Today we're listening to another one, one of the most disturbing and darkest songs by Franz Schubert: Der Zwerg. The poem makes us witnesses of a terrible situation: the queen and her dwarf are sailing at sunset; the queen has the feeling the dwarf is killing her because she has been unfaithful to him with the king. In her last words, the queen asks him not to suffer with her death but the dwarf, devastated by grief, won't land ever again. I read very different opinions on this unusual story; from the ones that consider it’s an absolute nonsense until those who relate it to the political situation of that time, or those who gave a freudian interpretation. All opinions agree, however, on the most obvious: the story subverts the social order. The queen has a forbidden relationship with her servant; the servant believes in his rights over the queen; the queen feels guilty about having married the king and the servant is not a handsome young man but a deformed human being. Not bad at all.
We don't know for sure when Schubert composed his Lied; it's been proved that Vogl sang it at the beginning of 1823 and it was probably performed at the end of 1822. Schubert probably knew the poem through the poet, to whom he dedicated the song. Benedikt Randhartinger, one member of Schubert's circle, maintained that the composer didn't spent much time on the song: Randhartinger would have told Schubert to go for a walk and he would have answered him: "just wait for a few minutes while I write a song." Randhartinger's memories are often considered unreliable because he wrote them when he was an elderly person, more than fifty years after Schubert's death and his memory wasn't that good. In our case, it's hard to believe the anecdote when you hear the song which is as long oneas the poem: nine stanzas, all of them with three verses except the last one, which has four verses. We hear three voices: the storyteller, the queen and the dwarf. Its structure reminds that of Erlkönig, one of the most famous lieder by Schubert, with the agitation of the piano, playing a continuous tremolo and violent changes which create an oppressive atmosphere from the first bar.
As for the voice, the composer focuses on the suffering of the dwarf, emphasizing the last few verses of some stanzas: at the fourth one, "und weint" and "schnell vor Gram erblinden"; at the fifth one, "enzig mir noch Freude." In the last stanza, he repeats the whole third verse before repeating again the words "so voll Verlangen"; that way the last verse, which tells us that the dwarf won't land again, is highlighted by some piano bars before and after it. And we can still hear one more repetition. The first two stanzas describe the nature surrounding the boat, which will be the only witness of this drama; the first stanza ends with the verse "worauf die Königin mit ihrem Zwerge" and the piano echoes these words, repeating the phrase so as we don't overlook it: why are the queen and the dwarf sailing alone at night? The queen music queen is rather calm, very different from the dwarf excitement; she tells the stars that she not only accepts her death but also likes the idea of dying. This attraction for death shouldn't have left Schubert indifferent, always so fascinated by this idea...
Last but not least, one of the most significant features of the accompanying, the so-called fate motif, three short notes followed by a long one, which is repeated at different times of the song. This motif had already been used by Schubert in two other songs, Suleika I and Du liebst mich nicht, and you'll identify it quickly as the notes open Beethoven's fifth symphony. We can hear in the first verses of Der Zwerg, still half-hidden, and we will hear it again and again as the song progresses. If you cannot identify it easily, pay attention to those two instants where it sounds clearly: the first one at the beginning of the fourth stanza, the singer sings "Da tritt der Zwerg" with this motif. The second one is in the sixth stanza, when the dwarf is speaking: between "den Tod gegeben" and "musst doch ..." the voice has a rest and we can listen clearly to the fate motif played by the piano.
Our voice will be that of Florian Boesch and our piano that of Malcolm Martineau, they perform Der Zwerg in a recording that has just been released. I hope you like it!
Im trüben Licht verschwinden schon die Berge,
Es schwebt das Schiff auf glatten Meereswogen,
Worauf die Königin mit ihrem Zwerge.
Sie schaut empor zum hochgewölbten Bogen,
Hinauf zur lichtdurchwirkten blauen Ferne;
Die mit der Milch des Himmels blass durchzogen.
„Nie, nie habt ihr mir gelogen noch, ihr Sterne,“
So ruft sie aus, „bald werd’ ich nun entschwinden,
Ihr sagt es mir, doch sterb’ ich wahrlich gerne.“
Da tritt der Zwerg zur Königin, mag binden
Um ihren Hals die Schnur von roter Seide,
Und weint, als wollt’ er schnell vor Gram erblinden.
Er spricht: „Du selbst bist schuld an diesem Leide,
Weil um den König du mich hast verlassen,
Jetzt weckt dein Sterben einzig mir noch Freude.
„Zwar werd’ ich ewiglich mich selber hassen,
Der dir mit dieser Hand den Tod gegeben,
Doch musst zum frühen Grab du nun erblassen.“
Sie legt die Hand aufs Herz voll jungem Leben,
Und aus dem Aug’ die schweren Tränen rinnen,
Das sie zum Himmel betend will erheben.
„Mögst du nicht Schmerz durch meinen Tod gewinnen!“
Sie sagt’s, da küsst der Zwerg die bleichen Wangen,
D’rauf alsobald vergehen ihr die Sinnen.
Der Zwerg schaut an die Frau, von Tod befangen,
Er senkt sie tief ins Meer mit eig’nen Handen.
Ihm brennt nach ihr das Herz so voll Verlangen,
An keiner Küste wird er je mehr landen.
Into the gloomy light, the mountains are already disappearing
On flat sea waves floats a boat:
on board are the queen and her dwarf.
She gazes up into the high-arched vault,
into the blue, light-woven distance
that with the milk of the sky is streaked blue.
"Never, never have you lied to me yet, you stars."
So she cries, "and soon I will vanish,
you tell me; but in truth, I will die gladly."
Then the dwarf steps up to the queen
to bind a red silk cord around her neck,
and he weeps as if he wanted to blind himself with grief.
He speaks: "You yourself are to blame for this suffering
because you have forsaken me for the king.
Now only your death will awaken joy in me.
"It is true I will hate myself forever
for having bestowed death on you with my own hand;
but now, pale, you must go to your early grave."
She lays her hand on her heart full of youthful life,
and heavy tears run from her eyes
that she would lift imploringly to the heavens.
"May you suffer no pain through my death!"
she says; the dwarf kisses her pale cheeks
and in that moment her senses leave her.
The dwarf gazes at the lady, overcome with death,
and sinks her deep into the sea with his own hands.
His heart burns with desire for her;
upon no coast will he ever land again.