Schubert in Spring

The Romantics understood that there’s peace to be found in nature.

Editor’s note: Madeleine Kearns writes a weekly column noting peculiar aspects of cultural, artistic, and natural marvels.

I don’t know for certain, but I’d guess that in popular music there are more songs about summer than about any other season. (After all, that’s when we’re told that people fall in love, look their best, feel most content, etc.) And though I haven’t counted, I suspect that in 19th century classical music there are more songs about spring than about any other season. Spring — ripe with life and symbolism — is a poet’s gift.

One such spring-themed song is Schubert’s very last, “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (The Shepherd on the Rock), which he wrote shortly before his death in 1828, for his friend, the esteemed soprano Anna Milder-Hauptmann. Milder-Hauptmann had requested something that would allow her to showcase a range of emotions. Romanticism in music, as in the art and literature of the period, is primarily concerned with the subjective experiences of the individual. Caspar David Friedrich’s oil painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog perfectly encapsulates the prevailing influence of the era, which William Wordsworth described in the preface to his Lyrical Ballads as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Helping to unleash such forces were the related powers of Nature, folklore, and even (as in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) the supernatural.

Schubert made his own colorful Frankenstein, “Der Hirt,” by stitching together two poems by Wilhelm Müller, the poet who had written the text for his famous song-cycle Winterreise, with a middle section by Helmina von Chézy. It is written for soprano, clarinet, and piano, though a later orchestral arrangement by Carl Reinecke for an additional two flutes, two oboes, clarinet, two bassoons, and four horns was popularized. Schubert was a Romantic more in content than in form and tended to keep to the more-contained classical techniques.

The song begins with a solemn piano introduction in G minor, which turns out to be something of a false start, as the clarinet swoops in, introducing the major key and the main melodic line.

In this first section, the shepherd describes his position on the “highest rock,” looking down into the valley’s deep chasm (a scene much like that in Friedrich’s Wanderer). As he sings, the sound of his voice bounces back at him, which the clarinet demonstrates through an echo effect. The sound travels far, he tells us; the soprano line illustrates this through a wide range in the pitch and volume. It’s implied that he’s lonely. His sweetheart “lives so far from me.” She lies somewhere “over there,” on the other side of the valley.

A change in key and tempo introduce the second section. Over broken chords, the sustained soprano melody introduces a new theme. The clarinet ceases to imitate and, instead, enhances the vocal line through embellishment. In isolation, the Shepherd is “consumed in misery” and has “lost all hope.” Sunk in the depths of despair, the clarinet resumes a mournful imitative line. But the voice begins to grope its way through the broken chords back into a major key, and into a descending phrase that sounds very like Brahms’s lullaby.

So longingly did the song sound through the forest,
So longingly it sounded through the night,
The heart is pulled to Heaven
With miraculous strength.

Here, the clarinet finishes the thought in a playful cadenza. Immediately after, the allegretto section begins as the Shepherd joyfully anticipates spring:

The Springtime will come,
The Springtime, my joy,
Now must I make ready
To wander forth.

The triumphant optimism of this last section is similar to Johann Strauss II’s famous waltz, “Frühlingsstimmen” (Voices of Spring), in which the hyper-confident soprano soloist skips and glides above the orchestra and into the utmost heights of melodic ecstasy. Perhaps it’s just as well that the words are in German, since there’s even less subtlety in the text than in the music. All pain is over, she sings. The belief in happiness returns; sunshine, how you warm us. Ah, all is laughing; ah, all awakes.

For our own times, however, perhaps a more fitting song about spring is Schubert’s “Frühlingsglaube” (Faith in Spring). Rather than telling of being miraculously cured of melancholy by the promise of tomorrow, the song and text exude a quieter confidence; that, at present, even “in the farthest, deepest valley,” there is life growing. And that it’s beautiful.


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