Posted by Richard on  UTC 2018-01-30 08:32

Thursday 31 January 1828: Franz Schubert's birthday. He was thirty-one years old and at the beginning of what would be the last year of his life. That evening the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, 'Society for Friends of Music' in Vienna staged an evening concert. The second item on the programme was

Ellen's Song, poem from Walter Scott's 'The Lady of the Lake', set to music by F. Schubert, performed by Miss Josephi.

Ellens Gesang, Gedicht aus Walter Scotts Fräulein vom See, in Musik gesetzt von F. Schubert, vorgetr. von Fräulein [Theresia] Josephi. [Dok 488]

It is presumed that the song performed that evening was Ellens Gesang III, a.k.a. Ave Maria, arguably one of the most famous Schubert songs of all time. Who cannot hum that tune? As far as we know, Miss Josephi's performance that Thursday evening was the first fully public premiere of the piece.

Putting it another way: one of Schubert's most popular songs started its stellar public career that evening, on its composer's thirty-first birthday, 190 years ago.

Sir Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake

The piece had actually been composed about three years before in April 1825 and was the sixth of seven songs he published at the beginning of April 1826 in a collection titled Sieben Gesänge aus Walter Scotts 'Fräulein am See', 'Seven Songs from Walter Scott's "The Lady of the Lake"', Op. 52 (D 839).

The text source of the songs was a narrative poem in six 'cantos', a story of six days of Scottish warfare. Scott's poem was first published in 1810 and translated into German by Adam Storck (1780–1822) in 1819. The poem is not a popular read in the impatient times of modern life, but Scott was a popular author with the German-speaking public at that time.

Ellen's third song is sung by the character Ellen Douglas and is an appeal to the Virgin Mary to intercede in the conflict.

A proud son writes

Schubert wrote to his father and his stepmother on 25 July 1825 from Steyer, whilst he was on a summer tour with the singer Michael Vogl:

Later, in the presence of Councillor von Schiller, who is the monarch of all the Salzkammergut, we (Vogl and I) dined every day and made a lot of music there and at Traweger's house. My new songs, from Walter Scott's 'The Lady of the Lake', pleased them all greatly.

They were greatly surprised at my piety, which I had expressed in a hymn to the Blessed Virgin Mary which, so it seemed, touched everyone's feelings and brought them to a state of religious exaltation. I believe that comes from the fact that I never force devotion and never compose such hymns or prayers, unless I am involuntarily overcome – which is then the right and true devotion.

Bei nachheriger Anwesenheit des Hrn. Hofrath v. Schiller, der der Monarch des ganzen Salzkammergutes ist, speisten wir (Vogl und ich) täglich in seinem Hause, und musicirten sowohl da, als auch in Traweger’s Hause sehr viel. Besonders machten meine neuen Lieder, aus Walter Scott’s Fräulein vom See, sehr viel Glück. Auch wunderte man sich sehr über meine Frömmigkeit, die ich in einer Hymne an die heil. Jungfrau ausgedrückt habe, und, wie es scheint, alle Gemüther ergreift und zur Andacht stimmt. Ich glaube, das kommt daher, weil ich mich zur Andacht nie forcire, und, außer wenn ich von ihr unwillkürlich übermannt werde, nie dergleichen Hymnen oder Gebete componire, dann aber ist sie auch gewöhnlich die rechte und wahre Andacht. [Dok 299]

This list of small successes and accolades is the sort of thing children have written to their parents since the dawn of letter-writing. It is touching to hear Franz telling his father and his stepmother about his successes. Reading this, can there be any doubt that Franz Schubert, with the self-conviction and strength of character to break away from his father's schoolteaching regime and set out on his own into the very uncertain freelance world of the composer, still needed deeply the approval and appreciation of his parents?

But this passage should also be taken as a respectful dig at his father, the pious ritualist with the Jesuit mind. We can assume that Schubert's remark to his father about the surprise of his companions at his moving setting of the hymn to the Virgin Mary is merely one more shot in an ideological battle that had been going on between the two of them for years.

His father's school was run by the Catholic Church and his position as its Director was utterly dependent upon the approval of the clerical establishment. Nothing we know of him suggests that any part of his mind was capable of criticism of the clergy. His son was not unspiritual, just anticlerical. As Otto Deutsch points out, Schubert wrote a considerable amount of pious or spiritual music, but not clerical music. We shall see later this year that Schubert and his brothers' religious disaffection was with the clerical orders of the Roman Catholic Church, not with issues of spirituality. [Dok 300]

One further point of technical interest was that six of the seven songs appeared with Scott's English texts as well as Adam Storck's German transliteration. The intention was to allow Schubert to break into the lucrative English music market. That didn't happen – at least not in Schubert's lifetime, of which there was not much left by now.

A hit

Schubert's melody for Ave Maria certainly hit the spot with audiences. He experienced that in Steyer and undoubtably also in Vienna on his birthday. It is a very Schubertian melody, which means that those who have listened to a good range of Schubert's music will keep hearing echoes of phrases and sequences from other things – not the same but similar – which came together for him when he needed them.

Whatever refined musicologists might say, the most precious thing in music is a good melody, so we should not be surprised that the fine, moving, melodic line of Schubert's Ave Maria has been shamelessly reused and recycled down the 190 years since Miss Josephi warbled it out on that Thursday evening on Schubert's birthday.

Your author has no idea what Schubert earned from Ave Maria – it certainly doesn't seem to have been very much and certainly bears no relation to the money that has been made by Ave Maria down the ages.

Let's hope that Franz, on his birthday in 1828, had the deep satisfaction of witnessing the song's power to move listeners in Vienna just as much as it had moved listeners in Steyer – that would have been a fine birthday present for him. Just don't mention money.

Happy Birthday, Franz! Another hit, son!

For a performance of Ave Maria, go to YouTube and choose your poison: in German, English, Latin; sung by men, women, boys, girls, choirs; accompanied by pianos, orchestras, cellos, harps; instrumentals (especially Liszt's arrangement); sung in scenes in movies – and of course arranged in Disney's wonderful animated film Fantasia. The eating-the-hottest-curry prize goes to anyone who can watch Mario Lanza's version without fainting.


All sources are in German, unless otherwise noted. All translations ©FoS.

Dok Deutsch, Otto Erich, ed. Schubert: Die Dokumente Seines Lebens. Erw. Nachdruck der 2. Aufl. Wiesbaden: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1996. [DE]

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