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Exploring Schubert’s approach to a mountaintop reverie

Franz Schubert

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Franz Schubert

Next Thursday sees the second installment of “Schubert’s Summer Journey,” a six-concert Tanglewood exploration of the music of Franz Schubert, organized by pianist Emanuel Ax. Thursday’s program includes a high-level summit meeting: Schubert’s setting of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “Wanderers Nachtlied II.” Goethe’s lyric — also known by the title given it when it was published with the first “Wanderer’s Night-Song,” “Ein Gleiches” (“Another One”) — might be the most famous poem in the German language. Schubert, for his part, could make a similar claim to being the greatest composer of German lieder. Schubert’s efficient skill limns the poem’s tone and atmosphere while delicately teasing out its shadows — more shadows, perhaps, than the poet may have preferred.

German schoolchildren learn the tale: how the 31-year-old Goethe, having climbed the Kickelhahn mountain in the Thuringian Forest, inscribed the poem on the wall of a gamekeeper’s lodge. “Above all the summits it is peaceful,” Goethe wrote, “in all the treetops there is hardly a breath. The birds in the forest are silent; just wait, soon, you too will rest.”

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Goethe apparently never heard Schubert’s “Wanderers Nachtlied II,” though he notoriously disliked other Schubert settings of his poems. It is revealing to compare Schubert’s approach to Goethe’s mountaintop reverie with that by a composer Goethe did like, Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter’s setting is lovely and graceful, but fixated on calm: an unruffled major-key tonality, a steady, lilting triplet accompaniment. Schubert’s song, for all its serene brevity, is changeable and subtly perturbed. At mention of the breathless treetops, Schubert troubles his major key with notes from the minor scale; the silent birds hover amid unresolved harmonies.

The poem is a litmus test: Its uncanny silence could be read as a peaceful landscape, a gentle anticipation of death, or, maybe, a world that is already dead. Bertolt Brecht cut “Ein Gleiches” to the quick in his “Liturgie vom Hauch,” distorting Goethe’s original into an indifferent refrain to starvation, corruption, fecklessness — a refrain composer Hanns Eisler’s choral setting laced with echoes of Schubert’s major-minor frisson. Schubert didn’t go that far in subverting “Wanderers Nachtlied II,” but neither did he ignore the dark of night. Again, the comparison with Zelter is telling. Late in life, Goethe revisited that Kickelhahn lodge, weeping at the sight of his old handwriting, the kind of pathos Zelter emphasized by repeating the word “balde”: Soon. Schubert, though, found a sharper point in the poignancy — the phrase he chose to repeat was “warte nur”: Just wait.

Baritone Andrè Schuen, pianist Thomas Adès, bassist Edwin Barker, and the Emerson String Quartet perform music of Franz Schubert, July 20, 8 p.m., in Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall. Tickets $19-$56. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org

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Matthew Guerrieri

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.
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