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Orchestration: chorus (TB), strings (viola I and II, cello I and II, basses). First Los Angeles Philharmonic performances at these concerts.
As with [Beethoven] Leonore-Fidelio, three different versions of the next work… precede the composer’s final thoughts. First, in 1816, came a setting (portions of which have been lost), for baritone and piano, of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem; a year later, a setting for unaccompanied chorus of the same text was abandoned at midpoint; in 1820, another fragment, this time for four male voices with piano; and, finally, in 1821 the present, splendid creation for the unusual combination of eight male voices (four tenors, four basses) and a string quintet comprising pairs of violas and cellos and a double-bass -- forces which are multiplied for a concert-hall presentation.
Goethe’s poem dates from his Swiss sojourn of 1779 and his awestruck viewing of the Staubach and Riesenach waterfalls. The text compares the soul to the movement of the waters of the fall, tumbling earthward, then violently thrown up again, heavenward. On completing the poem, Goethe sent it to his love-interest of the moment, Charlotte von Stein, who found it dull. The judgement of posterity has been kinder. It is in fact among the dozen or so Goethe lyrics included in every anthology of German poetry and a prime example of the poet’s gift for the telling metaphor.
Schubert’s final setting is music of striking breadth and solemnity, matching the rise and fall of Goethe’s words with wonderful appositeness and evocativeness.
The premiere of Gesang der Geister took place at the Ash Wednesday (March 7, 1821) charity concert in Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theater, an occasion which also introduced to the public another Goethe setting by Schubert, Erlkönig, sung by the composer’s most famous interpreter, Johann Michael Vogl. Also on the bill, although not involved in music by Schubert, were the 17-year-old "singing sensation," soprano Wilhelmine Schröder-Devrient, who only a year later would be Beethoven’s chosen Leonore in the triumphant Dresden revival of Fidelio conducted by Carl Maria von Weber; and the (eventually) legendary dancer Fanny Elssler, all of ten years old at the time.
The rousing, horrific Erlkönig proved a huge hit, and on the same program Schubert scored another success with the cozy charm of Das Dörfchen (The Hamlet), a piano-accompanied quartet for male voices. And heaven knows what acclaim there was for the lightweight diversions provided by the young singer and baby ballerina. Amid all this "entertainment" the dark, stark, philosophical Gesang der Geister was coolly received by its first audience. The critic of the august Wiener Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung was downright nasty: "On the other hand [after the critic had praised Erlkönig], Herr Schubert’s eight-part chorus was regarded by the public as an accumulation of all musical modulations and evasions with no sense, order or objective. The composer in such compositions is like a head coachman driving eight horses, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right and thus deviating from any course; he then turns around and repeats this maneuver without coming on to a road."
The critic was reacting to the music as if it had no text at all, failing to recognize that what Schubert has done is to mirror -- in fiercely dramatic, restless musical paragraphs -- the changeableness of nature and of the human spirit that Goethe so strikingly depicts.
Herbert Glass, a columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times from 1971 through 1996, is also a frequent contributor to Gramophone and The Strad. He is English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival.