set for “Late Autumn”, was written by Hermann Allmers:

The grey mist drops down so silently upon the field, wood and heath
that it is as if Heaven wanted to weep in overwhelming sorrow.

The flowers will bloom no more, the birds are mute in the groves, and the last bit of green has died; Heaven should indeed be weeping. 

In the opening of the first song, listen to the way Brahms captures the expansive majesty of the night sky. This performance features the Chamber Choir of Europe, conducted by Nicol Matt with Jürgen Meier, piano:

  1. O schöne Nacht (“Oh Lovely Night) 0:00
  2. Spätherbst (“Late Autumn”) 4:10
  3. Abendlied (“Evening Song”) 6:00
  4. Warum? (“Why”) 9:12

Schubert Songs of Spring

spring flowersTomorrow is the first day of spring. With warmer temperatures, blooming foliage and a sense of renewal, spring has long been a rich source of poetic inspiration. Here are three songs by Franz Schubert (1797-1828) which feature spring:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Frühlingsglaube (Faith in Spring)[/typography]

The poem is by Johann Ludwig Uhland (1787-1862). Here is baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Gerald Moore:

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When I listen to Schubert’s songs, I always have the sense that every note is perfect. Great expression grows out of simplicity. But Schubert also loves to throw in a surprising and memorable chord when we least expect it (listen to the harmonic tension around 0:11). Notice how the music relates to the text at 0:57: “Now poor heart, be not afraid!” With one chord Schubert is able to cast a momentary shadow, transporting us from the pure, innocent  world of nature to the world of man.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Im Fruhling (In Spring)[/typography]

This song’s text is by Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze (1789-1817). Here is an English translation. This recording features tenor Ian Bostridge:

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For me, one of the most interesting aspects of this melody is the way it wants to pull away from the home key of G major. The first move away (from G to C) is subtle and short-lived  (0:24). Then we get a full modulation from G to A at 0:33.

These sudden key changes are fun because they play on the elements of expectation and surprise. Equally thrilling is the way Schubert suddenly and skillfully slides back into the correct key. Throughout Schubert’s music, the relationship between keys is an important dramatic element.

The poem suggests that the beautiful scenery of spring, in this case linked to romantic love, is fragile and elusive. Holding onto a moment in time is as impossible as capturing “Spring’s first sunbeam:”

[quote]Quietly I sit on the hill’s slope.
The sky is so clear;
a breeze plays in the green valley
where I was at Spring’s first sunbeam
once – ah, I was so happy;[/quote]

For the fifth stanza (2:40) the music slips into a stormy G minor as the text turns darker:

[quote]The only things that change are will and illusion:
Joys and quarrels alternate,
the happiness of love flies past
and only the love remains –
The love and, ah, the sorrow.[/quote]

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Am Bach im Frühling (By the Brook in Springtime)[/typography]

Here is mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig and pianist Irwin Gage. The poem by Franz Adolf Friedrich von Schober (1796-1882) offers a melancholy view of spring. Can you hear the flowing brook in the piano accompaniment?

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