The Indiana University Symphony Orchestra
Gerhardt Zimmermann, Conductor
Aus Schwanengesang was composed in memory of Peter Worsley, a long-time member of the Board of Trustees of the North Carolina Symphony. The commission came jointly from the North Carolina and Canton Symphony Orchestras and was partially funded through a generous gift from Nortel Networks, where Mr. Worsley had been an executive in their Research Triangle Park offices. Before beginning work on the piece, I met with Mr. Worsley’s widow, Shirley, to learn as much as I could about the man. During the course of our conversation, a single subject continued to emerge — the sea. Both of the Worsleys were born and raised in English seaside towns. Mrs. Worsley’s father was a fisherman, and as a young girl, she frequently helped him with his work. As a married couple, the Worsley’s favorite retreat was a cottage on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. When Mrs. Worsley wistfully described how she and her husband would sit together for hours on the deck of their cottage gazing at the sea, I immediately recalled the “Heine lieder” from Franz Schubert’s “Schwanengesang” (“Swan Song”). These six poems that comprise the second part of Schubert’s song cycle contain images of the sea, of a “fishermaiden”...and of a love lost. In addition, as one of Schubert’s last compositions, the cycle was itself a sort of memorial work. Before my meeting with Mrs. Worsley was over, I had determined that these songs would serve as a point of departure for the commission.
The fourteen songs published together by Tobias Haslinger shortly after Schubert’s death as “Schwanengesang” are not actually a unified collection. Although they were part of a single manuscript, in fact they represent two distinct groups: the first seven songs are settings of poems by Ludwig Rellstab, while the next six set Heinrich Heine’s poems (followed by one lone song on a text by J. G. Seidl). Over the past few decades, a number of scholars have maintained quite persuasively that these songs should be separated according to their poets. Moreover, arguments have been made that the Heine songs should also be returned to the order in which they first appeared in Die Heimkehr (The Homecoming), the poet’s own publication of eighty-eight poems, rather than the sequence in which they had been published by Haslinger.
In their original order from Die Heimkehr, the six poems trace the emotional journey of a lost love. In “Das Fischermädchen” (“The Fishermaiden”), the narrator calls the maiden in her boat to come to shore and be with him. The story then leaps forward in “Am Meer” (“By the Sea”), as the narrator describes how the two sat together by the sea. That poem’s final lines first reveal his current sadness (“My soul dies of desire”) and point to the cause (“The wretched woman has poisoned me with her tears”). “Die Stadt” (“The City”) recalls the place where he lost his love. In “Der Doppelgänger” (“The Phantom Double”), the narrator stands before the house where she once lived and is horrified when he imagines that he sees a stranger in the moonlight whose face reflects his own pain. The mood is then transformed in “Ihr Bild” (“Her Portrait”) to one of resignation, as the narrator contemplates a picture of his beloved and can barely realize that she is gone. In the concluding “Der Atlas” (“Atlas”), the tone shifts one final time to a hardened acceptance of what must be. The narrator now sees himself as Atlas, carrying the pains of the world as his heart breaks. This is the price of love, however, as a heart that desires eternal happiness also risks eternal sorrow.
These six “Heine lieder” from Schubert’s cycle form the programmatic and structural bases of my Aus Schwanengesang. They are recast (sans voice) in my own language and are expanded by the addition of new, but related material, thereby creating a reinterpretation or “re-composition,” if you will, of Schubert’s set. Literal elements of Schubert’s music emerge from time to time, but most references are quite oblique. In my work, the order of the songs — and consequently, of the poetry that generated them — adheres to that found in Heine’s original publication, thus reflecting the “narrative” described above. Too, the six reordered songs are compressed into a five-movement structure — “Am Meer” and “Die Stadt” combine in the second movement — that follows the gradually darkening tone of Heine’s texts.
Two other facets of the score merit special mention. In her description of her husband’s character and personality, Mrs. Worsley told me that he had a “wicked,” droll sense of humor and enjoyed practical jokes. Not surprisingly, his favorite composer of art music was Haydn, whose music is known (perhaps more than that of any other composer) for its use of humor and for its inclusion of tongue-in-cheek elements. Although the overall tone of Aus Schwanengesang is quite serious, as would befit a memorial piece, definite “Haydn-esque” qualities can be found throughout.
Secondly, in the final movement of Aus Schwanengesang, I make direct reference not only to Schubert’s “Atlas,” but also to the composition from which Schubert unquestionably “appropriated” the song’s main theme — Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 111, first movement. I further allude to two other works that utilize variants of the same motif: the last movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 and Franz Liszt’s piano transcription of “Atlas.” Thus, from a single melodic idea generations of composers have derived inspiration, and a musical line of descent can be traced...from Beethoven to Schubert, to Liszt, to Mahler, to the present.