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Schubert, you idiot!

Posted by Richard on UTC 2015-09-28 15:20.

The time: 1827, some time around the middle of July. The place: Vienna, in the house of the Fröhlich family in the Spiegelgasse. The family was well known in Vienna on account of its four extremely talented sisters: Anna ('Nanette' or 'Nettl', 1793-1880, singer and music teacher), Barbara ('Betty', 1798-1878, painter and teacher), Katharina ('Kathi', 1800-1879, musical and literary allrounder) and Josephine ('Pepi', 1803-1878, opera singer). The Fröhlichs were not exceptionally well-to-do but they held a regular salon – not one of the great salons attended by the aristocracy and ministers of the Austrian Empire, not a salon for the 'stiff people', as Schubert and his friends called them – but a salon for artists, writers and… well, interesting people. It was one of the centres of cultural life in Vienna.

One of those artists was Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872) – you are entitled to say 'Grill… who?', so far has his fame faded, but at that time he was well on his way to becoming Austria's national poet and playwright. He was engaged to one of the Fröhlich sisters, Katharina. It was an engagement that lasted a long time but, as a result of Grillparzer's vacillation, never came to the fulfillment of marriage. German literary history remembers him as the 'eternal bridegroom'. I answer the question before you ask it: We don't know how platonic or otherwise Kathi and Grillparzer's engagement was.

The oldest Fröhlich sister, Anna, was a singing teacher at the Vienna Conservatory. One of her pupils was Louise Gosmar (1803-1850), who was the daughter of the owner of a sugar refinery in Vienna. Given the bakery traditions of Vienna it was probably a flourishing business. Louise's 24th birthday was coming up and Anna wanted to throw a party for her with all her other pupils. The daughters of the rich are valued pupils. Anna turned to Grillparzer to write a poem for the event – not for the first time, either. She tells us:

A: Now, my dear Grillparzer. There's no escape: you have to write me a poem for Louise's birthday.
G: Well, I'll see if something occurs to me.
A: Just make sure something does occur to you.

[I hope this translation has succeeded in rendering the Viennese politeness that so endears the natives of that city to strangers.]

Grillparzer had little choice but to have something occur to him. A couple of days later he handed his work, Ständchen ('Serenade') to Anna.

A short time later, Franz Schubert (1797-1828), a frequent visitor, turned up at the Fröhlichs. Anna – once again taking no prisoners – buttonholed him:

A: Hey. Schubert. Set this to music for me.
S: OK. just give it here.

Schubert, leaning on the piano, read through Grillparzer's manuscript a few times, muttering now and again 'But how beautiful it is – it's beautiful!' He looked at the sheet for a while longer then said 'OK, it's done, I have it'. He went off and returned a short while later with a complete manuscript score for Grillparzer's poem. Unfortunately, Schubert had scored it for a mezzo-soprano (Pepi Fröhlich) and four male voices. He seems to have just assumed, reasonably enough in those days of gender certitude, that this poem describing a midnight tryst required male and female voices. Sitting in the window seat of the reception room in the Fröhlich's house at that moment, he was told off by Anna for his mistake with another dose of Viennese politeness:

No, Schubert! I can't use this. It is supposed to be an ovation for Louise from the girls. You have to rewrite it for a female chorus.

He returned shortly afterwards with a manuscript suitable for Pepi and four girls. We now have two manuscripts and two versions (let's call them 'vM' and 'vF') of one of the most accomplished and entrancing secular choral works ever written. As far as I know no one paid him or Grillparzer for their efforts, an all too frequent occurrence in Schubert's life among his legendary Freundeskreis ('Circle of Friends').

On the great day, 11th August 1827, three carriages took the girls out to Louise's home in Döbling, on the northern edge of the city. A piano had been secretly taken out and placed under the garden window – the piece was a serenade, after all. One of those present still remembered it long after the event: 'The effect of the first performance on a beautiful summer evening was glorious'. Schubert, however, wasn't there. He had been invited but had forgotten all about it – not unusually for him – and never turned up.

Anna also put on the Ständchen a short while later in a Music Society concert. Schubert had also been invited. But on the night, as so often: Where's Schubert? They sent out a well-informed search party and found him in the 'Oak' inn, noted for the quality of its beer. He was taken to the concert hall in time to hear the (slightly delayed) first performance of the female version of the Ständchen, which we now know as D921 (the male version is D920 and was first performed on 13th May 1849). After the performance Schubert was really happy, saying 'Honestly, I never realized how beautiful it was'.

A little over a year later, 19th November 1828, Schubert was dead of typhoid fever. His original, modest gravestone was paid for by two concerts organized by Anna Fröhlich in the Music Society concert hall, where the Ständchen had been first performed in public the previous year. It was performed on this occasion, too, but unfortunately, the composer was not there yet again.

The poem

Let's look at Grillparzer's poem. It is certainly not a quick throwaway poetic bodge for a party. It is subtle, cheeky and metrically very clever. Schubert, the great composer of Lieder, remarked once that for some lyrics the music came to him easily; for others it was hard work. When we look at the poem in detail we can see how attractive it might be to a lyrical composer. But it takes a genius to do what Schubert did with it.

Here is Grillparzer's German text with an extremely literal and clunky translation and some notes.

Ständchen

Serenade

Zögernd leise
In des Dunkels nächt'ger Hülle [1]
[or: In des Dunkels nächt'ger Stille]
Sind wir hier;
Und den Finger sanft gekrümmt,
Leise, leise,
Pochen wir
An des Liebchens Kammertür.

Hesitantly hushed
In the stillness of the night
[or: Under the cover of the night]
We are here;
And the finger gently bent,
softly, softly,
we tap
on the beloved's bedroom door.

Doch nun steigend,
Schwellend, schwellend, hebend [2]
Mit vereinter Stimme, Laut
Rufen aus wir hochvertraut;
Schlaf du nicht,
Wenn der Neigung Stimme spricht!

But now growing,
swelling, swelling, lifting[,]
with combined voice, loud
we call confidently;
Don't sleep
When the voice of affection speaks!

Sucht' ein Weiser [3] nah und ferne
Menschen einst mit der Laterne;
Wieviel seltner dann als Gold
Menschen, uns geneigt und hold?
Drum, wenn Freundschaft, Liebe spricht
Freundin, Liebchen, schlaf du nicht!

A wise man once used to look high and low
for people with a lantern;
How much rarer than gold
are people who love and adore us?
Therefore, when friendship, love speaks
my beloved, darling, don't sleep!

Aber was in allen Reichen
Wär' dem Schlummer zu vergleichen?
Drum statt Worten und statt Gaben
Sollst du nun auch Ruhe haben.
Noch ein Grüßchen, noch ein Wort,
Es verstummt dir frohe Weise,
Leise, leise,
Schleichen wir uns fort.
Schleichen wir uns, ja, schleichen wir uns wieder fort!

But what among all riches
can be compared to slumber?
So instead of words and gifts
You should now also have rest.
Just one more greeting, one more word,
The happy tune falls silent,
Softly, softly
We tiptoe away.
We tiptoe, yes, we tiptoe away again.

References

  1. ^ Variant Stille and Hülle Grillparzer's original has Stille, Schubert's ms for vM has Hülle. The printed score has vM Hülle and vF Stille. In her performance, Birgit Remmler (see below) sings Hülle and the choir (male and female) sings Stille. Does this matter to anyone at all?
  2. ^ hebend It seems that Schubert added this himself, allowing him a generous crescendo across schwellend, schwellend, hebend.
  3. ^ Weiser A wise man. Diogenes, the eccentric Greek 'philospher' was a well-known figure in the culture of this time. He is said to have gone around Athens in broad daylight with a lamp, trying to find a wise or honest man (depending on which version you read).

Notes on the text

The musicologist Harry Goldschmidt suggested that Grillparzer was sending a message to his fiancée Kathi Fröhlich in this poem: should he come tapping on her door in the middle of the night? Certainly the charm of Grillparzer's poem is that he manages to suggest an interesting erotic adventure without breaching taste and decency for a choir of young ladies. The lover taps on the door, with a cheeky climax in 'swelling, swelling, lifting up', but after all the swelling and uplifting decides not to disturb the loved one's slumber. Liebe makes a brief appearance, but is overwhelmed by Freundschaft (friendship) and particularly Neigung (in this context: affection, gentle and respectful).

Performances

The performance that gives me most pleasure is that by Birgit Remmler and the RIAS choir. The recording contains quality performances of both vM and vF: clear diction – you can actually understand the words with this mezzo and this choir; exact timekeeping and – so important in this piece – careful observance of volume. Unfortunately, this is a very difficult recording to get hold of. Nearly as good and now easily available is the same artist with the Arnold Schönberg Chor. (Schubert, The Complete Secular Works, Teldec).

There are several performances of both vM and vF on YouTube. Take your pick. The current best in my opinion is the elderly recording with Dame Janet Baker, helpfully integrated with a synchronous score. Here it is (be patient, there are a few seconds silence at the beginning while the titles are rolling):

There are some bad performances there, too. The most amusing is this one with Anne Sofie von Otter, which is just mannered, incompetent gurning. There are good reasons why many people have no time for classical music and this clip displays them all. Even the haircuts are terrible. This video has now disappeared from YouTube – unsurprisingly. I have substituted one of the audio-only versions from 1996 that are still available. Most of the insults in my review have therefore lost their force, but the singing is still terrible, with trailing syllables abruptly swallowed to create an exaggerated pianissimo. The piano playing matches the singing in its mannered exaggerations, with sudden fortes and pianissimos that in no way correspond with Schubert's careful scoring.

Scores are available here for vM and vF. The vM manuscript can be seen in facsimile here.

Every time that I listen to this work I am uplifted. I also notice something new at almost every hearing, which is always the identifier of a work of genius that leaves the humble paddlers behind to catch up. This is what happens when bossy Anna Fröhlich gets not one, but two geniuses to do her bidding.

Sources

The sources for the story of the creation of the Ständchen are all in Otto Erich Deutsch, Schubert, Die Erinnerungen seiner Freunde; 1983 (1957) Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig, ISBN 3-7651-0186-9. See pages 129f, 133, 162, 286f. The information about the Fröhlich family is taken from the Deutsche Biographie entry for Katharina Fröhlich.