Schubert: Schwanengesang

Program Note

Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Schwanengesang (Swan Song), D.957 (1828)

Schwanengesang is customarily referred to as the third of Franz Schubert’s great song-cycles, alongside Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise.  Most "Liederphiles" know, however, that this set of 14 great songs, written in the last year of Schubert’s life, don’t really belong in the same genre as the other two works.  We don’t really know what Schubert was thinking when he hand-copied seven songs with texts by Rellstab followed by six by Heine, and then literally pasted another with a text by Seidl onto the folded pages.  He most certainly did not give the group of songs any title, least of all the singularly inapt “Swan-song”;  the mute swan supposedly can sing a beautiful song only at the moment of death—who would say that of Schubert?  Schwanengesang is a miracle whatever it is!

The first seven songs (to the poems of Rellstab) have integrity as a group, and a case can be made for their belonging together in the order Schubert wrote them down, though we have no evidence that he expected that.  The same can be said of the six Heine settings, but some scholars have argued that Schubert must have initially conceived of this half-dozen as belonging in a different order, namely that of these poems in the large collection Die Heimkehr, published in his popular volume of poetry (owned by Schubert) Buch der Lieder.  When put in this order, a clear narrative emerges, which is quite convincing as Schubert’s initial intention.  This has been a controversial thesis.  (Oh, how scholars love a good food fight!)  Why Schubert would have abandoned this postulated initial concept is of course a question.  Those present tonight who wish to follow the arguments need only search the papers and books on the subject by Goldschmidt, Kramer, Litterick, Chusid, et al.  The arguments vary as the perspective is music-theoretical, musicological, or artistic.

As a performer, I find the reordering of the Heine songs compelling, and so we will present them that way tonight.  The published order seems otherwise effective.  Haslinger, who bought the rights to publish the songs, chose to divide them into two volumes, presumably to maximize profit (he had first planned four installments): the first comprised six Rellstab songs, the second, the final Rellstab followed by the six Heine, then the unique Seidl song (Die Taubenpost). This publishing decision seems to obscure whatever integrity the “song-cycle” might have had.  The published order of the 14 songs does contain a symmetry in that the final Rellstab song (Abschied) and the Seidl (Die Taubenpost) are each relatively light relief to the emotionally intense groups which precede them. This is retained in tonight’s program order.

—William Sharp