This is an edited extract from the book The Song Remains the Same: 800 Years of Love Songs, Laments and Lullabies by Andrew Ford and Anni Heino, an illuminating history of the song that traces connections from different cultures and times: love songs, anthems, protest songs, lullabies, folk songs, jazz standards, lieder and pop. Out on December 2 through La Trobe University Press.
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In the century that invented the song cycle, in the very city in which it was invented, Franz Schubert was Vienna’s pre–eminent composer of songs. One of the best known, Ständchen (Serenade), comes from his final song cycle, Schwanengesang (Swansong), assembled posthumously by his publisher, Tobias Haslinger. Unlike its predecessors, Die schöne Müllerin (The Fair Maid of the Mill) and Winterreise (The Winter’s Journey), it has no narrative arc and is really just a collection of songs. The words aren’t even all by the same poet.
Schubert’s songs in general are notable for the way in which they not only present the poetry of the composer’s day – the good, the bad and, in some cases, the downright ugly – but also often illustrate it. In the most famous examples, this illustration takes the form of a continuous sound effect in the piano accompaniment. For example, in Das Wandern (‘The Wanderer’), the first song from Die schöne Müllerin, the piano part conjures a purposeful millwheel, clattering away as our hero strides out abroad. In the final song of Winterreise we hear a very different wheel – the turning of a plaintive hurdy–gurdy, its music going round and round above a drone as it highlights the mental disintegration of the singer/protagonist. Schubert’s piano is a babbling brook in Die Forelle (‘The Trout’), a spinning wheel in Gretchen am Spinnrade (‘Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel’) and, perhaps most famously of all, the galloping hooves of the distraught father’s horse in Erlkönig (‘The Erl–King’ or ‘Elf–King’).
But Ständchen? It’s a simple love song, isn’t it? Well, not quite. In fact, Ständchen is two things at once. It’s the serenade its title tells us it is, but it’s also a song about serenades.
A serenade is an alfresco love song, performed, at night, beneath the beloved’s window. Since the singer will be acting alone, any accompaniment for the song will be the singer’s own responsibility. The instrument, of course, will have to be portable – not least because a quick getaway may be necessary if things don’t go well – and so a guitar is ideal. When, in Edward Lear’s poem, The Owl and the Pussycat, the Owl sings “to a small guitar”, he is performing a serenade. For he is not only telling the pussycat he loves her (“Oh lovely pussy, oh pussy, my love, what a beautiful pussy you are”), he is doing so outdoors, at night, and while looking up – in this case “to the stars above”.
Schubert himself played the guitar and composed a few songs for voice and guitar. While Ständchen, like the rest of Schwanengesang, has a piano accompaniment, the staccato figuration in the right hand is very much that of a delicately plucked guitar. So this, after all, is one of Schubert’s sound–effect songs, the composer evoking a guitar as vividly as he does the millwheel and the galloping horse.
Ludwig Rellstab’s poem, though addressing his beloved, has an air of detachment. The singer is also singing about his song.
Leise flehen meine Lieder durch die nacht zu dir; In den stillen Hain hernieder, Liebchen, komm’ zu mir!
“Softly my songs plead to you through the night,” he sings, as though the songs themselves require some advocacy and explanation (and notwithstanding the fact that this is one of those songs). “In the silent grove below, come to me my beloved.” Self–awareness is a standard conceit of songs addressed to a loved one: “Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song / List, while I woo thee with soft melody”; “What would you do if I sang out of tune?”
But Schubert’s song here has competition from nature. Treetops are whispering and rustling, nightingales are calling. As it turns out these are not distractions so much as exemplars, and Schubert provides harmonic highlighting for the lessons they bring. Yes, that rustling might be a sign that the lovers are being spied upon (the B flat major song moves abruptly to a chord of D minor): but no, not to worry, their secret will not be overheard (D major). The nightingales understand heartache (D minor): but their silvery tone consoles every heart (D major).
Just as the composer’s piano accompaniment apes the manner of a guitar, so his vocal line draws on another convention of this musical courting ritual – the tendency on the part of the singer to show off. In general, Schubert was not one to add ornamentation to songs, but Ständchen has lots of it. You could argue that the basic melodic cell that begins the song and each subsequent verse is itself ornamental – a sort of slow, written–out mordent – but in the second part of each verse the embellishments are very clear, and they come, as you might hope, at key moments – with references to moon- light and yearning and trembling.
So did Schubert compose a spoof? Of course not. The song is genuine. If its style is knowing, if the composer gives us the occasional wink, Ständchen is a serenade, nonetheless, with one of his simplest melodies and one of his most touching.
The Song Remains the Same: 800 Years of Love Songs, Laments and Lullabies is out on December 2 through La Trobe University Press
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