Secrets and lieder

Have musicologists stumbled on a third Schubert song cycle? A London premiere is likely to surprise even the composer's fans. Michael White unravels the mystery
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The Independent Culture

It's an interesting thing, the song cycle: the idea of collecting small units of story-telling music into a larger whole that tells a bigger tale. It reached perfection with Schubert. And, as history relates, Schubert produced two towering examples - Die Schone Mullerin and Winterreise - plus a third if you include the Schwanengesang cycle cobbled together from not-obviously-connected material after his death.

It's an interesting thing, the song cycle: the idea of collecting small units of story-telling music into a larger whole that tells a bigger tale. It reached perfection with Schubert. And, as history relates, Schubert produced two towering examples - Die Schone Mullerin and Winterreise - plus a third if you include the Schwanengesang cycle cobbled together from not-obviously-connected material after his death.

But was there another one - a secret Schubert cycle, hidden and forgotten and more genuine than Schwanengesang in that the songs were actually devised to play in sequence and tell that bigger story?

According to leading Schubert scholars, there was indeed. This month, it receives its long-delayed London premiere, with two hearings to compensate for the wait: one at the Banqueting House, Whitehall, and the other at the Austrian Cultural Forum, Knightsbridge. In both cases, the performance will be given by young singers (this is a cycle that requires more than one voice) organised by the maverick pianist, professor and broadcaster David Owen Norris. And it's the result of a chance meeting he had, eight years ago in Vienna, with a musicologist called Morten Solvik.

Solvik had been studying a stack of Schubert manuscripts, in a Vienna library, that included 20 settings of verse by Ludwig Kosegarten - a melancholic preacher/ teacher who passed his troubled, high-romantic view of life on to his students (including the painter Caspar David Friedrich) but was otherwise an obscure and not especially well-regarded poet. Schiller dismissed him as a nutcase ( ein Verruckter). And it's hard to know why Schubert was attracted to his work - except that Schubert was quite often drawn to feeble poets, vesting in them greatness by association.

As the years passed, there seemed nothing too unusual about the Kosegarten settings: they were known and catalogued, and not infrequently performed as unrelated songs. But then, in the course of his research, Solvik noticed that the manuscripts bore numbers, 1-20, in the bottom left-hand corner. The numbering was in a hand that Solvik identified as that of a 19th-century librarian. And the only explanation was that it reflected the order in which his library had received the songs - direct from Schubert's brother Ferdinand, who had been busy selling things off after the composer's death in 1828.

At some subsequent time, the manuscripts had been separated and their order shuffled around. But with the numbering it was possible to reassemble them in the original order. And in doing so, Solvik discovered that they seemed to fit together, telling a continuous story, with common characters wandering in and out of a larger narrative plan. It took a measure of interpretative licence, and it didn't make a plot as tight as a Graham Greene novel. But you could say as much of Schone Mullerin and Winterreise, which are equally discursive in their narratives of lost love.

Lost love is, again, the subject of the Kosegarten cycle (if that's what it is), although in this case it's the boy who does the dumping and the girls (for there are several) who get dumped. The central character, Wilhelm, is a serial seducer: a Germanic Casanova who falls first for Ida, then for Luisa, and eventually for Rosa - only to end up remorsefully alone after his various ladies lose hope and die.

The cycle's current champion, David Owen Norris, thinks it would originally have been performed as a charade-with-music at one of the convivial liederabends that Schubert and his friends organised among themselves - ostensibly (according to the fashion of the time) for self-improvement through the arts but, realistically, (as seems to be the case from documented evidence) for jolly, drunken entertainment.

There's a well-known watercolour of a Schubert liederabend with charades in progress, the composer seated at the piano while a group of friends portray Adam and Eve taking the apple from the tree of life. Norris argues that the Kosegarten songs may have been similarly staged, leaving the audience to guess the theme - which he suggests may have been "parting".

Solvik doesn't go as far as that in his imagination, but he's prepared to classify the Kosegarten settings as a liederspiel: a play in song. He envisages a performance with different singers taking the parts of Wilhelm, Ida and the rest, accompanied by Schubert at the piano, and perhaps with other friends as an impromptu chorus.

There's a lot of speculation here, and it's inevitably controversial. Schubert scholars are divided. Brian Newbould, one of the most prominent, insists he has no strong opinion either way. But critics have emerged since the settings had their first modern performance as a cycle (organised by Norris for the Ravinia Festival, Chicago, in 1997). "I see no convincing evidence", says Paul Reid, of the Schubert Institute (UK), dismissing the whole cycle theory as "unnecessary and unlikely".

Support has come, though, from one of the most respected Schubert authorities, Elizabeth Norman McKay. And academic scrutiny has continued to reveal musical relationships within the settings that endorse the idea of them as a coherent entity. To follow the numbering in the left-hand corners is to discover not only a story but a shape: the flow of songs falling into three distinct groups, each one introduced by Casanova Wilhelm paying homage to the joys of love in the same key, E major.

There are also tell-tale signs in details, notably the way that Schubert alters Kosegarten's text as though to give the story more cohesion. For example, Kosegarten says at one point that the loved one (Ida at this juncture) has brown hair; but for his setting, Schubert changes it to golden-yellow. Solvik believes this is to accommodate the next song, which says that the loved one's hair is sommerweben, like the shiny strands in dew-wet grass - a glittering effect more suitable to golden-yellow than brown.

Such things, says Solvik, are minutiae, but they bind the songs together, reinforcing the idea of a shared integrity. He may be right. If he is, the Kosegarten settings are important not just as another Schubert song-cycle, but as the first, predating Schone Mullerin by eight years and Winterreise by 12.

The only thing one he can be sure of is that when they are played on 25 April in the Banqueting House and, more particularly, on 27 April in the domestic intimacy of the Austrian Cultural Forum, there will be learned sceptics in the audience keen to tell him otherwise. These long-awaited London premieres will fuel the Kosegarten debate. They certainly won't end it.

Banqueting House: 0870 751 5178.

Austrian Cultural Forum: 020-7584 8653.

Schubert Institute (UK): www.franzschubert.org.uk

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