Franz Schubert - Kosegarten cycle

Introduction and background

by Morten Solvik

In 1994 I began work on a research project funded by the Austrian National Bank to investigate how Franz Schubert composed songs. It seemed an obvious question, but no one had yet satisfactorily pieced together the working method behind so many of these masterpieces. The idea was to examine song manuscripts of various types, including relatively rare sketches, to determine in the way or ways in which the great lied composer produced his works in this genre.

It was in the course of doing this research that I began to notice numbers in the corners of many of the autographs I was inspecting. These were clearly not written by Schubert and thus had received virtually no attention in the scholarly literature. The assumption was that the numbers and notes added in the margins of these manuscripts in the latter half of the 19th century reflected indecipherable and unimportant annotations by publishers and engravers as the songs were brought to print. I decided to take a closer look at these scrawls, however, when I made a rather startling discovery: all twenty Schubert settings of the poet Gotthard Ludwig Kosegarten from 1815 were numbered consecutively from '"1" to "20." These songs were written over the span of five months, yet the clean copies that Schubert prepared from the initial drafts had apparently been bound or foliated together. Why?

It was not until many months later, after looking at various numbering schemes, considering questions of dating and provenance, and finally examining the contents of the lieder that a farfetched idea dawned on me: What if these songs weren't merely collected haphazardly in a bunch? What if the whole represents a work in itself, a song cycle? My initial investigation of the texts in this particular sequence had suggested the outlines of a story, but as I looked closer, musical connections began to emerge that were far too consistent and well thought-out to be coincidental. The use of key areas and especially the persistence of certain motivic ideas made it clear that Schubert had constructed an elaborate, unified musical work spanning all twenty songs.

The study led to the unexpected conclusion that Schubert wrote a large-scale collection of songs to a single poet in 1815. Thus the Kosegarten set was written an astounding eight years before Die schöne Müllerin, long considered Schubert's first song cycle. This is significant, for though the relatively unknown Kosegarten songs do not constitute a masterpiece like their later counterpart, they do reveal vital information about how Schubert viewed cyclical song-writing at a very early point in his development. Basically, the young composer was following a fashion of the day, collecting a series of songs for several characters into a quasi-dramatic framework. This Liederspiel, as the genre was known, was a popular form of entertainment in artistically-inclined circles of the Biedermeier era. Schubert's creation tells the story of the dreamy and amorous adventurer, Wilhelm, and his broken-hearted mistresses, Elwina, Ida, Luisa, and Rosa, set within the typical Romantic conceits of longing and bliss. Infatuation, consummation, infidelity, and disappointment are rounded off by - how could it be otherwise? - a tragic ending. Schubert keeps his strophic settings in a deliberately simple style as befitting the presentation of such works, but even in this context his lyric genius finds ample expression.

Schubert knew well the shortcomings of his early cycle. The loose narrative structure, the stylistically limited mode of expression, and the constraints of dramatic presentation proved unacceptable as the composer reached greater maturity. Not until he hit upon the psychologized, internal monologue of Die schöne Müllerin did Schubert solve the problem of long-range lied composition to his satisfaction. Nevertheless, the Kosegarten cycle represents a crucial and - until now - unknown step toward that accomplishment.


© Morten Solvik 1997 and 1999

Updated: 17 December 1999 Kosegarten