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Schubert Song Series I

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£20** (£18 for booking up to 14 days in advance) Free for students and under 16s.
**Special Schubert Series discount offer: Book all three Leeds concerts for £50

Booking: Online (no surcharges) at concerts.leeds.ac.uk or on 0113 343 2584

This concert will be preceded by a pre-concert talk at 6.30pm

Nika Gorič soprano
James Newby baritone
Joseph Middleton piano

In association with the Kathleen Ferrier Awards and YCAT

Two of the finest British-trained young singers open our Schubert series. James Newby, prizewinner in the Kathleen Ferrier Awards and Wigmore Hall International Song Competition makes a welcome return to Leeds Lieder following his outstanding recital for BBC Radio 3 in our Mahler series last season. He is joined by Nika Gorič whose recent performances have taken her to the Salzburg Young Singers Programme, Verbier Festival, Wigmore Hall and Vienna Musikverein. She has recently been selected as a YCAT artist. They will perform solos and duets from that inspired partnership: Goethe and Schubert.

PROGRAMME: A Soprano and Baritone Schubertiade

from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre

Der Sänger D149 JN

Mignon Lieder

  1. Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt D877 NG/JN duet
  2. Heiss mich nicht reden D877/2 NG
  3. So lasst mich scheinen D877/3 NG
  4. Kennst du das Land D321 NG

Gesänge des Harfners

  1. Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt D478/1 JN
  2. Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen ass D478/2 JN
  3. An die Türen will ich Schleichen D478/3 JN

from Faust

Gretchen Lieder

  1. Gretchen am Spinnrade NG
  2. Gretchens bitte NG
  3. Der König in Thule NG

A Goethe-Schubert timeline


  1. Nähe des Geliebten D162 JN
  2. Rastlose Liebe D138 JN
  3. Wandrers Nachtlied I D224 NG
  4. Erster Verlust D226 NG
  5. Erlkönig D328 JN

1816 An Schwager Kronos D369 JN

1817 Ganymed D544 NG


  1. Versunken D715 NG
  2. Geheimes D719 JN
  3. Suleika I D720 NG
  4. Suleika II D717 NG


  1. Der Musensohn D764 JN
  2. An die Entfernte D765 JN
  3. Am Flusse D766 JN
  4. Wilkommen und Abschied D767 JN
  5. Wandrers Nachtlied II D768 JN


Presented in partnership with Leeds University International Concert Series.


The names of Schubert and Goethe are often bracketed together and yet they never met.   This may seem surprising, but it should not be, if we remember that Goethe was born in 1749, 48 years before Schubert.  By eighteenth-century standards, then, he was old enough to be his grandfather.

Hence, when the august Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, at the height of his fame, received an unsolicited package of settings of his poetry, composed by an unknown teenager in Vienna, it is hardly surprising that he ignored it.   The rambling covering letter probably didn’t help: ‘Your Excellency, the undersigned ventures to steal a few moments of your Excellency’s valuable time, and only the hope that the enclosed collection of songs might not be an entirely unpleasant gift can excuse him for taking so great a liberty.’ And so on…..

That was in 1816.  In the previous year, Schubert had composed about thirty settings of Goethe, and we can assume that some of those were included in the consignment.  Among them, almost certainly, would have been some of the songs from Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre.  Der Sänger was Schubert’s first Goethe setting of 1815. It is a piece of idealised medievalism, sung by a mysterious harpist whom the eponymous Wilhelm meets on his travels.

The other leading character encountered by Wilhelm is Mignon, a waif-like Italian girl whom he rescues from an itinerant troupe of rope dancers, and who later turns out to be the harpist’s daughter, born of an incestuous relationship between the harpist and his sister.   Schubert composed a number of different settings of the Mignon Lieder, including no fewer than six versions of Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt.  This one is a duet for Mignon and the harpist, sung at Wilhelm’s bedside as he lies recovering from a fight.   Some years later Schubert composed settings of two more Mignon songs, Heiss mich nicht reden and So lasst mich scheinen.   These were composed in 1826, and are regarded as among Schubert’s masterpieces, for their intimacy, depth and intensity of expression.  Mignon is close to death, but she cannot speak of her life’s secret: fate has sealed her lips and only God can absolve her oath of silence.

Kennst du das Land is among the most celebrated lyrical poems in all German literature; that indispensable website Lieder.net lists no fewer than 66 published settings.  Most of these are by German composers – from Ludwig Abeille to Carl Zelter – who no doubt saw the poem as an expression of that particularly German yearning for the culture and civilisation (and climate) of Italy.  Schubert composed this setting in 1815.  Graham Johnson describes the euphoric ‘Dahin’ refrain as ‘rather like the take-off of an Alitalia jet – although, on the whole, Schubert’s means of mind travelling is quicker and more efficient!’

We return to the enigmatic harpist in the Gesänge des Harfners.   These three songs were published together in 1822 as Schubert’s first song cycle.  Here, Wilhelm, continuing on his travels, revisits the harpist, in the hope that the old man’s music will cheer him up.  No such luck: instead, he is greeted by two mournful laments, Wer sich der Einsamkeit ergibt and Wer nie sein Brot mit Thränen aß.  The harpist’s earthly existence, it seems, is a vale of tears.  And in the third song, An die Türen will ich schleichen, we observe the harpist as a beggar. The left hand of the piano plods wearily along as the harpist trudges from door to door.

Even more than Wilhelm Meister, Goethe’s great tragedy Faust had a remarkable effect on the music of the 19th century.  There is a long and distinguished roll call of great Romantic composers who were inspired by Faust, and yet Goethe himself was ambivalent about Romanticism – he once referred to it as ‘a sickness’.   Faust was published in 1808, and Gretchen am Spinnrade was one of the earliest compositions to be inspired by it, and also one of the most original and influential.   It was composed in a single day, on 19 October 1814.  Richard Capell, in his classic book on Schubert’s songs, waxes lyrical: ‘It was Schubert’s first masterpiece. There had been nothing at all like it in music before….. it was composed in a kind of transport’. Capell’s point is that the Lied, hitherto a limited and largely domestic genre, ranging from lusty ballads to simple strophic songs suitable for performance by the daughters of the Berlin bourgeoisie, had suddenly burst into bloom as a Romantic medium – powerful, intense, through-composed, and, importantly, with voice and piano as equal partners for the first time.

Had it been completed, Gretchens Bitte might well have been another masterpiece. In it we find Gretchen praying at a shrine to the Virgin Mary.  Here the piano reverts to a secondary role, while the voice part soars with an almost operatic lyricism and intensity.  Schubert seems to have abandoned the piece after five verses: we hear the completion made in 1943 by that great Schubertian Benjamin Britten. Der König in Thule is a strophic song of such simplicity that it would undoubtedly have pleased Goethe, had he bothered to open that package of songs from Schubert.  The mournfully beautiful melody tells of the loneliness of bereavement, and the pointlessness of wealth and power when there is no love.

As noted earlier, 1815 was Schubert’s ‘Goethe Jahre’, when he composed a succession of remarkable settings of Goethe’s poetry. In these the composer continued where he left off after Gretchen am Spinnrade, to establish the Lied as a fully-fledged Romantic genre of great dramatic and emotional power.  Nähe des Geliebten is a remarkable example of how Schubert expanded the limitations of the strophic song.  It was originally in the unusual key of G flat major, and that is not its only exceptional feature. The opening bars of piano music are extraordinary, starting on the unrelated chord of B flat, and then sliding obliquely into the home key, when the voice enters with its passionate opening phrase. How many songs start on their highest note? Not many, but this is one of them.

Nähe des Geliebten was composed just a few weeks after Schubert’s eighteenth birthday, and in the second half of this evening’s programme we continue on a chronological journey through his Goethe settings, from that time until the composer took his leave of Goethe’s poetry in the mid-1820s. Goethe wrote Rastlose Liebe in 1776, the early days of his love affair with Charlotte von Stein.  It is a turbulent piece of Sturm und Drang, which the poet is said to have written during a Mayday snowstorm.  By contrast, Erster Verlust is a love song of the utmost tenderness, in which the poet looks back wistfully to a blissful time of first love. The music hovers throughout between major and minor keys, but the voice ends optimistically in the major: ‘Will those wonderful days ever return?’  But in the final two bars the piano, reverting to the minor, provides the answer: no, they will not.   In Erlkönig Schubert transformed the conventional ballad into an extraordinarily dramatic szena, and a wonderful illustration of the old maxim about the Devil having the best tunes.   After Schubert’s death Goethe eventually heard it, but damned it with faint praise: ‘I heard this composition once before, when it did not appeal to me. But performed like this, the whole song shapes itself into a visible whole’.

Schubert was always inspired by Goethe’s poetry, but there were occasions when he was utterly swept away by it.  Gretchen am Spinnrade and Erlkönig are probably the best-known examples, and An Schwager Kronos was another.   The literal meaning of ‘Schwager’ is brother-in-law, but for some reason the drivers of mail-coaches in eighteenth-century Germany were also addressed in that way.  So this is the coach driver as Old Father Time, taking us on a headlong ride through life, complete with all its stages of youthful exuberance, maturity, and the thought of death defiantly faced, and even mocked.   Ganymed is another remarkable song, both musically (even by Schubert’s standards its exploratory modulations are adventurous), and in its subject matter.  In Greek legend, Ganymede was a beautiful Trojan youth, captured by Zeus to be cup-bearer of the gods.   In Schubert’s Vienna, ‘Griechische Liebe’ – Greek Love – was a common euphemism for homosexuality.

During the four years from 1817 to 1821 Schubert composed very few Goethe settings, resuming in February 1821 with the breathless Versunken.  This song shares with Ganymed both a key (A flat major), and also its somewhat erotic subject matter, though this is of a very different kind. Graham Johnson describes the song as ‘the music of slap-and-tickle, the energetic horseplay and venting of high spirits which often precedes love-making……….’   Versunken was the first of four songs which Schubert composed early in 1821 to poems from Goethe’s last great cycle of poetry, his West-östlicher Divan, which was inspired by the poems of Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī (1315 – 1390), a Persian poet known by the pen name Hafez.  The word ‘Divan’ means simply a collection; Goethe wrote some 200 of these poems between 1814 and 1819.  Geheimes is a brief and tender love song, yet again in A flat major.  Goethe’s ‘muse’ at this time was an actress called Marianne von Willemer, and the two Suleika songs include some of Schubert’s most passionate music for a woman singer since Gretchen am Spinnrade.  Brahms wrote that Suleika 1 was ‘the loveliest song ever written’.

After a break of over twelve months, in December 1822 Schubert returned to Goethe for the last time, beginning with his exuberant setting of Der Musensohn. With its characteristic modulations between keys a third apart, and its irrepressible 6/8 rhythms, this is the quintessential Schubert song.  Surely Schubert, as well as Goethe, was a son of the muses.  Less well known but equally characteristic is An die Entfernte, a tender and heartfelt love song which Goethe is thought to have written in 1788, probably for Charlotte von Stein. Am Flusse is a little jewel, just thirty three bars long.  It feels almost like a study for Die Schoene Müllerin, which Schubert composed just a few months later.  In Wilkommen und Abschied, Erlkönig meets An Schwager Kronos. Richard Capell writes that ‘these verses might have been composed on horseback!’   Schubert’s last song of 1822 was Wandrers Nachtlied. Apart from his revisions of three ‘Mignon’ songs in 1826, this was also Schubert’s last setting of Goethe. It is perhaps the best-known poem in the German language. Goethe famously wrote it in 1780 on the wall of a wooden hut on the Kickelhahn mountain, near Weimar, where he spent the night.  The story goes that over 50 years later, in 1831, just six months before his death, Goethe revisited the hut, and recognising his own faded handwriting on the wall, broke down in tears.                         © David Hoult 2017

Image © Kaupo Kikkas