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Singing Schubert

Michael Williams writes: Alfred Brendel’s stimulating, though rather dogmatic, review in the New York Review of Books earlier this year of Ian Bostridge’s book about Winterreise and the book itself – since that was the order in which I read them – brought back memories of nearly sixty years ago, when I hoped I might become a singer. Not memories of trying to come to grips with Winterreise, though I did, but with another example of how Schubert could create a world in a tiny space, the song Am Meer.

It is one of only a small number of Schubert settings of Heine, and wonderfully unites their sensibilities. Unlike, say, Der Doppelgänger, nothing much happens. The poet remembers a gloomy day by a lake, when his beloved wept, he drank her tears from her hand, and realises that moment lives with him, and will for the rest of his life. The key alternates between major and minor, as so often with Schubert. Dynamic markings vary between pp and ppp. The volume varies only between mezza voce and sotto voce. The song ends on a sigh, barely audible, from the piano. So, what is so extraordinary about Am Meer?



Posing that question baldly ensures that it will not be answered. More than any other composer, Schubert can pose a question, and we grope for an answer until we realise that we don’t understand what the question is. The Minuet and Trio in the Rosamunde Quartet is another example. It ends with the cello repeating the three-note question, we release the breath we have unconsciously been holding and recognise we have been through an extraordinary experience. But what was that experience? Why was it extraordinary? And how could the formal shape of a minuet and trio hold such mystery?

In Am Meer, the pianist faces a huge challenge. He must produce a subtle effect, where storm clouds threaten but do not arrive, weather as far as can be imagined from the uncontrolled storm of Erlkönig, and he must do it within a tiny dynamic range. The singer’s challenge is to maintain a long legato line with perfect smoothness, at a difficult high tessitura. It cannot be transposed down to a more comfortable range: the high tessitura is an essential element in its mystery. Each of the eight lines must be sung effortlessly on a single breath. If your technique isn’t up to it, you should not sing Am Meer.

Both singer and pianist must try to induce in their audience the trance-like state in which the poem and song unfold. If they accept Plunkett-Greene’s view that a good way into a song is to identify a “master-phrase” they will identify the final line: “Mich hat das unglücksel’ge / Weib vergiftet mit ihren Tränen.” – “That unfortunate woman has poisoned me with her tears.” But it offers another problem in interpretation. A neighbour with a much better voice than mine saw that line as offering a chance for drama, with a heavy emphasis on “vergiftet” (poisoned). Something between “The point envenom’d too? Then, venom, to thy work!” and “I am dying, Egypt, dying.”

Not so, I say. If that line is the key to the poem and song, as I think it is, it must surely be delivered with a sense of discovery. The realisation is not, “Good God! I now realise that that bloody woman has poisoned me!” It is: “That moment with that unfortunate woman has changed me for the rest of my life.” The poet/singer is left alone and palely loitering, and the sedge has wither’d from the lake, but the cause of his misfortune is not a Belle Dame sans Merci, but an unglücksel’ge Weib, a victim too.

Moreover, if the singer injects too much into that word, tries to colour it with that realisation, he will interrupt the smooth legato pp line that has induced the trance-like state in his audience, and break the spell Schubert has created. This is one of those moments for interpreters when less from them will be more, much more. Explication is not needed. The composer and poet we exist to serve have told us what the message is to be. Our role is to deliver it, not to underline it. We should leave our listeners with the sense that maybe they could answer the question Schubert poses, if only they could grasp exactly what that question was. The song ends in stillness. Our aspiration is to deliver it so that some of our audience may carry with them the intense, vivid, but mysterious experience that it evokes but does not try to explain.

29/11/2016