The Foreshadowing of Death in Schubert's Schwanengesang

Schwanengesang literally translates as ‘swansong’ and comes from the ancient belief that swans remain mute throughout their entire lives but sing a beautiful song just before death. While this myth has no factual basis, the term ‘swansong’ has become a metaphor for the last performance given or work produced before death or retirement. However, the title of Franz Schubert’s (1797-1828) final song cycle was not conceived by Schubert himself but by his publisher Tobias Haslinger (1787 – 1842) in 1829 – several months after Schubert had died. Today I will be exploring the way Schubert comes to terms with his impending death in his final musical contribution to the world through his choice of poetry, word setting and use of musical devices. 

Firstly, let us examine the circumstances that surround Schubert’s death. It is estimated that he most likely contracted syphilis no later than January 1823. At the time this would have been considered a death sentence, with the average life expectancy of a syphilis sufferer ranging between three and ten years. Schubert lasted close to six, dying in November 1828. While much debate exists concerning the exact nature of Schubert’s sexuality, it can without a doubt be ascertained that he contracted syphilis through living a promiscuous lifestyle as several of those in his close circle of friends have characterised him as a hedonist with a voracious hunger for sexual gratification. The importance of this examination of Schubert’s indulgent lifestyle will become evident as we delve deeper into the ways he comes to terms with his imminent death through his music.

I will be examining each lied individually and the cycle as a whole in order to uncover links between the songs.

Liebesbotschaft (‘Message of Love’)
The singer implores a stream to carry a message of love to his beloved. The constant semi demi quaver movement in the piano accompaniment represents the flowing of the stream. Written in G major – a key often associated with gentleness and peace and used to express Schubert’s love for nature and the countryside. This lied is reminiscent of Schubert’s earlier song cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, especially the second in the cycle, Wohin? (‘Where to?’), in which the piano part also imitates a babbling brook of water by using an incessant broken chord pattern. The natural woodland imagery would have been heightened on a period instrument as the fortepiano would have produced a sweeter and woodier tone.

Kriegers Ahnung (‘Warrior’s Premonition’)
A solider sits around a camp fire with his comrades and sings of his longing for his beloved and his fear of dying in battle. Set in C minor, this lied begins and ends with a triple meter funeral march which contributes to the foreshadowing of death and it is generally accepted that the death being foreshadowed is that of the composer’s own. In Martin Chusid’s A Companion to Schubert’s Schwanengesang, Chusid concludes that Schubert uses dark and heavy minor keys to represent the cold, harsh truth of reality (in Kiregers Ahnung, reality is the campfire flames flickering in the steel of the solders’ weapons and the fear of the battle approaching on the horizon), whereas major keys are frequently used to illustrate dreams, past happiness and escape from the present (in this case the memory of the soldier’s beloved lying in his arms before the hearth). The idea of stark reality being portrayed in minor keys combined with the grave funeral march in Kriegers Ahnung further solidifies the idea that Schubert is using this text as an opportunity to reconcile with the reality of his own impending death.

Could Death himself be the love interest of this song cycle? While dying was seen by Schubert as a shadow looming over life, Death itself is also often personified and painted in a peaceful and kind light in Schubert’s mature works. The most famous instance of this portrayal of death as a benevolent and gentle friend is when Death speaks in Der Tod und das Mädschen. Many of the poems concerning death in Schubert’s day seem to have been written with the idea of premature and unexpected death in mind. In Winterreise, death appears to be portrayed as preferable to the wanderer’s endless suffering. Referring to the last song of Die schöne Müllerin, ‘Des Baches Wiegenlied’, David Gramit describes death as ‘a final escape… a peaceful escape from the troubling world’.

Frühlingssehnsucht (‘Longing in Spring Time’)
The singer is surrounded by beautiful nature but still longs for his beloved and makes hopeful sexual innuendos that allude to Schubert’s incessant sexual appetite (e.g. ‘Auch ich bin mir schwellender Triebe bewusst’ (‘I too am conscious of swelling impulses’ )). This lied also bears great resemblance to Liebesbotschaft in its use of natural imagery and water-like piano writing, which is probably why Schubert placed Kriegers Ahnung between the two. However, while Liebesbotschaft is filled with a sense of idyllic innocence, Frühlingssehnsucht starts to show a more insecure and questioning desire and modulates to the tonic minor in the last strophe. If Liebesbotschaft is reminiscent of the good times with a lover, Frühlingssehnsucht is expressing the feelings of unfulfilled longing and uncertainty within the relationship. Nevertheless, there is still a sense of hope as Schubert sets the first four lines of the last stanza in both B-flat minor and D-flat major – displaying the singer’s hope that his desire for happiness will be fulfilled by a positive response from his beloved.

Ständchen (‘Serenade’) 
The singer pleads his lover to bring him happiness. In Chusid’s A Companion to Schwanengesang, Edward T. Cone suggests that there is a subliminal underlying theme of 5 – flat 6 – 5 in Kriegers Ahnung which is repeated in the end of the first four strophes of Frühlingssehnsucht and in the opening triplet of Ständchen:
Figure 1. Kriegers Ahnung: The motif of G – Ab – G (5 – flat 6 – 5 in C minor) can be seen in both piano and voice in bar 16
Figure 2. Frühlingssehnsucht: The motif of Eb – Fb – Eb (5 – flat 6 – 5 in A-flat minor) can be seen in voice in bar 51.

Figure 3. Ständchen: The motif of A – Bb – A (5 – flat 6 – 5 in D minor) can be seen in voice in bar 5.
What is the significance of this recurring motif? Chusid suggests that perhaps ‘this melodic fragment functions as a kind of loosely unifying musical thread undercutting hope, or at the least, suggesting insecurity’. If the motif is representative of a possibly approaching sliver of fear then this shows that there is an underlying sinister element in even the most tender and innocent of these lieder as the motif is present in each of them. As the motif is repeated throughout the song cycle, it acts as a reminder of the ever-present shadow of death. Is the narrator imploring Death the benign friend to rescue him from his earthly sufferings? Indeed, Schubert oscillates between minor (reality) and major (hope) in Ständchen as he awaits his beloved’s (Death’s?) response to his implorations.

Aufenthalt (‘Resting Place’)
The singer is tormented by feelings of anguish and likens his emotions to the natural environment surrounding him, e.g. comparing his tears to the waves and his grief to the primeval ore of the rocks. The anguish of this lied creates an abrupt change of mood from the hopeful (although at times needy and insecure) emotions in Frühlingssehnsucht and Ständchen. The 5 – flat 6 – 5 motif can also be seen in Aufenthalt (see figure 4):
Figure 4. Aufenthalt: The motif of B – C – B (5 – flat 6 – 5 in E minor) can be seen in piano in bar 12.
In der Ferne (‘In the Distance’)
The singer asks the breeze and the sunbeams to carry a message to the one who broke his heart. This lied also features the recurring 5 – flat 6 – 5 motif:

Figure 5. In der Ferne: The motif of F# – G – F# (5 – flat 6 – 5 in B minor) can be seen in voice in bar 9.

This lied has an almost chant-like feel to it based on Schubert’s repeated emphasis on the dominant – Chusid likens this to a warning from a prophet, foreshadowing the approach of death. In life, Schubert was a man who loved his friends and family a great deal so there can be grave significance deduced from his choice of this poem which contains the words ‘Mutterhaus hassenden, /Freunde verlassenden,’ – ‘Shunning his birthplace, /Forsaking his friends,’ which suggest that he was referring to his impending death departure from the family and friends he treasured so much.

Abschied (‘Farewell’) 
The singer bids a cheerful farewell to the town where he has been happy. Written in E-flat major, the relative major of C minor which is used in Kriegers Ahnung, this lied is the last of the Rellstab poems and Schubert appears to have made a conscious decision to close the group with a bright and light-hearted setting. This is the last of Schubert’s ‘riding songs’ – the use of the deep bass notes and constant quaver movements in the piano part mimics the sound of hoofbeats. This is written in the same key as Beethoven’s Les Adieux sonata (1809-1810) and this may be because the frequent use of the word ‘Ade’ in this poem translates into French as ‘Adieu’. Chusid suggests that Schubert may have had the Les Adieux sonata in the back of his mind while composing Abschied.

Der Atlas (‘Atlas’)
The singer likens himself to the Greek mythological titan Atlas who was condemned by Zeus to stand at the edge of the Earth and hold up the sky on his shoulders (after wishing for either eternal misery or eternal happiness). The singer compares the weight of sorrow he carries to the world upon Atlas’s shoulders. He chastises and blames his arrogant heart for making the gamble in the first place. This description of the singer’s personality is akin to Josef Kenner’s description of Schubert as a man with a ‘cleavage in his souls, I would put it, of which one pressed heavenwards and the other bathed in slime’ – that is to say, there was a split in his personality from the gentle and romantic man he is often depicted as to the pleasure-loving hedonist his friends often referred to him as. If eternal happiness is a representation of the sensual pleasures of a promiscuous lifestyle, then we can conclude that the curse of eternal misery is a representation of the syphilis that was contracted by Schubert when he fed his sexual appetite.

Ihr Bild (‘Her Image’)
The singer tells his lost love how he dreamed that her portrait graced him with a smile and a tear. Beginning with B flats in octaves (illustrated below in figure 6), the stark texture of this song is representative of the singer staring at his beloved’s portrait. Unharmonized melodies are often used in song and opera to convey loneliness and isolation. The second couplet suddenly modulates into the tonic major and the previously empty octaves in the piano accompaniment are turned into full chords as the painting comes to life (figure 7). This is another example of Schubert using a major key to set the scene for an otherworldly experience. Furthermore, this time the recurring motif is heard with a major 6th instead of a flattened 6th (figure 7). This augmented version of the motif is its first appearance in a major key section. Could this be representative of Schubert’s descent into madness (as he sees the painting of his beloved smiling at him) in the late stage of syphilis with madness being an escape from reality?

Figure 6. Ihr Bild: The stark use of open octaves can be seen in the piano accompaniment.

Figure 7. Ihr Bild: The piano’s octaves accompaniment is filled out into full chords to represent the painting coming to life in the second couplet (red) while the augmented motif (B – C – B (5 – major 6 – 5 in B major)) is hidden in the harmony (alto voice) of the piano lines (blue).

Das Fischermädchen (‘The Fisher-maiden’)
The singer attempts to woo a fishing girl and likens his heart to the sea. While this lied appears to be a playful and seductive love song on the surface, Jack Westrup claims in Some Settings of Heine that there is a ‘cynical tone [to] Heine’s apparently innocent verse’. Certainly, when the narrator tries to seduce the fisher-maiden with descriptions of the pearls in the ocean of his heart the listener is reminded of the Erlking attempting to charm the boy with promises of games and golden robes in Der Erlkönig (1815). Die Stadt (‘The Town’): The singer is rowing through the fog toward the town where his lover once broke his heart. This song is filled with a sense of bleakness with no hope for future happiness or references to past happiness, which is evident by its lack of any contrasting section in a major key to allude to previously seen ideals of fantasy or release.

Am Meer (‘By the Sea’)
The singer recounts how he met his lover beside the sea and she poisoned him with her tears. On the surface, this song depicts an idyllic scene by the sea in the pure and innocent key of C major. However, as nature reveals her cruelty and the singer is tricked by the woman’s tears, modulations to C minor occur. The narrator’s body begins to waste away after drinking the lover’s tears and his soul dies of desire. This can be seen as another reference to Schubert’s appetite for sensual pleasures and the consequences that followed. The recurring theme of seduction and regret seen throughout the Heine poems can be considered a reflection of Schubert’s personal life and this is yet another example of his own demise being foreshadowed.

Der Doppelgänger (‘The Double’)
The singer stands outside the house where he once lived with his beloved and is horrified to see a shadow of himself standing outside. A doppelgänger is a paranormal phantom or spirit who is the ‘evil twin’ of a living person and considered an omen of bad luck and death. Had Schubert seen his own Doppelgänger, he would have known that death was coming for him. David Code proposes in Listening for Schubert’s ‘Doppelgängers’ that the ‘double self’ refers to Schubert’s hidden inclinations as a homosexual. The key of B minor is often seen as a key of patience and calmly awaiting one’s fate and Code points out that the B – A# – D – C# motif used in Der Doppelgänger is identical to the motif used by Schubert in the Agnus Dei of his Mass in E flat which was composed just two months before Der Doppelgänger. While this motif can be considered to be a representation of Schubert’s double life as a homosexual in Der Doppelgänger, it is used in Agnus Dei as a prayer for absolution from sin – likely the same sin being represented in Der Doppelgänger. I will illustrate below:

Figure 8. Der Doppelgänger: The motif of B – A# – D – C# can be seen in the piano part in bar 1
Figure 9. Agnus Dei: The same motif (in C minor) can be seen in bass in bar 1.
The lied ends on a chord of the tonic major. When linked with the idea of Death being seen as a benevolent friend bringing final release from suffering, this alludes to the idea that the narrator has reached the end.

Die Taubenpost (‘The Pigeon Post’) 
Often considered the last song that Schubert ever wrote. The singer refers to his carrier pigeon whose name is ‘Longing’. Written once again in the innocent and idyllic key of G major, this song is reminiscent of Liebesbotschaft, the first in the cycle. It brings a light and cheerful ending to Schubert’s final song cycle – filled with hope, it makes no reference to the darkness and despair that preceded it. The narrator has found peace and happiness.

This is shown through the choice in poetry and the recurrent themes of farewell, regret and longing as well as the attainment of peace and release from the sufferings of life. Schubert appears to accept death as an old friend coming to take him home and bids the world a final light-hearted goodbye filled with faith and happiness in Die Taubenpost. The song cycle Schwanengesang contains extensive imagery of death and could be seen as a dying man's journey to accepting the inevitable.


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Schubert, Franz. ‘Agnus Dei’, Mass No. 6 in E-flat Major D950. Leipzig: Breitkopf & Härtel, 1897.
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