Schubert is the most poetic of composers. His ear for the emotional tune is matched only by Beethoven, or occasionally Chopin. However, if you write more than 600 songs for solo singer, never mind the other works, there may well be a problem with consistency. In attempting to get through every piece on Hyperion’s remarkable 40 CD recording of the complete songs (all 2,851 minutes of it), Damian Thompson of the Spectator eventually admitted defeat. Part of the problem is the words, Schubert always used other writers’ poems. To quote Thompson:
Despite Richard Wigmore’s sparkling translations, many of the poems are garbage. In ‘Der Liedler’ (1815), a minstrel saves a maiden from a werewolf by smashing his harp against him and then hurling him over a cliff. Even Schubert couldn’t polish this particular turd. Long, corny, cod-medieval ballads never showed him at his best. Short, commonplace love poems weren’t a problem, however. Schubert could invest the plainest lament — his poets were champion lamenters — with emotions far beyond the grasp of the writer. A lilting rhythm jumps into the pianist’s left hand; a flattened sixth creates a flicker of fear; a predictable cadence dissolves into a remote key. Earthbound verse takes flight.
Which makes Winterreise all the more remarkable. The poet is Wilhelm Müller, and, put frankly, it’s a very bleak and miserable trip. The spurned lover sets off into a very cold, dark, threatening landscape, bereft of hope. In the era of the romcom, this is its antithesis. Here is the translation by Celia Sgroi. It’s not great poetry in English, but it’s effective, and the sentiments are clear (and timeless, we’ve all been there to some extent). The German is more melodious, even in plain speech:
An dich hab’ ich gedacht That I thought of you.
The key to it all, is Schubert and his extraordinary gift for plangent melody. Here is Gute Nacht performed by Daniel Barenboim and Thomas Quasthoff. When you consider Quasthoff’s disability, married with his amazing voice., it’s hard not to discern an extra level of poignancy. Try the piece whilst reading the lyrics and translation, that is the real poetic Schubert.