Ruby Hughes and Joseph Middleton open their programme of songs inspired by the night with Schubert’s Nachtstück, composed in 1819. The five introductory bars are a wonderful polyphonic nocturne in miniature. An old man, feeling death upon him, steps into the moonlit night and prays for peace. The trees and grasses wish him well, and the song ends with an extraordinary passage which depicts the onset of death, as the music moves from E flat, via D flat, to the tranquillity of C major.
The Romanze from ‘Rosamunde’, though not strictly a Lied, was included by Peters in Volume 6 of his selection of Schubert songs. The song comes from Schubert’s incidental music to Wilhelmine von Chézy’s play that was staged at the Theater an der Wien on 23 December 1823. The performance was a flop and the play has been lost, but Schubert’s nine numbers of incidental music survive, including ‘Der Vollmond strahlt auf Bergeshöhn’. The Romance was sung in the play by Axa, Princess Rosamunde’s ‘old protectress’ (Rosamunde had, on a whim of her father’s, been brought up as a shepherdess), and it was with Axa that Rosamunde sought refuge as she attempted to win back her throne. The wonderful melody that seems to suggest the glint of the moon on the heath made a great impression on Wilhelmine von Chézy who, in a letter of 2 February 1824 to a Dresden friend, wrote of ‘the delightful melodies’ composed by Schubert for Axa’s romance. And in a letter printed in the Wiener Zeitschrift für Kunst, Literatur, Theater und Mode on 13 January 1824 she called Schubert’s incidental music to Rosamunde ‘glorious’, ‘sublimely melodious’ and ‘indescribably moving and profound’.
Abendstern, written in March 1824 between the A minor and D minor String Quartets, voices the homosexual poet’s loneliness and isolation (‘I sow no seed, I see no shoots’); he longs to find fidelity in love, but is condemned to live alone. The poem takes the form of a dialogue, almost as if Mayrhofer were seeking a solution to his predicament: one voice urges him to immerse himself in the world, the other suggests that this is impossible, and hints at why. The key keeps veering between A minor and A major, and for one moment the warmth of the major key is attained – but the ecstasy is ephemeral, minor reasserts itself and the poet is left to reflect with resignation on his loneliness.
Die Sterne is one of eleven songs inspired by the poetry of Karl Gottfried von Leitner, a poet, historian and teacher. He studied philosophy and law at the University of Graz from 1818 to 1824, and taught in both Slovenia and Graz. He lived to the age of 90, and after Schubert’s death joined the Styrian administration and played a prominent role in the cultural life of the province. His literary output includes novellas, a tragedy called König Tordo, a libretto, Lenore, for Anselm Hüttenbrenner’s opera, and of course poems. During Schubert’s stay with the Pachler family at Graz in September 1827, Marie Pachler gave Schubert a copy of Leitner’s poems, and it was from this volume that the composer set such masterpieces as ‘Der Kreuzzug’, ‘Des Fischers Liebesglück’, ‘Der Winterabend’ and of course ‘Die Sterne’, in which Leitner’s dactyllic rhythm is translated by Schubert into a crotchet-quaver-quaver configuration that seems to mirror the starlit heavens – an image that leaps from the page when the poem is printed as eight short-lined, sparkling stanzas, instead of the inauthentic sprawling four, that most anthologies publish.
Almost half of Mahler’s forty-four solo songs are settings of poems from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a volume of folk verses collected by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, the first part of which was published in 1805. The title refers to the figure of a boy on horseback brandishing a horn, an illustration of ‘Das Wunderhorn’, the anthology’s opening poem. The source for many of the poems was oral, but the editors made frequent amendments in accordance with their own tastes. Many of Mahler’s settings deal with military life, and in the piano accompaniment we often hear the beat of horses’ hooves, fanfares, drums and marches. Mahler, of course, had spent much of his childhood in the Moravian garrison town of Jihlava, and it is reliably reported that as a young boy he knew hundreds of military tunes by heart. Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen, a dialogue between a dead soldier and his grieving sweetheart, dates from July l898. The accompaniment begins with a succession of empty fifths that dreamily conjure up the distant trumpet calls that wake the girl, who, ‘somewhat reserved’, asks who it is that knocks at her door. The soldier replies in a beguiling D major passage that he wishes to be admitted, whereupon she bids him welcome in a melting G flat major melody to a soft accompaniment of parallel sixths. Major and minor alternate throughout the song which ends in the soldier’s confession that his home is in the grave – after which the relentless martial rhythm, indicative of man’s subjection to Fate, slowly fades away.
Um Mitternacht, which forms part of Mahler’s Fünf Lieder nach Rückert, invites comparison with the song in the fourth movement of the Third Symphony which sets a poem by Nietzsche with the same title. It was in February 1901, shortly before he started work on the Rückert-Lieder, that Mahler suffered the haemorrhage which nearly killed him, and there is something indisputably autobiographical about his choice of Rückert’s poem. The first four stanzas of Mahler’s music are characterized by repetitions of two striking motifs: one resembles the ticking of a clock, one aching with anguish as it descends the scale; and although keys change, the basic mood is bleak A minor – until the final stanza when, in the orchestral version, trumpets, trombones, tuba and timpani blaze out in the major, as a possible expression of the poet’s faith. ‘Possible’, because there is an ambiguity about this music. Dissonances predominate, and some commentators, far from taking the words at face value, detect a bitter irony in Rückert’s poem and Mahler’s music. Urlicht, the penultimate movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (‘Resurrection’), is a rapt setting in D flat of a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, scored for Alto solo and orchestra. It is one of Mahler’s most beautiful songs, expressing man’s anguish and pain and his hope that God will not forsake him but lead him to Heaven. In a letter to Alma of 15 December 1901, Mahler explains the programme of the movement in one simple sentence: ‘Die rührende Stimme des naiven Glaubens tönt an unser Ohr.’ (‘The touching voice of naive faith sounds in our ears’).
When Alban Berg died in 1935, Schönberg penned a tribute in which he wrote: ‘Schon aus den frühesten Kompositionen, so ungeschickt sie auch gewesen sein mögen, konnte man zweierlei entnehmen. Erstens, dass Musik ihm eine Sprache war und dass er sich in dieser Sprache tatsächlich ausdrückte; und zweitens: überströmende Wärme des Fühlens.’ (‘Two things are clear even from Berg’s earliest compositions, however awkward they may have been. Firstly that music to him was a language, and that he really expressed himself in that language; and secondly: overflowing warmth of feeling.’). Berg began to study with Schönberg in the autumn of 1904, and his teacher’s influence can be clearly seen in the four songs of Opus 2. Although Berg gives the first three key signatures – D minor (Schlafen, Schlafen), E flat minor (Schlafend trägt man mich) and A flat minor (Nun ich der Riesen stärksten überwand) – tonality begins to lose its hold, and in the fourth song, Warm die Lüfte, is finally abandoned. It is Berg’s first ‘atonal’ piece and a wonderfully expressive setting of Mombert’s impressionistic poem, the only one of the four that does not have sleep as its theme. Its dramatic declamation has a whiff of Wozzeck about it, and as the girl waits in vain for her lover, we hear in the piano accompaniment the song of the nightingale, and see in the cold fifths of the right hand the glistening snow. A contrary motion glissando – black keys in the right hand, white in the left – prepares us for the girl’s shattering scream: ‘Er kommt noch nicht, er läßt mich warten’, and the song ends with a plunging descent to the lowest B on the piano.
This Way to the Tomb comprises incidental music and three songs that were composed by Benjamin Britten in 1944 for Ronald Duncan’s masque and anti-masque, premiered on 11 October 1945 at the Mercury Theatre, London, by the Pilgrim Players. Duncan’s request to Britten that he compose the music for his play, occasioned an affectionate reply from Britten in a letter dated 7 April 1944:
My dear Ronnie – What a one you are! Here I am up to my eyes in opera & spiritual crises & you expect me to drop everything & write you two songs. Still, maybe I’ll have a shot (but no promises), if you’d be so gracious as to let me know what kind of background, accompaniment, there’ll be – full orch.? Barrel-organ?? What kind of voice, high, low? – it makes a difference, you know. But seriously, I wish you’d give me more notice – because I’ve been turning everything down for the last six months, BBC, Films (including Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra, which I admit gave me pleasure to do!).
All three songs, under the title of Evening, Morning, Night, were composed for voice and harp or piano, and published by Boosey & Hawkes as late as 1988. Ruby Hughes and Joseph Middleton perform Evening and Night on this CD of nocturnes. They are sung in the play by the poet Julian. The accompaniment to ‘Evening’, which ‘may be sung unaccompanied’, is characterized by a succession of downward arpeggios – except in the third verse, where they soar upwards to portray the stars that ‘peep into the darkness.’ ‘Night’ is a ground in 5/4.
Um Mitternacht, a setting of Goethe’s great poem that Zelter had composed to such a memorable melody, was probably written in 1959/60. As in Schubert’s ‘Der Gondelfahrer’, we hear the twelve tolling chords in the piano’s lower register. At the mid hour of night comes from Volume 4 of Britten’s folksongs, which comprises arrangements of ten of Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies. They were composed in 1957 and 1958 and first published in 1960 with the following preface: ‘All the texts of these songs are from Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies, published between 1808 and 1834 – in one case from the slightly later National Melodies. In most instances I have also taken the tunes from the same sources (music arranged by Sir John Stevenson); however, in a few cases I have preferred to go back to Bunting’s Ancient Music of Ireland, which had in the first place inspired Tom Moore to write his lyrics.’