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Franz Schubert - Part 2. His musical language in some selected Lieder.

Aktualisiert: 6. Mai 2022

o.Univ.-Prof. Manfred Wagner-Artzt

Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien


I have chosen six Lieder, five from „Die Winterreise“ and one from „Schwanengesang“ of which we have already heard „Ich unglücksel’ger Atlas“, and I’ll try to show some aspects which seem to me very important for understanding Schubert's language. First of all, in the first piece of the Winterreise, which is named „Goodnight“ – „as a stranger I arrived here, as a stranger, I am leaving again“ – we have already this idea of rambler. For Schubert, the whole life was a wandering from birth to death. And we don't have any choice, we have to go, if we want or not, we have to go. And so we have this permanent repeating accompaniments as for instance in this first Lied

And than in the third part of this Lied, we have already one of this main characteristics in Schubert’s music, that’s the changement from minor to major or major to minor without any preparation but a sudden changement of the mood. At this place the text says: „Will not disturb your dreams that would spoil your rest“. We have to imagine: He's terribly sad because his great love has left him. He stands before her house, and he's still so full of love that he says „I will not disturb your dreams“. But for me, the most exciting moment is at the end when Schubert repeats the last phrase twice. The first time „I have been thinking of you“ still in love, and than full of sadness.

- The second example comes already from the second Lied in the Winterreise which is called „The Weather vane“. Here we also can find something which is very characteristic in the music of Schubert, we will find this in each sonata of Schubert: a long unison phrase. And it’s not only the piano introduction unison

But even when the singing voice comes it’s still unison with the piano. But the most thrilling moment, at my opinion, is the second part when he feels full of pain. The situation is that the parents of his former sweetheart seem to ask him, how does he feel with his pains? And he says: „Why do you care of my sorrows? „Your child is a rich bride!“ And this „your child is a rich bride“ is expressed by an A major scale. So we have this ambivalence: He's furious, but on the other hand, the parents are happy. And this sounds like this.

Immediately afterwards again unison with a gruesome trill at the end. We now it from the B major sonata the last sonata. Very similar atmosphere.

- The third example I want to give you is number 14 of the Winterreise . The name is „The hoary head“, „Der greise Kopf“. The plot is „there was a white coat of frost, spread over my hair“, so he has this impression that he is already old. Why does he feel happy that he's old? Because he's closer to death and death will be the liberation of all the pains he suffers in this world. So we have a kind of recitativ

„There was a white coat of frost, spread over my hair, it made me think I was already old.“ But than „ But soon it thawed away and my hair is black again.“

„Now my youthfulness appeals me: how far still to the funeral bier!“ He is terrified, he is shocked that he is young again, and this shock is expressed in E flat major!

Now again unison „How far still to the funeral bier“ – Wie weit noch bis zur Bahre?

This word „Bahre“ = bier, what an eccentric rhythm, what a kind of expression!

- Number 20, „The Signpost“or „Der Wegweiser“ in German. We have already a very interesting introduction because it's not a four bar introduction, it's a five bar introduction, and we will find this irregularity in his piano music as well.

He could have done it in 4 bars but what a tension is in this fifth bar! Very impressive for me. And then again, we have this changement from minor to major. It's a somehow whining moment. The text is „I have done no wrong that I should shun mankind“

Weeping in music! And than „what senseless craving drives me into the wilderness?And again this unison, describing this wilderness, this loneliness

And now follows an interlude in the piano, which belongs for me to the most shattering moments in music.

This changement first from B major to b minor is already a break down, but from b minor to g minor is for me like an implosion.

- And the fifth example from the Winterreise is „The Tavern“, number 21, „Das Wirtshaus“ in German. This is a very strange piece. When we listen to the introduction we have a completely different impression of what will happen in this Lied, then what really happens

I have used a little trick because the ending of this phrase at the beginning is different. I played the last three chords from the end of the Lied because here again, we have a phrase of five bars. And again, we have this moment where everything breaks into pieces. What is it? Is it such a cozy atmosphere as we have the impression when we hear the introduction? No, because the tavern is a symbol for the graveyard. And just in the fifth bar of the beginning, we can already feel that something is wrong with this cozy atmosphere.

Now comes the singing voice „To a graveyard my path has brought me. Here I will lodge. I thought myself.“ So he's looking for a grave where he can die. And later on he says „But in this house, are the rooms all occupied? I am tired enough to drop sick unto death. This pitiless tavern do you turn me away? Then onward lead me onward, my trusty staff.“ This is so fascinating because there are so many details in Schubert’s harmonical language, that we can feel this balance between: he wants to die, he cannot die, he has to go on to wander. And this changements in the mood are extremely impressing how Schubert wrote this. For instance:

This g flat … and than C sharp major and d flat – incredible!

And finally we come to

Pay attention to the harmonies: A flat major – c minor – A flat major – c minor – C major – F major – f minor – c minor – and so on.

And just at the end we have oncemore the first two bars of the beginning, but now with another ending.

- And the last example I want to give you is from „Schwanengesang“ „The Doppelganger.“ It's difficult to translate, we can say the Double or in English sometimes it's even used the word Doppleganger. The scenery is about the same, like in the Winterreise. That means, a man is standing in front of the house, where his former love used to live. And this makes him a lot of pain, Schubert expresses this pain by using the so-called „Kreuzmotiv“. We know it for instance already from Bach

Schubert has changed it a little bit, but it's the same idea, and we can see the cross in the music. This motif is to be heard several times in this piece, it’s only filled up with f sharp in the middle. Schubert used this motif nearly at the same time when he wrote his big mass in E flat major. In the „Agnus Dei“ we can find it many times in different instruments and voices. So this was really immanent in Schubert’s musical life, and it’s fascinating to compare all these compositions Schubert has written in his last year, as he died in 1828. It’s incredible, how many important pieces he has composed in this time! Not only the last three piano sonatas, the three impromptus „Klavierstücke“ , he also finished the Winterreise, he wrote these Lieder which are bound together under the title „Schwanengesang“, which is a title from the editor, not from Schubert, the famous Quintet, the E flat major mass, the ninth symphony, the Fantasy in f minor for four hands, he was really full in his music. So it is not surprising that we can find similar motifs in all these pieces.

Now, here we have again this situation, he stands in front of the house

„In this house lived my sweetheart. She has long since left the town, but the house still stands on the selfsame spot.“ An than he realizes „a man stands there too, staring up, and wringing his hands in anguish“ – in highest pain. And what is surprising is that, in the moment when we hear the word „Schmerzensgewalt“ = forcing of pain, Schubert writes D major and fff

In the left hand we still can hear the cross-motif. And than he restarts the phrase: „I shudder when I see his face, the moon shows me my own form!“ And again „my own form“ , this horror-like moment, is oncemore underlined by this D major chord! D major, we have a completely other association to D major than this one. And than there follows a harmonical changement which is frightening.

Here is on the D major just a ffz, only on the following chord there is now the fff – and the solution is not really a solution.

In the following bars the accompaniment changes. There is a chromatic line up to d sharp! This is quite far away from b minor. And the text is „You wraith, pallid companion, why do you ape the pain of my love, which tormented me on this very spot, so many a night, in these last days past?“

The postludium is for me one of the greatest miracles. First of all instead of c sharp he now uses C major in the ground position as the second chord in this phrase, which is a neapolitan sixth. And than he uses a dominant seventh chord, solved to e minor, and the following B major chord sounds like a dominant chord of e minor. Somehow this end is open for me, because before he gives us with the dominant seventh chord the suggestion that this piece should end in e minor

Isn’t this a wonderful expression? The end remains open, especially because the last chord is a B major chord in a b minor Lied. It’s seems that there is no solution of all this earthly pains but there is a hope!

So maybe I could give some suggestions what I am fascinated of in Schubert’s language in his Lieder, and in the following part I will try to show that we can also find this same language in his instrumental music, in his piano sonatas.


o.Univ.-Prof. Manfred Wagner-Artzt


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