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Schubert collection

All Souls' Day, 2 November

Posted by Richard on UTC 2015-11-02 10:12.

Elisabeth Schubert (-Vietz, 1756-1812), the unknown

Franz Schubert (1797-1828) would have experienced the ritual of the graveside attendance on All Souls' Day many times. The graves of his grandparents and other ancestors were in distant Moravia and Austrian Silesia (both now in the Czech Republic), but there was no shortage of Viennese graves. Of the fifteen children his mother Elisabeth had brought into the world, ten died, most in early infancy. Franz was baby no. 13, one of the five (three brothers and one sister) who survived. There was certainly no shortage of family graves to tend.

Elizabeth's grave was added to those of her children in 1812. She died aged 55 on 28 May of typhoid fever, the disease that would claim Franz barely 16 years later. Although Franz had cordial relations with the new stepmother Anna (the marital bed had just under a year to cool down) his fondness for his mother, even in such a taciturn and introverted young man, is clear to see. In a diary entry for 14 June 1816 –  he seems to have spent little time keeping a diary, preferring foolishly to spend his time writing music  – he mentions a memory of her grave, tender, but without histrionics:

After several months I once again took an evening stroll. There can hardly be anything more pleasant in the evening of a hot summer's day than walking in the countryside, and the fields between Währing and Döbling seem to have been created for that activity. In the fading dusk, in the company of my brother Carl, I felt a deep happiness. How beautiful, I thought and cried out and stood still, captivated. The proximity of the cemetery reminded us of our good mother. So, deep in sad and trusting conversation we arrived at the place where the Döblinger Road forks. [1]

Johann Georg Jacobi, the (almost) forgotten

Two years after Elisabeth Schubert's death and two years before Franz and Carl's evening stroll, the grim reaper called on Johann Georg Jacobi (1740-1814), the Rector of the University of Freiburg. Jacobi was a poet –  though many of his more illustrious contemporaries would dispute the use of that title for him  – a prodigious scribbler who produced anodyne pieces for a large circle of female readers. The phrase 'female readers' is not meant pejoratively here: in the spirit of the times their reading material was not expected to shock delicate female sensibilities in any way: emotionally, religiously or sexually. Jacobi had the knack of writing such stuff in huge quantities and his work became extremely popular.

Despite being a Protestant in deeply Catholic Freiburg he became Rector of the university, a considerable feat for which we should also give him due credit. His funeral was an occasion that drew thousands of people.

Johann Georg Jacobi, Gleimhaus Halberstadt (Photo: Ulrich Schrader) [CC BY-NC-SA]

This blog tries to be scrupulously fair to those it otherwise mocks. In this spirit we have chosen to show this remarkable portrait of Jacobi. Most of the other depictions of him range between horrid and bizarre. This portrait, currently in the 'Gleimhaus' in Halberstadt, Germany, is of such quality that it was for a long time attributed to the great Wilhelm Tischbein. However, the leading Tischbein expert, Prof. Hermann Mildenberger, has plausibly refuted the association. Whoever did paint it was a master of the trade, nevertheless.
We therefore have to add to our store of unknowing by bringing you this wonderful portrait of Jacobi by an unknown artist with an unknown date.
Source: Johann Georg Jacobi, Gleimhaus Halberstadt (Photo: Ulrich Schrader) [CC BY-NC-SA]
Porträt Johann Georg Jacobi

Some of Jacobi's poems were set to music –  Hayden and Mozart set one poem each  – but the 19 year-old Schubert set eight of them between August and September 1816, not long after the stroll with his brother Carl. Franz was in a frenzy of production and it was difficult for his friends to keep up with his need for texts. One of these – arguably the best of the Jacobi group – was based on Jacobi's poem 'Litaney auf das Fest Allerseelen' (Litany for the Feast of All Souls, D343). That song, along with one other of Jacobi's ('Orpheus…', D474 ), was finally published in 1831/32, three years after Schubert's death, and circulated widely. (For most of Schubert's life, most of his work hung around as scraps of manuscript in cupboards and drawers, few of them his.)

It is always risky to try to associate events in the lives of composers too closely with the music they wrote, but can we see the genesis of Schubert's setting of Jacobi's 'Litany' in that summer evening walk with Carl? Who knows?

We do know, however, that another woman beside his mother was involved: Therese Grob, his passion at the time. Trying to work out the depth and nature of this passion is another matter: accounts vary. Perhaps we will look at that another time. But probably in November 1816 Schubert put together a manuscript album of his work for her, presumably on the occasion of her 18th birthday on 16 November. It contained 16 Lieder, one of which was 'Am Tage aller Seelen' (On All Souls' Day), Schubert's retitling of Jacobi's 'Litanei'.

A matter of technique and taste

There are editions of the score that print all nine verses –  even a great composer is no match for a pedant  – most print three. The baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (1925-2012), the great Schubert interpreter, sang only two verses and advised others to restrict themselves, too, as he explained in his illuminating work on Schubert's Lieder Auf den Spuren der Schubert-Lieder:

[The Lied] 'Litanei auf das Fest Allerseelen', the prayerlike intimacy of which puts it among the most vocally difficult songs to render, requiring the uncoiling of a sheer endless legato line. The nine verses of the poem are poetically very inhomogeneous and therefore one must choose carefully, perhaps restricting oneself to two verses only, since the effect of the slow melody can suffer by too frequent repetition. Anyone who manages to sing the long line in exemplary legato and at the same time allow each phrase to retain its meaning understands just about everything about the technique of singing with piano accompaniment. [2]

Here are the two verses of Jacobi's poem used by Fischer-Dieskau (in Jacobi's original orthography): [3]

Litaney auf das Fest aller Seelen Litany for the feast of All Souls
Ruhn in Frieden alle Seelen, Rest in peace, all souls,
Die vollbracht ein banges Quälen, those who went through terrible agony,
Die vollendet süßen Traum, those who completed a sweet dream,
Lebenssatt, gebohren kaum, [those] surfeited with life, [those] scarcely born,
Aus der Welt hinüber schieden: [who] cross over out of the world:
Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden! all souls, rest in peace!
Und die nie der Sonne lachten, And those who never smiled at the sun,
Unterm Mond auf Dornen wachten, [but who] woke beneath the moon on thorns,
Gott, im reinen Himmels-Licht, God, in the pure light of heaven,
Einst zu sehn von Angesicht: at last seen face to face:
Alle, die von hinnen schieden, all those who depart
Alle Seelen ruhn in Frieden! all souls, rest in peace!

Fischer-Dieskau's selection of these two verses demonstrates the literary sensitivity that made him such an outstanding interpreter of the German Lied. Out of the 'inhomogeneous' stack of verses Jacobi wrote he selects Jacobi's sixth verse to close the song. This verse brings the souls of the departed to Paradise, where they achieve the final, blessed condition. A fitting and comforting conclusion indeed.

The good, the odd and the breathless

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the accompanist Gerald Moore (1899-1987) are the standard to beat in Schubert singing. Perfectly paced, no self-indulgent dawdling, no excessive theatricals. Perfect enunciation combined with smooth legato. DF-D sings two verses, choosing the two that make sense together and form a logical whole: 'Ruhn in Frieden alle Seelen' and 'Und die nie der Sonne lachten'. Time: 3:53.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (1915-2006). A wonderful voice, perfect enunciation and a fine, even lagato with exact control. She chooses to sing the three verses contained in most scores: 'Ruhn in Frieden alle Seelen', 'Liebevoller Mädchen Seelen' and 'Und die nie der Sonne lachten'. Fortunately, she doesn't hang around and gets through it all in 5:30, which makes it digestible – just.

Elisabeth Schumann (1888-1952), like Schwarzkopf from the great era of German sopranos. Excellent diction and legato. Some will like the slight vibrato, some will not; I don't mind it. She sings the 'DF-D option' and gets it done in almost the same time as he does: 3:12. The still of her with the dog in the video is a bit distracting: I keep hearing it woofing along in the background. How the brain works!

Ian Bostridge, a modern tenor who clearly finds it difficult to sing quietly whilst preserving timbre. As a non-native speaker of German, he is slightly challenged by the text. He adds drama on phrases that don't deserve it. Worst of all, however, is his decision to sing three verses in a rather bizarre selection: 'Ruhn in Frieden alle Seelen', 'Und die nie der Sonne lachten' and 'Auch, die keinen Frieden kannten'. Perhaps he wants to get the right-on word 'Frieden' in somewhere, in a verse about those fallen in action, but it doesn't work well textually. Time: 4:59. The publicity photo used in the video was taken just after someone had stolen his pencil case. Bless!

And now two complete disasters, to end on a cheerful note after all these dirges:

Karl Erb (1877-1958) was a German tenor who got too tangled up with the Nazis but despite that kept singing into his eighties. This recording is awful, there is no detectable legato and Erb is gasping for air at the end of every long phrase. Fortunately he sings the two verse 'D-FD option' and is therefore still alive after 3:13, when he can go and have a sit down to recover.

A car crash from Matthias Goerne, one of the newish wave of German singers. Plodding, lingering, self-regarding, affected. He sings the three verses of the 'Schwarzkopf option' and takes an astonishing 7:56 to do it. A breathing test, but nothing else. Music to knit socks by.

References

  1. ^ Otto Erich Deutsch, Schubert, Die Dokumente seines Lebens; 1980 (1964) Breitkopf & Härtel, Leipzig, ISBN 3-7651-0302-0. p. 43:
    Nach einigen Monathen machte ich wieder einmahl einen Abendspaziergang. Etwas angenehmeres wird es wohl schwerlich geben, als sich nach einem heißen Somertage Abends im Grünen zu ergehen, wozu die Felder zwischen Währing u. Döbling eigens geschaffen scheinen. Im zweifelhaften Dämerschein, in Begleitung meines Bruders Carl ward mir so wohl ums Herz. Wie schön, dacht’ ich u. rief ich, u. blieb ergötzt stehen. Die Nähe des Gottesackers erinnerte uns an unsere gute Mutter. So kamen wir unter traurig traulichen Gesprächen auf den Punkt, wo sich die Döblinger Straße theilt.
  2. ^ Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Auf den Spuren der Schubert-Lieder, Werden - Wesen - Wirkung, R A. Brockhaus Wiesbaden, 1971, ISBN 3765302449, p. 94:
    Das bedeutendste der Lieder nach Gleims Texten ist wohl LITANEI AUF DAS FEST ALLERSEELEN, dessen gebethafte Innigkeit zum gesanglich Schwierigsten von Schubert gehört, da eine schier endlose Legatolinie zu spinnen ist. Die neun Strophen des Gedichts sind poetisch sehr ungleich geraten, man sollte also sorgfältig auswählen, sich vielleicht auf zwei beschränken, da auch die Weihe der langsamen Melodie durch allzu häufige Wiederholungen leiden könnte. Wer die lang ausgesponnene Gesangslinie in vorbildlichem Legato zu singen versteht und dabei doch jedem Wortausdruck seine Bedeutung läßt, der weiß wohl so ziemlich alles über die Technik des Pianosingens.
  3. ^ Johann Georg Jacobi, J. G. Jacobi's sämmtliche Werke, Band 3, Zürich: Orell, Füssli (1809), p 95f. If you really want to savour all nine verses there is an online version at zeno.org.