Exhaustive Tome On Schubert Songs Is Beguiling, Too

Franz Schubert -The Complete Songs by Graham Johnson (Yale University Press)
Graham Johnson’s three-volume opus is, by a wide margin, the definitive work on Schubert’s vocal music with piano.

Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs, by Graham Johnson / ISBN 978-0-300-11267-2. Three volume set with slipcase, $300. (Yale University Press, Dec. 16, 2014)

By Rodney Punt

BOOK REVIEW — The world of music this autumn celebrates the 200th anniversary of Franz Schubert’s first masterpiece, “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” Its composition by the 17-year-old composer on Oct. 19, 1814, might as well signify the arrival of Romanticism in music. Renowned collaborative pianist Graham Johnson describes the moment:

Schubert was 17 when he began composing art songs. (Franz Eybl)
Schubert was 17 when he began composing art songs. (Franz Eybl)

“It was Shakespeare who had liberated the young Goethe from the narrow precepts of his predecessors, and it was Goethe who performed the same service for Schubert. ‘Gretchen’ is his first Goethe setting and it was love at first sight. There had been dalliances with the idealised Elisa, Adelaide, and Laura of Matthisson but these were ‘nice’ girls; in Gretchen, who is on the brink of being engulfed by her own turbulent emotions and the strictures of a cruel world, the composer recognised the new frank reality of the romantic age, his own reality perhaps, and the full implications of his song-writing destiny.”

Insights like these have enlightened music lovers and practitioners for some years, at least those whose eyes could scrutinize the tiny print of thick liner notes for the Hyperion Records set of complete Schubert songs. Curated and recorded by Johnson with over 60 solo singers and choristers on the London-based label, its 37 award-winning discs were released one by one over an 18-year period beginning in 1987. The set was reissued with the songs in chronological order in 2005 (image below). Since then, new revelations from a veritable cottage industry of Schubert scholarship have sparked interest for a more comprehensive survey of his songs in a more handy format and in larger typeface. At long last, it has arrived.

British pianist Graham Johnson spearheaded the 27-year project.
British pianist Graham Johnson spearheaded the 27-year project.

Yale University Press will release Johnson’s Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs on Dec. 16. The three-volume set is, by a wide margin, the definitive work on Schubert’s vocal music with piano. It is also easy to navigate, entertaining, and readable, at one stroke the indispensable reference for singers, pianists, musicologists, lovers of music in general, and fans of Schubert in particular.

One of the most ambitious books on the lyric arts ever written by a single individual, the scope of Johnson’s accomplishment is remarkable. The three-volume set of nearly 3,000 pages contains more than 700 song commentaries with musical incipits for each, parallel poetry texts in German and English (by Richard Wigmore), biographies of 120 poets with details on poetic sources, a cornucopia of period iconography and modern drawings on the world of Schubert, and general articles on such related topics as pianists, singers, contemporaneous composers, dedicatees, accompaniment, opus numbers, chronologies, and much more. It is the most complete integration of literary, musical, historical, and iconographic items ever achieved in Schubert song — in a sense, both the logical outcome and final summation of the earlier Hyperion Records survey.

Johnson's Hyperion project
Johnson’s earlier Schubert project: All the songs for Hyperion.

Why so much ado about a genre whose entries often last just a couple of minutes? The answer is paradoxical, for Schubert was characterized in his larger works (symphonies, piano sonatas, and chamber music) by his “heavenly length.” Yet his songs express distinct whole worlds within the tiniest of musical kernels. Observing this, Beethoven reportedly said that within Schubert dwelt “a divine spark.” As Johnson puts it, “Every song, born of a different poem, is a law unto itself.”

Schubert had inherited what we see today as mere prototypes from workaday song composers like Johann Friedrich Reichardt, Carl Friedrich Zelter, and Johann Rudolf Zumsteeg, or the occasional sideline gem from masters like Mozart and Beethoven. From these humble origins, Schubert made a new monument to Western music, equal in standing to any of the larger forms. He inspired Schumann, Brahms, and Wolf, among others, to further develop song. Yet no other composer ever achieved, let alone surpassed, the high bar Schubert set.

Schubert’s creative life, as well as his temporal one, was enhanced by friendships with an ambitious, restive group of young men who were not inclined to let Prince Metternich’s oppressive regime in post-Napoleonic Vienna hold them down. The composer’s peripatetic and haphazard lifestyle, relying opportunistically on the kindness of his friends for housing and food (in turn being generous to them when he was temporarily flush with cash), made Schubert at times an unreliable protector of his works. As a result, many a masterpiece dashed off for a friend or special occasion was misplaced or lost by his early death at age 31 in 1828. Fortunately, most of his friends preserved, if not always shared, his works for posterity. It has taken two centuries to accumulate and assess most, if not all, of them in one work.

This Schubertiade, drawn from memory by Moritz von Schwind, took place at the home of Josef von Spaun. (www.bezirksmuseum.at)
Schubertiade at home of Josef von Spaun, prominently seated left of Schubert.
Mayrhofer stands at far right. (Moritz von Schwind, Wiener Bezirksmuseum)

What Schubert gained from his friends and their occasional collaborations he more than returned with a measure of immortality by their attachment to his coattails thereafter. From Johnson’s many insightful biographical sketches of the friends, one learns of the three most important. Schubert, writes Johnson, “never had a better friend than the generous and stable (Josef von) Spaun, whose written memories of the composer have proved the most reliable.” Of Johann Baptist Mayrhofer, the gloomy poet whose works Schubert set more of than any other friend, the author notes: “Mayrhofer had a way of seeing most of life’s issues in starkly realistic terms and as part of a bigger, usually pessimistic, picture,” and “was among the few who could see this blazing comet (Schubert) and imagine the breadth of its future glory.”

Franz Schubert's 'An die Musik' is set to Franz von Schober's poem.
Franz Schubert’s ‘An die Musik’ is set to Franz von Schober’s poem.

And of the sybaritic Franz von Schober, the author of “An die Musik”: “(He) brought a whiff of worldly sophistication and free thinking to a milieu of political and sexual repression, a buzz that excited Schubert and made him feel himself a citizen of the world.”

Cementing the encyclopedic aspect of the massive song survey are the additional essays. “A Schubert Song Calendar” embeds the composer’s career as a song composer (1810-1828) into the larger context of his life (1797-1828). Separate essays treat song groupings, as those from the epochal Bildungsroman of Goethe, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre; and others from his West-Östlicher Divan, containing some poems written, as was much later discovered, by Goethe’s mistress. Another treats the composer’s Italian language settings, many at the instigation of Schubert’s teacher, Antonio Salieri. Yet another describes the recently researched Abendröte song cycle of Friedrich von Schlegel.

Particularly impressive is the essay on the hundred or so Schubert part-songs with piano accompaniment, an important genre representing about ten percent of the composer’s output of listed compositions. Included among them are little known masterpieces like “Nachthelle,” “Ständchen” (Zögernd leise), and for an English speaker the tongue-twisting “Im Gegenwärtigen Vergangenes.” Their inclusions reinforce aesthetic and philosophic influences on Schubert from poets like Goethe, Grillparzer, and Seidl, and enlarge our grasp of Schubert’s full significance as a song composer.

Schubert scholar Otto Erich Deutsch
Otto Erich Deutsch numbered all Schubert’s works.

Johnson’s achievements as a Schubertian scholar-performer — he is senior professor of accompaniment at London’s Guildhall School of Music & Drama — have benefited from the work of generations of dedicated Austrian, German, and British scholars, the latter nationality tracing a line from Sir George Grove (of music dictionary fame) through song scholars Richard Capell, Maurice Brown, and John Reed. Johnson’s essay on scholars pays tribute to this fraternity of enthusiasts, often amateurs, who spent lifetimes of solitary work sleuthing and studying the works of Schubert and his poets. Singled out for special praise is Austrian musicologist Otto Erich Deutsch, who numbered all of Schubert’s works and compiled contemporary writings and later reminiscences of his life that Johnson labels “a Luther’s bible of Schubertiana.”

The songs of Schubert encompass a universe of human emotions, from carefree to world-weary, from frivolous to philosophic. Through a kind of aural osmosis set loose in a thousand directions and through as many musical media, they have influenced all music after them. Dvořák, for instance, observed that Schubert “introduced the song into the symphony.” One of the composer’s greatest impacts was animating with melody the meme of the eternal wanderer. He gave musical voice to Wilhelm Müller’s alienated lover in the song cycles Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise. These in turn became emotional templates for works like Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and Berg’s Wozzeck. Even the drifters of Kerouac’s On the Road and Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited are in some way indebted to Schubert for unlocking song’s genetic code to embrace the ever questing, frequently lonely human heart.

[Also in Classical Voice North America: Rodney Punt’s survey of Schubert celebrations in 2014.]

Rodney Punt publishes LA Opus, an on-line journal of music and theater based in Los Angeles. His concert reviews can also be found on The Huffington Post and San Francisco Classical Voice. Early on a performer (clarinet, oboe, piano, voice, and choral direction), he served in academic administration at the USC School of Performing Arts, followed by two decades as Deputy Director of the L.A. City Cultural Affairs Department.