At the Staubbach Falls, west of the village of Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland, an Alpine stream plunges over a jagged cliff and cascades 974 feet to the valley floor below.
A visit to this topographical wonder in October of 1779 inspired Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to write Gesang der Geister über den Wassern (“Song of the Spirits over the Waters”). Set in six stanzas, the poem compares the mystical journey of the soul to the cycle of water. Franz Schubert returned to the poem repeatedly between 1816 and 1821. An initial setting for voice and piano survives as a fragment. A second version evolved into a part song for males voices. The final version emerged with a distinct collection of dark-hued voices. Four tenors and four basses are joined by a quintet of low strings (two violas, two cellos and bass).
Continuous otherworldly modulations evoke ephemeral natural and supernatural cycles. At the 1821 premiere, a charity concert at Vienna’s Kärntnertor Theater, the work was overshadowed by another Goethe setting, Schubert’s famous Erlkönig. A critic missed the solemn, veiled magic of Gesang der Geister, hearing only “an accumulation of all musical modulations and evasions with no sense, order or objective.” Schubert’s Gesang der Geister occupies a haunting landscape similar to what we hear in Death and the Maiden and the “Unfinished” Eighth Symphony.
- Schubert: Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, D. 714, John Eliot Gardiner, The Monteverdi Choir, Alan George, Annette Isserlis, Valerie Botwright, Timothy Mason, Ruth Alford Amazon
Featured Image: Staubbach Falls new Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland