Music > Songs (Lieder) > Song Cycles
Unlike Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise Schubert’s Schwanengesang is not a song-cycle. It lacks a narrative thread. Thematically and musically they still have much in common but we don’t know if Schubert ever intended the songs to be performed as a unity.
When they were published early in 1829 Schubert had been dead for some months and Tobias Haslinger, the first publisher, named the collection Schwanengesang (Swan Song) presumably to stress the fact that these were the last fruits of the composer’s genius.
The sequence consists of seven settings of poems by Rellstab, six of poems by Heine and as an encore Seidl’s Taubenpost, allotted an individual number by Deutsch for his catalogue and supposed to be the very last song Schubert wrote. This has for long been the established order when Schwanengesang has been performed in recital or on record.
The poems Schwanengesang and Selige Welt are not to be found in Johann Senn's published Gedichte. There is thus good reason to believe that they were brought back to Schubert in manuscript by his friend Franz von Bruchmann who visited Senn (exiled in his native Tyrol for alleged political offences) in the autumn of 1822.
First edition of Schwanengesang from 1829
Schubert had been at school with the poet, and sympathised with his anti-authoritarian views. The settings were published in August 1823 as part of an opus which also included a bitter song of disillusionment in love (Platen's Die Liebe hat gelogen) and Schatzgräbers Begehr by Schober in which the treasure hunter digs his own grave and longs to lie in it. There is nothing to prove that Schubert set the Senn poems immediately on receipt of them. We have no firm dates for any of the Opus 23 Lieder and it may well be that some of these dark songs, and Schwanengesang in particular, were composed in the spring of 1823.
They would thus be contemporary with Schubert's health crisis and the poem entitled 'My Prayer' (quoted, in part, in the introduction). The longing for destruction in order to find transfiguration in Senn's poem finds an exact echo with the end of Schubert's. The composer had become, in his own way, as much an establishment outcast and exile as Senn. Not only are the poet's words 'presentiment of death', and the 'dissolution that flows through my limbs', uncomfortably near the composer's own circumstances, but the music itself has a poignancy and immediacy which suggests a heightened subjective response.
The song shares the alla breva's pace of Der Tod und das Mädchen (the death motif rhythm is invoked); but these two gigantic miniatures stand at opposite poles. In the Claudius setting the mastery of death is in the inhuman ease and gliding simplicity of his harmony; the Senn setting bristles with the tortured chromaticism of vulnerability and human emotion. There is a positively Wagnerian moment on the word 'auflösend' where an unusually dense bank of accidentals flattens and dissolves the harmony, an illustration of both the word's significance in the poem, and its technical meaning in musical theory for the resolving of a suspension or discord.
Listen to Schwanengesang
The music rages less against the dying of the light than shows a steely determination that the singing will be ever more striking as the light fails. In August 1823, just after the publication of the Opus 23 songs, Schubert wrote to Schober, 'I rather doubt whether I shall ever be well again'. Whether Schwanengesang was written just before or during Schubert's crisis, it sounds like a wounded bird's promise to sing ceaselessly for the time left to him. The song of Oscar Wilde's nightingale, with his heart pressed against the rose thorn of life, could not have been more heart-rending.
In der Ferne
Auf der Bruck