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Schubert and rhetoric

While the best Schubert songs tend to be those with an obsessional musical idea driving forward the central argument (Die Junge Nonne, Der Zwerg, Auf dem Wasser zu singen), a significant number of the lesser known ones employ recitative, notably the ballads, those lengthy, discursive 'drawing-room operas' rarely performed today. The best of them, like Der Taucher and Lodas Gespenst were experiments in the dramatic cantata style so successfully used by Haydn in Ariadne auf Naxos, a form which Schubert persistently believed in ( his fine setting of Kenner's awful poem Der Liedler was very popular, so much so that he had it published). Recitative is of course something we associate with Italian opera seria and German and English oratorio, where — in the right hands — it can propel the action forward most effectively. It goes without saying that a singer needs to call on all her power of rhetoric to do justice to the work in question, which is one reason that some performers shy away from monumental rhetorical masterpieces such as Prometheus. Where Schubert differs from opera seria is that he combines elements of art song lyricism with recitative, notably in Der Taucher and Promtheus, to great effect. Der Taucher is a unified whole, despite the surface sectionalism of the composition (and in this he is helped by Schiller's fine poem.) Schubert was lucky enough to have studied with Salieri, himself a great admirer of Gluck, which goes a long way to explain the countless felicitous italianate touches in his songs.

All this by way of saying that Schubert was a frustrated opera composer. It may come as a surprise to learn that he composed around twenty stage works, not all them completed. Usually hampered by poor libretti, it is claimed that Schubert did not have an innate feeling for stage drama, which is certainly true of Fierrabras, for instance. The songs of course often spill over with internal drama, usually of the individual variety (Gretchen am Spinnrade), occasionally a dialogue (Der Zwerg); but opera demands above all the ability to adroitly manipulate characters on stage. When I perform Der Zwerg I am not playing the title rôle, I am reciting the poem.

©Conor Biggs

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