Page:EB1911 - Volume 25.djvu/425

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409
SONG


provide both a background and a commentary to the central personages.

The tentative and uninspired work of Zelter, Reichardt, Schulz and others, when they attempted anything beyond a merely tuneful melody in the strophic form, may be passed over, but a word is due to J. R. Zumsteeg, because in spite of the sometimes childish simplicity of his work he yet, in the kind of use which he made of modulation as a means of lyrical expression, anticipated, more than any other composer of songs, one of the chief features of the greatest song writer of all ages, Franz Schubert. Schubert's “Erlkönig” was written a few months before Beethoven's “Liederkreis,” “Gretchen am Spinnrade” about a year before the " Erlkönig ." He was eighteen when he composed the latter, in 1815. Lyrical song, divorced from all hindering elements and associations, whether of salon or theatre, was here at the threshold of his short career in almost full maturity and plenitude of power. It is sufficiently remarkable that a lad with so little education should have composed such music: it is more astonishing still that he should have penetrated with such unerring insight into the innermost secrets of the best poetry. Two of the necessary qualifications for a great song composer were thus at last united. Schubert possessed the third—a knowledge of the human voice, partly intuitive, partly the result of his experience as a chorister boy. The beauty of his melodies is scarcely more striking than the gratefulness of their purely vocal qualities. The technique of singing had indeed been understood for nearly two centuries; but Schubert was the first to divine fully its emotional range, and to dissociate it in lyrical work from all traditions of the schools. From the beginning to the end of his career he never penned a note or a phrase because it was vocally effective. What he wrote for the voice to sing was there because for him the poetry could not have it otherwise. This was inherent in his method of working, in which he relied implicitly upon his musical inspiration for a response, usually instantaneous, to the inordinate receptivity of his mind to the impressions of poetry. To read through a poem was for him not only to seize its innermost significance, and every salient point of language or of form, but also to visualize the scheme by which both the whole and the parts could be translated and glorified through the medium of music. As the singer Vogl, the first of his profession to appreciate him, remarked, " He composed in a state of clairvoyance." Hence the impossibility of summarizing in a short space the innovations he introduced, for new poems invariably suggested new types of song. His settings of Goethe's lyrics (that is, the best of them) differ as essentially from his settings to those of W. Muller in the cycles “Die Schöne Müllerin” and “Die Winterreise,” as these again from his settings of Heine. Hardly a single development in subsequent phases of the art (except those which eliminate the melodious element) is not foreshadowed in one or other of his six hundred (and more) songs. Brahms, perhaps the greatest of his successors, said that there was something to be learned from every one of Schubert's songs. He was as perfectly at home in the durchcomponirtes Lied as in the simple strophic type or the purely declamatory (" Der Wegweiser," " Nähe des Geliebten," " Der Doppelgänger " may serve as familiar but supreme examples of each). Certain features may be selected for emphasis, first, his use of modulation as a means of emotional expression. " Du liebst mich nicht" traverses in two pages more keys than would serve most composers for a whole symphony, whilst the discords on the words "Die Sonne vermissen" and "Was blüh'n die Narcissen " gave a piercingly thrilling effect, which is quite modern. The modulations in " Wehmuth " illustrate the subtle atmospheric effects which he loved to produce by sudden contrasts between major and minor harmonies. More familiar instances occur in " Gute Nacht," " Die Rose," " Rosamunde." Secondly, his inexhaustible fertility in devising forms of accompaniment, which serve to illustrate the pictorial or emotional background of a poem; we have the galloping horses (and the horn) in "Die Post," the spinning wheel in " Gretchen," murmuring brooks in many songs from " Die Schöne Müllerin " and in " Liebesbotschaft," the indication of an emotional mood in “Die Stadt” or " Litanei." Occasionally, it is true, the persistence of a particular figure and rhythm induces monotony, as in " Ave, Maria!" or " Normans Gesang," but generally Schubert has plenty of means at his command to prevent it, such as the presence of an appropriate subsidiary figure making its appearance at intervals, as in " Halt," " Der Einsame," or some enchanting ritornello, by which a phrase of the vocal melody is echoed in the accompaniment, as in " Liebesbotschaft," " An Sylvia," " Ständchen " and " Fischerweise." Thirdly, the sudden entrance of declamatory passages, as in " Der Neugier’ge," " Am Feierabend," in " Gretchen," at the famous " Ach sein Kuss," and in " Erlkönig " at " Mein Vater, mein Vater." Fourthly, the realistic touches by which suggestions in a poem are incorporated into the accompaniment, such as the cock crowing in " Frühlingstraum," the convent bell in " Die Junge Nonne," the nightingale's song in " Ganymed " or the falling tears in " Ihr Bild." Finally should be noted the extreme rarity of any slips in the matter of the just accentuation of syllables, and this is especially remarkable in a song writer who relies so much upon pure melody as Schubert, for to preserve a perfect melodic outline which shall do not the least violence to a poet's text, presents far more difficult problems than the declamatory style. Yet Schubert is as successful in " Liebesbotschaft " as in " Prometheus." Purists may be disturbed by the repetitions of words involved in the magnificent “Dithyrambe”—but Schubert cannot be expected to betray a sensitiveness which is really post-Wagnerian. Nor is it just to a composer of over 600 songs to fasten for critical purposes on those which do not represent him at his best. His best level is so often attained as to make attacks on points which he has missed—as in some of the songs from Wilhelm Meister—somewhat beside the mark. It is usually the work of enthusiasts who wish to exalt others at Schubert's expense. For further details the reader is referred to the brilliant essay on Song with which Mr Hadow concludes vol. v. of the Oxford History of Music. It must suffice here to point out in a general way that in wideness of scope and aim, in intensity of expression Schubert produced the same transformation in the lyrical field that Beethoven had produced in the larger forms of sonata, string t quartet and symphony. Beethoven's work was necessary before Schubert could arise, but Schubert's conceptions and methods were the fruit of his own genius. Of his contemporaries Loewe deserves mention for his singular success in overcoming the difficulties involved in setting long ballads to # music. To preserve homogeneity in a form in which simple narration presents perpetually shifting changes of action, of picture, of mood, is a problem which Schubert himself only once triumphantly solved. Weber contributed nothing to song, except in his operas, of permanent value, beyond a few strophic songs of a popular nature. He disqualified himself for higher work by that singular preference for vapid and trivial verse which so often led Haydn and Mozart astray. Mendelssohn's literary tastes took him to the best poetry, but he made but little attempt as a rule, to penetrate beyond its superficial and obvious import. His own lovable personality is far more clearly revealed in his songs than the spirit of his poets. Differences of literary style affected the style of his music perhaps less than that of any other distinguished composer. He attained his highest level in "Auf Fliigeln des Gesanges," the first of the two songs to Zuleika, and Nachtlied. It is noteworthy that there is no trace of Schubert's influence. Had Schubert not lived, Mendelssohn's songs would have been just the same. Hence in spite of graceful and flowing melodies, elegant but simple in form, and instinct with that polished taste and charm of manner which endeared both himself and his works to his own generation, his songs have exercised no permanent influence upon the art. Their immediate influence, it is true, was enormous: it is felt occasionally in Schumann, only too often in Robert Franz, and a host of lesser composers in many countries besides his own, such as Gade, Lindblad, Sterndale Bennett, and others who need not be specified.