(Steller)

Schubert’s Swan Song

(Articles & Program Notes)
Published – 23.09.2016
(Writing)

I’ve been asked by today’s performers to talk very briefly about the song cycle you are about to hear, and hopefully offer some insights into the work as a whole, and more specifically guide your listening in some ways to notice the small details of this collection of songs that make it such an incredible serendipitous piece of art. There are several large questions around this piece of work, mainly to do with how it has been crafted as a cycle overall - a choice that did not belong to Schubert himself, but instead to his publisher. I’d like to approach this problem by speaking of the songs in relation to their poets, rather than insisting upon referring to the songs as one work. Perhaps had he lived longer, Schubert may have chosen to produce all these songs together, but I think it’s important to recognise that he did not get to that point in his lifetime, and though it is undeniable that the songs work well together, the reason they are sung in this manner today has more to do with the financial planning of a clever publisher than the artistic choices of a composer. After the publishing success of Schubert’s previous cycles Die Shöne Müllerin and Winterreise it can be assumed that publisher Tobias Haslinger made the decision to publish the songs together as a cycle, in the hope that this new one would achieve the same amount of commercial success, which in many ways proved accurate.

This collection of fourteen songs, aptly named Schwanengesang, or Swan Song by Schubert’s publisher Haslinger, has become, in literature a reference to the fact that the “cycle” is considered Schubert’s final bow, his last hurrah. A swan song, a phrase which stems from Greek mythology and the idea that before it dies, a swan sings the most beautiful song of its life, has become an indication of finality in popular culture - a concept that is well suited to not only the fact that this is Schubert’s final song offering, but also to the fact that the songs within the cycle centre around ideas of lamentation and deepness of feeling. There is a sense of vulnerability about these songs - a heaviness even when the colour of the melody is bright. It is with a sensitivity to melody that Schubert approaches all of his writing, but this “cycle”, if we may call it that, seems even more poignant in it’s approach to the rise and fall of the melodic line. It is worth noting that Schubert was not necessarily writing this works with his own demise in mind, but yet they seem to point strongly in that direction through both the poetry and the music.

The structure of the cycle works as such - the first seven songs are by Ludwig Rellstab, the next 6, Heinrich Heine, and the final single song by Johann Gabriel Seidl. The Rellstab poems were initially intended to be used by Beethoven, who died before he was able to do anything more than make small notes and earmark his favourites. They were then given to Schubert after his death, by Beethoven’s assistant Aton Schindler. Rellstab, a well-known music critic, was considered of the utmost importance in the musical community, his thoughts considered crucial to the development of young German composers. Having a musical education in composition himself, Rellstab became known during his lifetime predominantly as a journalist. His writing was outspoken and opinionated, encouraging debate from Berlin audiences, though his poetic writing was conservative - based on the classical poetry on which he had been raised, and never much straying from the standards.

The following 6 pieces by Heine Schubert had intended to publish as a smaller set before his death - these poems structured in themselves like a miniature cycle. Each with their own lyricism, these songs begin with feelings of ruined hope, take a turn for lamentation, and then end in utter destruction, with what is known as “one of the blackest-night pieces to be found among Schubert’s songs”, Der Doppelgänger. One of the most significant poets of his time, Heine, unlike Rellstab, continued to develop his prose as satiricism and wit became popular. While his later prose and verse explored his growing political cynicism and resulted in his works being banned in Germany, his most popular works continue to be the early lyric pieces heard set to music by Schubert and Schumann.

Finally, tacked on to the end of our cycle for one reason or another - and lucky it is for it changes the mood entirely, is Seidl’s Die Taubenpost, a last cry of strength. This song is oft considered the last piece of lied ever written by Schubert, and acts to sum up the works included in Schwanengesang, offering the listener a respite from the heaviness of lamentation, ending on a note of possibility:

And so I cherish her so truly in my heart,
Assured of the fairest prize;
Her name is – Longing! Do you know her?
The messenger of a devoted heart.

Regardless of the difference in poets, there is a clear narrative thread within each of the poems, helping link them together in a lasting way. Gottfried Wilhelm Fink, a German music theorist stated that he preferred Schwanengesang as a cycle to Schubert’s previous fully formed song cycles, calling it “more intimately felt” - an indication of the vulnerability Schubert showed in particular at the end of his life - also evident in his late piano and orchestral works. When speaking of listeners, one book recommends that this cycle shouldn’t be approached by anyone less than a serious amateur, because the music is not light, nor entertaining. Finally, the two questions that remain unanswered - to what extent are the songs to be considered a cycle, and therefore, in what sequence should the songs be performed may be answered by you after this performance of Schubert’s 14 final songs.

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