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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Songs of Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert

Schubert and Beethoven were contemporaries at the dawn of the Romantic Era, yet each approached composition differently.  Beethoven painstakingly developed small musical motives that roared to life as shockingly innovative music. The music of Franz Schubert on the other hand, is firmly rooted in long, flowing, effortless melodies. Although Schubert lived only to the age of 32, he wrote over 600 songs.

Before we get to a few Schubert songs, let’s consider what draws us to a great melody.  What makes it so satisfying and fun? How do a combination of pitches conjure up emotions which cannot be fully described by words?  Leonard Bernstein discusses musical semantics in detail in his Norton Lectures.  More generally, part of a melody’s drama lies in its ability to play with our expectations.  As we listen, we have a sense of all the notes that would be “right” at any given moment.  Our expectations are either fulfilled or we are surprised with something unexpected.  Our enjoyment of our favorite melody only increases as we hear it, even though we know what’s coming.

Listen to Schubert’s Impromptu for Piano, D 899, No. 3 and consider how melody and harmony are used to fulfill your expectations or surprise you.  You may even notice that Schubert suddenly changes key and transports the music to a completely different place emotionally.  You’ll also hear a distinctly vocal quality.

Impromptu for Piano in G-flat Major, D 899, No. 3…Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

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Der Erlkonig (or The Erl King) is one of Schubert’s most famous songs.  Set to a poem by Goethe, it is the musical equivalent of a modern day horror film.  The story depicts a father riding on horseback through the night, cradling his son.  A ghost, or demon, known as the Erl King begins speaking to the boy.  The frightened child warns his father, but the father assures him that he is only hearing the wind.

Schubert evokes the galloping horse musically with repeated notes and a sinister opening motive.  One singer performs the roles of the narrator, the father, the child and the Erl King.  Listen for the way Schubert changes the music for each character. As you listen, follow the English translation below:

Der Erlkonig, D 328…Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

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Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

“My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?”
“Father, do you not see the Elfking?
The Elfking with crown and tail?”
“My son, it’s a wisp of fog.”

“You dear child, come, go with me!
Very lovely games I’ll play with you;
Some colourful flowers are on the beach,
My mother has some golden robes.”

“My father, my father, and don’t you hear
What the Elfking quietly promises me?”
“Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind is rustling through withered leaves.”

“Do you want to come with me, pretty boy?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters will lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing you to sleep.”

“My father, my father, and don’t you see there
The Elfking’s daughters in the gloomy place?”
“My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey.”

“I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you’re not willing, then I will use force.”
“My father, my father, he’s grabbing me now!
The Elfking has done me harm!”

It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with trouble and hardship;
In his arms, the child was dead.

 

Here is another setting of Goethe, Heidenroslein (or Rose on the Hearth). The poem’s topic is a young man’s rejected love.  You can read an English translation here.

Heidenroslein, D 257…Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

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