Distant Cycles: Schubert and the Conceiving of Song

Distant Cycles: Schubert and the Conceiving of Song

by Richard Kramer

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Franz Schubert's song cycles Schone Mullerin and Winterreise are cornerstones of the genre. But as Richard Kramer argues in this book, Schubert envisioned many other songs as components of cyclical arrangements that were never published as such. By carefully studying Schubert's original manuscripts, Kramer recovers some of these "distant cycles" and


Franz Schubert's song cycles Schone Mullerin and Winterreise are cornerstones of the genre. But as Richard Kramer argues in this book, Schubert envisioned many other songs as components of cyclical arrangements that were never published as such. By carefully studying Schubert's original manuscripts, Kramer recovers some of these "distant cycles" and accounts for idiosyncrasies in the songs which other analyses have failed to explain.

Returning the songs to their original keys, Kramer reveals linkages among songs which were often obscured as Schubert readied his compositions for publication. His analysis thus conveys even familiar songs in fresh contexts that will affect performance, interpretation, and criticism. After addressing problems of multiple settings and revisions, Kramer presents a series of briefs for the reconfiguring of sets of songs to poems by Goethe, Rellstab, and Heine. He deconstructs Winterreise, using its convoluted origins to illuminate its textual contradictions. Finally, Kramer scrutinizes settings from the Abendrote cycle (on poems by Friedrich Schlegel) for signs of cyclic process. Probing the farthest reaches of Schubert's engagement with the poetics of lieder, Distant Cycles exposes tensions between Schubert the composer and Schubert the merchant-entrepreneur.

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Distant Cycles

Schubert and the Conceiving of Song

By Richard Kramer

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1994 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-45235-7


In Search of Song


What does Schubert want from poetry? This may seem a strange entry into the topic, but to address the question in earnest is to take hold of the problem in a fresh way. In these opening reflections, intended as they are to warm to the main themes of the book, I endeavor to suggest that to understand the phenomenon of Schubert song, we are obliged to return to the moment at which song is conceived. If, in a literal sense, we can do no such thing, the instinct runs deep in all performance, all reading, to bring us closer to this arcane matrix of thought from which song is born.

We are driven back to the autographs. They tell us a great deal — of the minutiae that register decision making, certainly, but also, and more significantly, of those plain facts that have been muted in the subsequent process, the steps toward publication by which the song was made presentable for public consumption.

In the midst of this process, the songs were often transposed. Is something lost in the transposition? Unquestionably. What is lost is of the essence and has to do with this ineffable moment at which poem and music are fused in the composer's mind. The process toward publication does further damage to the bold yet fragile configurations through which sets of poems are put into music, for the evidence is everywhere that the song was conceived in a context. Returned to its milieu, construed as the participant in some greater narrative unfolding, the single song seems now less coherent, more vulnerable as a thing in itself. How to verify that it is textually genuine? And what, precisely, is this narrative context? How is it constituted? Answers to these questions are sought in the studies that follow.

This, it will be clear, is not a monograph on Schubert's song cycles. Rather, it is an inquiry into something more elemental, an attempt to tease out from the songs a primary instinct toward cyclic process. The reader will wonder how it is that two chapters are given to Winterreise while Die schöne Müllerin is accorded only the occasional aside. That is in part because the autograph score of the latter has not survived — the evidence preliminary to such inquiry is missing — and in part because its agency as song cycle is simply not in doubt. The former, on the other hand, is burdened with all those problems described above. Its published form conceals a complexity of conception that its storied autograph masks and unmasks.


Ever tinkering with his songs, fitting and refitting them for publication, Schubert bequeathed a legacy riddled in aesthetic contradiction, taxing even to the most assiduous students of his music. The rift between the composer in Schubert and the merchant in him — between the private Schubert, lost in the work at hand, and the Schubert who tenders this work to the public — is often palpable, acutely felt in the repertory of songs, where the genre itself seems to encourage blithe disregard for the fundamental axioms by which textual authority is commonly established. The very idea of the song both as something self-contained and, often enough, as an aspect of some complex weave of poems conceived together is an invitation to textual distortion of a more subtle kind. Understandably, it is the composer himself — but the composer who, for motives not readily apparent, now removes his songs from the context in which they were conceived — to whom later editors have turned for guidance.

In the history of Lied, the art and manner of publication has traditionally been central to the enterprise. Max Friedlaender's Das deutsche Lied im 18. Jahrhundert, the exhaustive bibliographic history, reconstructs this rich chronicle of publication. The dissemination of the repertory was early on coupled with an aggressive publication program, for this was a genre with appeal to a broad clientele, both literary and musical, and requiring only the most modest musical competence. From Sperontes's Singende Muse an der Pleisse (1736) through two undistinguished volumes of settings titled Schiller's Ode an die Freude (1799–1800), the poet dominates in collaborations of modest and didactic tone. Something of the aesthetic is captured in the famous preface to Lieder im Volkston, where Johann Abraham Peter Schulz urges "a striking similarity between the musical and the poetic ...; a melody whose progression never raises itself above the course of the text, nor sinks beneath it, and whose declamation and meter cling to the words like a garment the body; and which in addition flows forth in altogether singable intervals in a range suitable to all voices and in the simplest possible harmonies." Through all this, the Lied achieves the "appearance of the unsought, the artless, the familiar — achieves, in a word, the Volkston." The ultimate goal, yet more modest, is simply "to make good Lied texts generally known."

A few years earlier, Johann Friedrich Reichardt sent a collection of Oden und Lieder (Berlin, 1780) into the world with "Some Good Advice Instead of a Preface" ("Auch ein guter Rath statt der Vorrede"): the singer — not at once distinguishable from the composer himself — is admonished to read the poem before he can hope to render it in song. (There will be more to say about this in chapter 2.) Forty years later, the goals were no longer quite so modest; even the trace of Volkston, whether muted or pronounced, acquired an ironic aftertaste. The collaborative enterprise, now internalized and imaginary, lost its innocence.

By April 1821, Schubert had composed well over four hundred songs. A very few had appeared in print, but there had been no substantial commercial publication. The famous manuscript of Goethe settings sent by Spaun to the poet in April 1816 was to have been the first of eight volumes devoted to the Classical poets in a series very likely modeled on those published by Breitkopf and Härtel of Lieder by Zumsteeg (1800–1805) and Reichardt (1809–11). Nothing came of it. But, by 1821, a demand for Schubert's songs had begun to make itself felt. At first, and for roughly two years, publications were decidedly retrospective. The inclination to include earlier songs in the published collections continued right through until the end of Schubert's life. Opus 108, which Leidesdorf brought out toward the end of January 1829 — perhaps the last publication over which Schubert is believed to have exercised some control — contains three songs: Über Wildemann (E. Schulze; D. 884); Todesmusik (Schober; D. 758), a transposition, slightly revised, of a song composed in 1822; and Die Erscheinung (Kosegarten; D. 229), a strophic Lied in the old-fashioned sense, composed in 1815, and first published in an Album musicale by Sauer and Leidesdorf in 1824. Todesmusik, Walther Dürr reminds us, evokes the mystical ceremonial round described in Schubert's troubled narrative "Mein Traum," written some months earlier, in July 1822. Perhaps not coincidentally, a copy of the narrative in Schober's hand was known to exist.

Scholars and musicians of high standing have argued strenuously for the transposition of Schubert's songs, in the name of convenience for the performer, and on the evidence that Schubert himself sanctioned such transposition. Whatever Schubert's motives, we must contend with the sense in which the three songs of op. 108 constitute a single work — were meant to be sung as a group. But decisions taken in the mapping of a strategy for publication do not always illuminate — indeed seem intentionally to impede — deeper inquiries into Schubert's music. Transposing Todesmusik up a semitone from G? is to deprive it of an aspect of its meaning. By 1824, G? — the key itself — had acquired a certain cachet in Schubert's music (a point further explored below). If the transposition to G does nothing for the song or the singer, it pointedly accords better with the keys of Über Wildemann (D minor) and Die Erscheinung (E major), and this we may take as evidence that Schubert felt the sacrifice justified for the sake of some tonal constellation within op. 108. But Die Erscheinung an ingratiating fairy tale im Volkston, does not sing well after Über Wildemann (which carries the stormy oppositions of Rastlose Liebe a notch higher) and the elegiac Todesmusik. Its Ton — the innocence of those touching Kosegarten songs from 1815 — seems misplaced, is poorly matched to the internal agonies (a composer much wiser, if not appreciably older, and no longer innocent) in these songs that now precede it. Perhaps Schubert had in mind a singer's encore, conjuring some past evening of music making with friends. An Sylvia, following on Vor meiner Wiege at the end of op. 106, makes a similarly vacuous impression that diminishes both songs, just as the beguiling Fischerweise at the end of op. 96 answers poorly to the profundities of Wandrers Nachtlied ("Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh").

If op. 108 illuminates something of Schubert's perspective on his own work, perhaps even his sense of the market (however he may have perceived it), it unwittingly obscures a deeper aspect of his art. To probe beneath the surface of Todesmusik means to put out of mind the new trappings with which Schubert thought to release it in 1828 — or at any rate to understand these for what they are. For Lieder perhaps more so than for works of another genre, and for Schubert's Lieder in the extreme, to establish a text means to return it to an environment that clarifies its genesis: the conceiving of the song, as an instance among the conceiving of other songs, figures in the decoding of its meanings. The more that publication obscures this genesis, the more urgent the task of textual clarification. The need is particularly acute in a genre where the creation of one work seems to follow on another with only the faintest articulation.

It is not always the isolated poem that prompts Schubert to compose, but often rather a series of poems from a single collection. Here again, retrospective publication can deceive. Opus 92, a striking case, offers three songs by Goethe. The third is Geistes-Gruß(D. 142), a very early song that exists in six "versions." The three measures of tremolo in the piano at the outset, new to this sixth version, must date from 1828. Joseph Kerman read the harmonic significance of those measures as a thumbprint of style increasingly common in Schubert's final years. In this instance, publication provoked some telling changes. "Geistes-Gruß," in Kerman's words, "was transformed as few works ever were in their revisions." The published song is not quite the one offered to Goethe in 1816.

Opus 92 opens with Der Musensohn, touched up and transposed for publication in 1828. The autograph of the original version shows it to have been one of four Goethe poems set down in the order in which Schubert refers to them in a letter to Spaun of 7 December 1822: "Auch habe ich einige neue Lieder von Göthe componirt, als: Der Musensohn, die Entfernte, am Flusse, u. Willkommen und Abschied" (I have also set several new songs by Goethe: Der Musensohn, an die Entfernte, am Flusse, and Willkommen und Abschied). Allusions, poignant and suggestive, resonate from song to song and even in the implicit tale that the poems seem to tell when they are read in just this order. Their implications are pursued in chapter 4. Opus 92 serves as evidence that by 1828 such cyclic intimations, pronounced and veiled as they may have been in 1822, were no longer what Schubert valued in these songs. Schubert, now the entrepreneur, expropriates the works of his Muse; the songs are repackaged with an ear tuned to some public response.

Whatever its merits in Schubert's mind, op. 92 points up the historical convolutions to which a privileging of the print as work in some textually authoritative sense must lead, for, in spite of all the details that "improve" Geistes-Gruß for publication — even allowing that its original notation encouraged a freedom of declamation now forfeited in Schubert's endeavor to control all gesture — the song nevertheless belongs to the history of Schubert's earliest encounters with Goethe's poetry. That immanent quality is lost in the new company of op. 92. The encounter of 1822 was a more sophisticated enterprise, shared among a coterie of artists and intellectuals for whom Goethe was a figure of both adoration and dispute. If Schubert later saw no contradiction in pairing Geistes-Gruß with Der Musensohn (sandwiching Auf dem See, from yet another Goethe phase, in between), this must not dissuade us from hearing each as an expression of its own time, with attendant limits of style. It is sobering to think that this Geistes-Gruß of op. 92, a song reheard after the experience of Winterreise and in the midst of the final Lieder, was born in the spirit of those Goethean declamations that Reichardt had been publishing at the turn of the century.

If op. 108 holds claim as the final publication over which Schubert may have exercised some control, the socalled Schwanengesang was the first — and in many ways the most problematic — of a notorious series of song publications that would appear soon after his death and over which he can have held only a posthumous, sometimes even mythic, influence. Yet the publication of seven songs on texts by Rellstab and six by Heine together in a single, incongruous opus, preposterous as this may seem on its face, takes its justification from Schubert's autograph. Here, too, the pressure toward publication is clearly in conflict with what any commonsense reading of the Schwanengesang will convey: there are two sets of songs here, each with its own partly inscrutable history. A chapter is devoted to each of them in an effort to reclaim an original sense of work that is concealed in the Schwanengesang.


The studies that follow, each in its own way, are driven by what has been called the "Suche nach dem verlorenen Werk" — the quest to find again the sense of the work whose integrity has been effaced through the inevitable distortions of time and, so to speak, the elements. The concept itself seems a natural corollary to one prominent vein of Romantic expression, where the work itself, as though embarrassed by an eccentric genetic code, now and again vanishes from view, victimized by the fragile new forms that gave it life in the first place.

Six chapters inquire into the nature of cyclic process. The shadowy history of cycle as a term to describe some quality innate in a set of songs — or of certain purely instrumental works, with or without poetic implications — must not slow us here. The two chapters on Winterreise, a work that neither Müller nor Schubert ever called cycle, assume nothing about the conventions of the genre but seek out the signs of such genre defining in the work itself — a work that, all of criticism would agree, has a good deal to tell us about the nature of song cycle.

The poems by Goethe, Heine, Müller, Rellstab, and Friedrich Schlegel that are the subject of these essays confronted Schubert with five species of poetic discourse, each posing a problem of its own in the construction of narrative. The properties of narrative are in each case essential and self-evident, even if the poems taken together do not necessarily "tell a story" in the conventional sense. It is precisely this conventional sense of narrative that sets the Müller cycles apart.

The claims for narrative as an essence — the essence without which song cycle fails — are worth some reflection. When the term is used (as I am using it here) to describe a sequence of songs that evince the property of narrative in this essential sense, cycle means no reference to geometric design, to that circularity without beginning or end, whose end is its beginning. The return of the beginning — or, in the case of Schumann's Dichterliebe, of a middle — at the end is indeed characteristic of two of the celebrated song cycles in the literature. In Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, the songs are themselves the message, the singing of them enacting a kind of surrogate sexuality:

Und du singst, was ich gesungen,
Was mir aus der vollen Brust
Ohne Kunstgepräng erklungen,
Nur der Sehnsucht sich bewußt:

Dann vor diesen Liedern weichet,
Was geschieden uns so weit,
Und ein liebend Herz erreichet,
Was ein liebend Herz geweiht.

(And when you sing what I have sung, what sounded from my full breast without artifice, and conscious only of its longing: then that which has separated us will vanish before these songs, and a loving heart will receive what a loving heart has consecrated.)


Excerpted from Distant Cycles by Richard Kramer. Copyright © 1994 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Richard Kramer is distinguished professor emeritus of music at the CUNY Graduate Center and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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