There can be no good reason why Graham Johnson’s marvellous three-volume encyclopaedia of Schubert’s songs has been so neglected by reviewers over the past year. There are two possible bad ones: the price, which at £200 may deter the faint-hearted (though at nearly 3,000 pages it would justify twice the outlay); and the fact that its publication coincided with Ian Bostridge’s Schubert’s Winter Journey. Perhaps literary editors thought one Schubert book enough.
It’s time to put this right. Spectator readers don’t need to be persuaded of the appeal of Schubert’s Lieder, and this is the book on the subject — the best written, longest and most informative. The product of a lifetime’s work, it will also be a lifelong companion. Emerging from the accompanying notes to the Hyperion complete Schubert song CD series, it provides not only a commentary on each of the 650-odd songs, but also wide-ranging essays on a variety of subjects — including contemporary poets and the composer’s friends — placed in their cultural and historical context, together with excellent illustrations. It really is the definitive treatment of the German-speaking world at its musical and literary apogee.
The closest anything else has come to such an undertaking was John Reed’s 1985 Schubert Song Companion, which also provided a (more concise) treatment of each song. But Johnson’s learning is of a different order. He knows the songs from the inside — or, rather, from the bottom up. Those who listen to music from the top down, seduced by the first violin while ignoring what lies beneath, miss most of the point. Johnson helps one understand what’s happening in the engine room, as it were.
Here he explains just why a certain song’s melody and harmony can feel so heartbreaking, as he compares Die Taubenpost (The Carrier Pigeon), the last of the solo songs, with the earlier Frühlingsglaube (Faith in Spring):
The determination to believe that a milder spring is just around the corner is admirable, but the music tells us that this optimism is misplaced.