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The Kennedy Center

Orchestral Songs

About the Work

Franz Schubert Composer: Franz Schubert
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

In June 1816 when he was 19, Schubert received his first fee for one of his compositions (a now-lost cantata for the name-day of his teacher, Heinrich Watteroth), and decided that he had sufficient reason to leave his irksome teaching post at his father's school in order to live the life of an artist. Thus began the bohemian existence of his last dozen years-living by the gladly proffered aid of friends, daily climbing up to Grinzing to haunt the cafés, avoiding the higher levels of society for dislike of buying and wearing good clothes. And music, always music. He composed incessantly. Compositions filled his head constantly, sometimes scratched out on napkins or envelopes if they could not wait until the next morning. Evenings were spent making music with his devoted band of friends who were delighted to sing and play what he wrote. These Schubertiads were often hosted by prominent members of society, including lawyers and government officials, and were regularly attended by both professional musicians and amateurs. The legacy they left is beyond price.

Ernst Konrad Friedrich Schulze lived, and made poetry, at the far edge of German romanticism. Born in Celle in 1789 into a family of lawyers and booksellers, he was a difficult and uncommunicative child who retreated into literature and his own roiling feelings, which he began to shape into despairing, spectral, often cynical poems by the age of 15. His sexual awakening two years later, when he went to Göttingen to begin his university studies, led to an obsessive attention-"stalking," Susan Youens called it in her study of Schubert's Poets-toward two sisters: first Cäcilie Tychsen and, after she died of tuberculosis in 1812, her older sister, Adelheid. Schulze volunteered to fight against Napoleon in 1814, but his fragile health quickly forced him out of active duty. He died of tuberculosis in 1817; he was 28. Schulze recorded his intense feelings in enormous diaries and long poems throughout his brief life, a number of which were published posthumously in 1822 as the Poetisches Tagebuch (Poetic Diary). Schubert came to know this publication early in 1825-he had considered making an opera of Schulze's Die Bezauberte Rose ("The Enchanted Rose") the year before, but nothing came of the idea-and he set ten of the poems during the following months. Schulze expressed his unrequited love for the Tychsen sisters in the German Romanticists' traditional natural metaphors in Im Frühling (In Spring, D. 882), of which Schubert made a poignant setting in 1826.

Schubert set some 30 poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), including the beloved Erlkönig. His first Goethe setting, created in a burst of inspiration during the afternoon of October 19, 1814, when he was 17, took as its subject the verses Goethe gave to the love-struck, nearly distracted maiden in Part I of his Faust-Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel). It is Schubert's earliest masterpiece of song, the first time he found the perfect musical expression to match the images, emotions, and rhythms of a worthy poem. The day of its creation has been called by many commentators, and not without justification, the birthday of the mature German art song.

Johann Georg Jacobi (1740-1814) was professor of philosophy at Halle and Freiburg, an art critic and a poet. He edited the literary periodical Iris, in which he published poems by Goethe, Klopstock, Herder, and Jean Paul as well as many of his own verses. Schubert set seven of Jacobi's poems in August and September 1816, including Litanei auf das Fest Aller Seelen (Litany for the Feast of All Souls, D. 343), of which Richard Cappell, in his study of Schubert songs, said, "There was never a truer or more touching expression of simple devotion and of grief consoled and yet still near weeping."

Erlkönig (Erl King, D. 328, October 1815) is a dramatic realization, virtually a mini-opera for voice and piano, of Goethe's gripping ballad (i.e., a narrative poem) about the specter of death luring an ailing child to the afterlife while his father gallops on horseback for help with the boy in his arms, ultimately in vain.

The German poet Matthias Claudius (1740-1815) edited a newspaper called Wandsbecker Bote, in which he published many poems and essays, before becoming engrossed in religion in his later years. Schubert discovered his verses in 1815 and found in them a simplicity, wry humor, fresh observation of nature, and elegiac character well suited to his creative talents. He set 13 of Claudius's poems during the next two years, the most famous of which is Der Tod und das Mädchen (Death and the Maiden), which provided a thematic source for Schubert's most beloved string quartet.