Shepherd on the Rock, Op. 129, D. 965, for soprano, clarinet and piano
September 27, 2009 – Danielle de Niese, soprano; Stephen Williamson, clarinet; Ken Noda, piano
Franz Schubert was unusual among the great composers of the 18th and 19th centuries in that he was not an instrumental virtuoso. Composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Liszt developed early reputations for their formidable keyboard prowess. Their performance skills enabled them to attain varying degrees of “star power,” giving them the ability to introduce their solo and chamber compositions directly to the public, publishers, and influential, music-loving aristocrats of the day. While Schubert sang in a small, pleasant voice and had functional keyboard and string instrument skills, his performance abilities were better suited to intimate musical circumstances.
For this reason, his reputation remained largely confined to a Bohemian circle of devoted admirers and friends who gathered on a weekly basis in private homes to hear and perform his latest musical offerings. These events, known as Schubertiades, were attended by artists, literary figures, musicians, and middle-class Viennese music lovers. Schubert was the kind of person to whom friends were naturally drawn and became devotedly attached. He lived most of his adult life off the good graces of his colleagues, who gave him lodgings and would occasionally raise funds to have his music published. When he died at 31, he left behind no books, money, furniture, or estate, but his musical legacy was enormous.
Although most of his music remained unpublished at his death, he composed over 1000 separate pieces during his short lifetime. Like Mozart, his memory and ability to concentrate were prodigious. He was able to imagine and hold entire compositions in his head, then write them down at breakneck speed. Schubert’s greatest musical gifts were melodic – for all intents and purposes, he invented the Art Song, composing over 600 of them.
In 1828, his final year, Schubert’s friends rented the Vienna Concert Hall and sponsored the first public recital of his music. The response among the attendees was effusive, and Schubert was enormously heartened. It seemed that his fortunes were finally about to change for the better. He received an open-ended request for music from the prominent publishing firm Schott, and he set to work in a final burst of creative activity. One of the most famous sopranos of the day, Anna Milder-Hauptmann (the creator of the role of Leonora in Beethoven’s opera Fidelio), requested that Schubert write her a brilliant concert aria that would allow her wide expressive latitude and be suitable for large audiences. The result was one of Schubert’s most popular songs, The Shepherd on the Rock. Sadly, he died only weeks after completing the song and never had the opportunity to hear it performed.
Of the hundreds of songs that Schubert wrote, only two, both composed during his last year, feature obbligato instruments. The first, On the River, involves the French horn, and the second, Shepherd on the Rock, the clarinet. In keeping with the outdoors imagery of the text, the clarinet sonority provides appropriately folkish associations, as well as conveying the pathos and melancholy of the song’s introspective middle section.
Schubert chose to blend three poems by two different poets in order to express a wide range of human emotion. Romantic sensibilities are represented in the poetic and musical evocations of nature, picturesque landscapes, the desolation of separated lovers, and the joy of wandering. The song begins in the alpine heights with a young shepherd yodeling across mountain ravines to his lover somewhere below. The clarinet responds with echoes from the depths of the valley. The second section expresses the sadness of life, evoking sorrow and grief as hope for the future ebbs. Optimism and positive emotions return in the final section, which heralds the beginning of spring and the joyous anticipation of wandering. The song ends in a jubilant cascade of scales and arpeggios in the soprano and clarinet.
By Michael Parloff