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Ad-libbing, and where it can lead

Adepts of our recitals will know that I insist on introducing the songs. I do this to inform the audience while putting them at their ease; the occasional forays into malicious humour are par for the course. I never read from my notes, but I write copiously and trust to the moment to recall salient points. It struck me that some of my thoughts, marshalled into accepatable reading-matter, might be enjoyable in their own right, and even serve as a preparation for the listener, for what after all is generally regarded as a niche artform within the classical music family. Here goes.

Notes for Schubertreise XIX, National Concert Hall, Dublin, February 10th 2019

Don Gayseros

Taken from Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s best-selling novel ‘The Magic Ring’, this picaresque story with its tale of religious bigotry, revenge and fidelity must have appealed to a new-found interest in things Spanish in German society. Fischer-Dieskau and Einstein dismiss it as having little interest; others have doubted its authenticity, but it appears to have been penned by Schubert all the same. It certainly doesn’t sound like Schubert, apart from the second of the three songs (it is actually Schubert’s first song-cycle.)

The first of the three songs is the least characteristic: the question-and-answer sequences are depicted by four-square rhythms and an astonishing number of key changes. The second is pleasing enough to the ear, with its sequences of John Field-like triplets, and the third, after a brief foray into a fandango style reverts to hymn-book tactics to serve the rather glib text.

But it is beginning to grow on me…


The maturity evident in this song belies the early date of composition. Schubert avoids all sentimentality, taking Pope at face value (“Oh, the pain, the bliss of dying"). The result is a remarkably concise fusion of aria and recitative.

Pensa, che questo istante

This noble bass aria, taken from Metastasio’s libretto Alcide al bivio or Hercules at the crossroads, is addressed to Hercules by his teacher: shall he choose the path of virtue or ease? It is one of three pieces of homework written for Schubert’s teacher Salieri, who insisted that all his pupil receive a thorough grounding in the Italian style. This stood Schubert well in future years: the famous 'Serenade' owes much of its success to its Italianate cantilena.

Misero pargoletto

This and the following song were written for soprano. Surely an homage to Mozart’ s Magic Flute: the poise and elegance are very Mozartean. What the young composer must have made of the veiled references to incest in the convoluted Metastasio libretto we cannot know.

Son Fra l’onde

The most sophisticated of the three settings, and the only time (I hope) that I am called on to act out the part of Venus. The song was written at the same time as ‘Der Taucher’, and the references to turbulent waters is a theme common to both songs.


The most delicate of serenades: the poet asks no more of his beloved than to listen to his rhymes in her sleep. ‘Nachtgesang’ was one of the songs that Schubert sent to Goethe for his approval.

An hypnotic incantation, and a test of technical endurance for the singer.

Trost in Tränen

Wonderfully self-pitying: the thwarted young lover will simply not be comforted by his friends. The question and answer formula is pleasing, making it one of his best strophic songs.


One of the last songs written in 1814, and curious in that it was written not long after the sophisticated ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’. Here the voice part is doubled by the piano, a sure sign that it was intended for domestic consumption. Nothing is known about the poet, Michael Lubi.

Ostensibly a delightful cradle-song, the real theme is revealed in the last verse: infant mortality, something with which Schubert was sadly all too well-acquainted. The repeated notes point the way to ‘Gute Nacht’, the first song of ‘Winterreise’.


Nine Schubert songs bear this title. The music in this Goethe setting is charming, but commentators are unanimous in condemning it for submerging the poetry. Perhaps Schubert felt this too, since he didn’t send this particular song to Goethe. But the depiction of the poet metamorphosing into a raven, a songbird and a star in turn, is quite charming.

Am See

‘Am See’ is the first of the Mayrhofer settings, significant in that Schubert now opts to set contemporary poetry; the long collaboration with Johann Mayrhofer would yield no less than 47 songs, the most of any poet bar Goethe. The poem is based on a real event: Leopold, Duke of Brunswick, a nephew of Frederick The Great, lost his life attempting to save victims of a flood in 1785. As we find so often with this poet, Schubert’s musical reaction is to write in episodes, usually (as here) triumphally succeeding. This broad and magnificent canvas is really about artistic bravery.


Schubert was no stranger to tales of derring-do and damsels in distress: one thinks of 'Romanze', Adelwold und Emma' and 'Der Liedler'. This literary hotch-potch, not for the first or last time in his output, prompts music of searing beauty, particularly at the close of the song, where the damsel strikes a pieta-like pose. The opening too is fine. The Errol Flynn sections are good in their own way but of course sound dated. Adepts of boogey-woogey will enjoy the piano writing in the battle scenes.

Klage um Ali Bey

Something of a rarity with Schubert — a comic song! The assassination of the Egyptian Pasha Ali Bey in 1773 created something of a sensation in Germany (quite why is not known.) Matthias Claudius penned this witty lampoon, and Schubert rises to the occasion in a minimalist setting. The main interest lies in the humorous sobbing of the story teller, effectively depicted by the truncated vocal part. Indeed, the piece was originally conceived as a vocal trio, which might explain the simplicity of the piano writing.

Der Mondabend

A true case of art concealing art, the surface simplicity belying the uniqueness of Schubert’s talent. The beauty of the moon and the stars pale into comparison with the enchanting eyes of the poet’s beloved Silli.


Fischer-Dieskau describes Schober’s poem as being incomprehensible, and there is more than a touch of hypocrisy in the wealthy Schober wanting to espouse the charms of a log cabin. A charming piece of Biedermeier, particularly the piano postlude, which makes one think of Schubert’s attractive German Dances for piano, and also ‘Täuschung’ in ‘Winterreise'.

Als ich sie Erröten sah

The title, ‘When I saw her blush’, calls to mind the title of one Trollope’s novels, ‘Can he forgive her?’, although, unlike the novel, the song does not end tragically. It is alarmingly intimate, as if we had stumbled across the open pages of a diary: the ceaseless burbling of the piano semiquavers combined with the relentless, not to say exhausting vocal part, combine to make for exciting listening, and call to mind passages in ‘Die Schöne Müllerin’.

Der Vatermörder

Written at the end of 1811, when Schubert was just 14. The choice of subject may have been prompted by murderous feelings on the part of Schubert towards his father, as boys of that age will tend to have. The poetry, by one Pfeffel (piffle by Pfeffel, in the words of Graham Johnson), is of the worst sort.

What is astonishing is that there is so much to admire in this song: the fine introduction, calling to mind the dark introduction of Mozart’s d minor piano concerto, is particularly memorable. Schubert however has not yet learnt how to make reasonable demands of his singers, and the tessitura is cruelly demanding. Where the piece falls down is in the lack of continuity in portraying the action. A mere two years later would see enormous progress on Schubert’s part in this respect.

©Conor Biggs

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