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Song cycles, putative cycles, groups and collections

Pieces in this collection

In most cases, when Schubert set a poem to music we have no idea about how he envisaged it being performed. In particular, did he think that his songs would be regarded as stand-alone items or did he intend a number of songs to be performed in groups or in sequence? Sometimes the answer to this question is clear, though. Die schöne Müllerin had been devised by the poet Müller as a Liederspiel (a play made up of a sequence of songs) and Schubert was always aware that the poems were part of a larger whole. However, what he produced was not in the form of a play (for example, he chose not to set the prelude and the epilogue). When Die schöne Müllerin was published in 1824 it was described on the title page as ‘ein Cyclus von Liedern’, a cycle of songs.

The first ‘Cyclus von Liedern’ (cycle) or ‘Liederkreis’ (song circle) has traditionally been said to be Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, completed in April 1816. When published in October 1816 these 6 songs were described as a ‘Liederkreis’ (though Beethoven’s manuscript is simply entitled ‘An die entfernte Geliebte / Sechs Lieder von / Alois Jeitteles / im Musik gesetzt / von L. v. Beethowen’ – To the far-removed beloved, 6 songs by Alois Jeittels set to music by L. v. Beethoven). The composer deliberately connects the six songs musically (it is hardly possible to imagine performing any of them as independent works) and the opening theme is recapitulated at the end, thereby ‘closing the circle’.

There is general agreement that it was the publication of Beethoven’s work which stimulated Schubert to begin experimenting with grouping poems together to create a larger scale work. It appears that he asked his friend Mayrhofer to write some verses which could serve as a unified cycle on the same model as the texts by Jeitteles. The result was Einsamkeit (D 620), which he composed in the summer of 1818.

Unlike An die ferne Geliebte, which presents a series of reflections and expressions of emotion, Einsamkeit has a clear narrative line, as the central character goes from one experience to the next and develops in maturity along the way. The end is not the beginning here. Time is linear rather cyclical in this case.

Yet the connection between the songs is not simply ‘one thing after another’. In Einsamkeit, and later in Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise we are being invited to ‘go on a journey’ with a central character. The situation changes, the character changes, there is development. However, the movement is not ‘cyclical’ in that we do not return to the starting point. Unless, that is, we see the end as a new beginning:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
. . .
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S.Eliot, ‘Little GiddingFour Quartets Faber and Faber 1944

Other groupings of songs are not unified by any similar narrative structure, arc or trajectory. This has not prevented editors and concert planners from trying to identify other ‘cycles’ in Schubert’s work. From Tobias Haslinger publishing Schwanengesang immediately after Schubert’s death to Walter Dürr (the editor of the NSA, the new Schubert edition) suggesting in 1989 that seven songs from the Selam anthology were planned as a unified group, there has been a desire to trace connections between Schubert’s songs.

Of course there is some evidence from Schubert’s lifetime of him putting some songs into groups. There are the two bundles of Goethe settings that he and his friends sent to the great poet. There is the obvious fact that Schubert often worked from (or even through) collections of poems that had been published following the principles of a unifying theme, and there is the fact he set poems that appeared in longer unified texts (e.g. Goethe’s Faust and Wilhelm Meister, Scott’s The Lady of the Lake). From 1821 until his death Schubert was actively involved in publishing (usually small) groups of songs (the ‘Opus numbers’), usually with some unifying principle, be it the voice type (e.g. Opus 83, for the bass Louis Lablache), the theme (e.g. mortality in Opus 7) or the poet (e.g. Opus 3 Goethe, Opus 37 Schiller, Opus 80 Seidl).

Schubert was interested in particular poets at different times, yet it is never clear if his intense activity making settings from a single source is a sign that he expected performers to connect the resulting songs in any way. In some cases, e.g. the many settings of Ossian or Matthisson, performance of too many of these works on one occasion would surely be too much for a performer or an audience. The same could be said for the settings of Schulze’s Poetisches Tagebuch, since the same themes and obsessions recur so relentlessly. Nevertheless, this did not stop Graham Johnson from presenting these as a unified cycle, building up to a cumulative frenzy that is more than the sum of its parts (under the title ‘Auf den wilden Wegen’).

Of course, it is possible to group Schubert songs together without having to make any claim that the composer intended them to be connected (indeed Richard Kramer has written a book – Distant Cycles – explaining the slipperiness of the concept of ‘intention’ in this context). It appears that Seidl and Schubert were more or less pressured by a publisher (Thaddäus Weigl) into producing a group (the Vier Refrain Lieder) that neither poet nor composer particularly really saw as an integrated work. There is some evidence that Schubert’s settings of Rellstab poems (which became part of Schwanengesang) were based on a selection originally made by Beethoven. The friends who put together the two bundles of Schubert settings to be sent to Goethe can be seen as setting a precedent for all later performers and concert organisers who have offered their own groupings as a way of engaging audiences with the staggering range of Schubert’s song-writing achievement.