Barbaric words not worth to be set to music – such was the judgment of Antonio Salieri about the German language in general and German poems more specifically. He tried very hard to dissuade his pupil Franz Schubert from composing songs and did all he could to encourage Schubert to study the old Italian masters of the opera. In vain. While Salieri had recognized Schubert talent, he saw the composing of songs as a waste of precisely this talent. But Schubert persisted and he became the German Liederfürst (Prince of Songs). Among the many poems he set to music are eleven poems from Friedrich Schlegel’s work “Abendröte” (Evening Afterglow).
The composition of these songs stretched over a long period of time, but Schlegel’s natural philosophy, the emphasis of nature’s harmony, the emotions nature stirs, the link to a supernatural entity, the awe nature’s beauty inspire’s to the Romantic poet and composer – these elements link the songs. The Lied as such was not yet established as a genre in its own right when Schubert set out to note the first sketches. As an art form the Lied were considered as a frivolity of at best entertaining value, not to be included in a serious composer’s works catalogue. Salieri would never have imagined that his pupil would excel in this genre and become a prolific song writer. As a matter of fact, songs constitute the bulk of Schubert’s compositions.
Franz Liszt was full of admiration for Schubert’s songs as the scholar Marie-Agnes Dittrich writes. He praised his fellow composer as a “dramatic lyricist” emphasizing Schubert’s ability to “capture emotions in clearly outlined forms” and “to dramatize lyrical inspirations to the highest degree.” One of the secrets to the dramatic effect of Schubert’s song resides in the parallel use of recitation and melodies where they either complement each other or stand in a sharp contrast to each other.
Schubert and Schlegel apparently met only once, during a spiritist session in Vienna in 1825, but Schlegel’s works were widely read in the literary and musical circle around Schubert. Schlegel had converted to become a militant Catholic and was close to Vienna’s conservative politicians, which wasn’t exactly Schubert’s taste. The two men shared however a fascination for the Romantic world of emotions inspired by natural phenomena and nature’s beauty.
In our times Schlegel’s poems and Schubert’s songs may seem artificial and out-of-date. However, as Romanticism was a philosophical reaction to the Enlightenment, a renunciation of strict rationalism, of the expanding capitalist logic, a return to mysticism and to the world of emotions, one may see parallels to today’s world. Globalism and permanent connectivity may expand material wealth, but does it satisfy mankind’s spiritual and emotional needs? Hardly. And if you look at the growing popularity of conspiracy theories and the growing demand for books about spirituality or religion, a new era of mysticism is just about to begin.
The cycle “Abendröte” has been recorded by David Lutz (piano), Robert Holl (bass baritone) & Ellen van Lier (soprano).
© Charles Thibo