Friday Performance Pick – 157

Schubert, Shepherd on the Rock

Years ago, Dr. Stanley Shumway, my primary professor in my doctoral studies, claimed that he could teach most of music theory using only the Chopin Mazurkas. I thought about that and concluded that I could teach most of music theory using only the Schubert songs. We may both be right.

Schubert Lieder has a wonderfully rich harmonic vocabulary—perfect for teaching modulations to distant keys and the effective juxtaposition of major and minor. Schubert also excelled as a melodist. When you add in the text painting, you have most everything you need to explain music of the 19th century.

Since all of this may not be apparent to the casual listener, let me offer a couple of points from this week’s selection. We can’t analyze the harmonic progressions in this short space, but we can consider other factors. Shepherd on the Rock has three sections: a pastorale (0:00-5:00) in which the shepherd from his rock looks out on the valley and speaks of his loneliness; a lament (5:00-8:40); and a closing section of hope and happiness over the coming of Spring (9:00-11:40). (The timings are approximate.)

shepherd-rockIn the first section, the melody moves in arpeggios extending from the top to the bottom of the vocal range. “When, from the highest rock up here, I look down into the valley and sing.” The shepherd sings of the echoes, which you can hear clearly in the clarinet. You should also hear the harmony moving often to some unexpected places.

But let’s focus on the middle section and its text:

In tiefem Gram verzehr ich mich,
Mir ist die Freude hin,
Auf Erden mir die Hoffnung wich,
Ich hier so einsam bin.
I am consumed in misery,
Happiness is far from me,
Hope has on earth eluded me,
I am so lonesome here.
So sehnend klang im Wald das Lied,
So sehnend klang es durch die Nacht,
Die Herzen es zum Himmel zieht
Mit wunderbarer Macht.
So longingly did sound the song,
So longingly through wood and night,
Towards heaven it draws all hearts
With amazing strength.

The transition between sections 1 and 2 (4:45-5:00) effortlessly moves us to the minor key. The melody of section 2 stays in a confined range as the shepherd sings of loneliness, often refusing to budge from a single note. The music is driven largely by the highly unsettled harmony. The clarinet takes on a clearly subsidiary role, offering only a few short echoes of the vocal sighing. But then the last two lines change entirely. A shift back to major comes at the mention of “all hearts” (7:13). And you can hardly miss the melody being drawn up toward heaven along with them.

The first sound of Spring (8:38) is equally unmistakable. And from there “Der Frühling will kommen” (the Spring will come). The melody soars again with a focus on ascending scales. The harmony stablizes. And the clarinet and voice now share equally in a duet. There’s much we could say about the role the clarinet plays in conveying the text.

For all of our students studying poetry and literature, here’s a chance to dig deep into rhetorical devices and literary allusions. Even if you don’t know a word of German, you can follow the text here with the English side-by-side. The text painting is important throughout these songs, and you will miss it otherwise.

Painting: Félix Saturnin Brissot de Warville, Shepherd and Flock in the Mountains (c. 1870)

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