A Schwanengesang website

Posted by Richard on  UTC 2019-09-29 10:08

Dr Iain C. Phillips writes to tell us of the launch of his new 'Schwanengesang resource'. He writes:

Today sees the launch of the third of the trio of sibling websites dedicated to Schubert’s Lieder masterpieces, song cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, and of Schwanengesang, the latter a collection of songs written by Schubert at the end of his life, to poems by Ludwig Rellstab, Heinrich Heine and Johann Gabriel Seidl. The collection was compiled, named and published posthumously by Tobias Haslinger. As with the previous websites, users are invited and encouraged to contribute material, ideas etc., with a view to making this website the ultimate go-to resource for all things related to Schwanengesang. Developer Iain C. Phillips can be reached via the contact form on the website.

Unfortunately, unlike his other two resource websites dedicated to the Schubert cycles Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin, we cannot wish him well with this venture – in our opinion it is utterly misconceived.

After Franz Schubert's death, the Viennese music publisher Tobias Haslinger took Schubert's settings of seven poems by Ludwig Rellstab, six poems by Heinrich Heine and one poem by Johann Gabriel Seidl and stuffed them together in one package, which he issued under the sentimental brand name Schwanengesang, 'Swansong'.

We recently described Haslinger's collection as the equivalent of a fake porcelain teapot bodged together from various pieces that did not belong together at all. No sane person can call this shambles a 'song cycle'. It is just a collection – even that word is overstating the reality – with a weepy marketing label stuck onto it.

Its deluded, moist-eyed admirers may call it a teapot, but with no spout, no handle and many gaps through which the tea trickles out it does not meet the criteria for a teapot. Similarly, it is not a song cycle: there are no shared themes, no shared characters, no narrative of thematic development… the whole shambles ends with a song about a pigeon.

Once we emphatically reject the term 'song cycle', we might be able to live with Schwanengesang if the individual pieces that were glued together to make this misbegotten teapot with no spout and no handle were in themselves any good. They are not: every piece in that teapot is a crock in some way or other.

We recently demonstrated in great detail just how bad Rellstab's seven poems are. Weighed down by Rellstab's leaden freight, it is not surprising that Schubert's settings never get off the ground: on the whole they are as indigestible as the text. One exception, though is Ständchen/Serenade, in which Schubert achieved lift-off by ignoring everything but the metre of the poem. The poem is still rubbish, though. And finally: nothing in Rellstab's entire poetic output could be considered to be a 'cycle' – it was the best he could do to write one bad poem, let alone write a 'cycle' of them.

In a strange contrast, the poems which Schubert selected from Heine's collection Die Heimreise are uniformly clever, skilled poetry. They belonged to a new age in German literature and Schubert, the composer of the Romantic, was quite out of his depth with these strange, ironic, almost post-modern pieces.

His settings of Heine's poems are all seriously misguided. No one could attempt to make a cycle out of Die Heimreise, even its author. Schubert's selection of six poems from Heine's near hundred have an even smaller chance of creating a 'cycle'.

The final piece in the Schwanengesang teapot, Seidl's poem about his pet carrier pigeon, is too awful to discuss. Schubert's setting, ditto.

This monstrous, cracked teapot, defective in every way, continues to be sold by Big Classic under Haslinger's ingenious label Schwanengesang. Someone, somewhere is making money.

Singers and piano players will perform anything if you pay them enough. Those who perform Schwanengesang just on account of what they take to be its majestic text and music with no thought of monetary gain are welcome to get in touch and change our minds.

However, those who really respect Schubert (as we do) and those who really respect Heine (as we do), both victims of their time who nevertheless heroically triumphed over adversity, those people sigh with resignation that Haslinger's teapot is still being flogged to the faithful nearly two centuries after it was glued together. It does a disservice to Schubert and Heine, and gives Rellstab and Seidl fame when they really only deserve oblivion.

We'd like to be able to wish Iain luck with his new site, but we just don't have it in us.