Work: Schwanengesang: Ständchen (Serenade)
About This Work
There was a time when this Ständchen (Serenade) was the most famous serenade in the world. Of course, that time was after Schubert had been popularized (and sanitized) by the film Lilac Time, a film in which Richard Tauber played the composer as
a jovial fat man whose most salient characteristic was his infinite sentimentality and in which Ständchen became the theme song and leitmotif of the film. After Lilac Time, Ständchen showed up everywhere in all sorts of arrangements: as background music, as a popular song and, perhaps most memorably, in a klezmer version.
Nevertheless Ständchen is still the most famous serenade in the world. However, its fame has all but cost the song its identity. In far too many contemporary interpretations of the song, Ständchen becomes a tear-jerking piece of sentimental puffery, a lonely swain singing of his love into the night breezes, rather than the altogether more sublte piece of sweet melancholy it is. Rescuing the song from its interpreters requires seeing the song for what it really is and not what decades of sentimentality have turned it into.
To start with, of course, there is the melody. Like most of Schubert's greatest melodies, it only seems sublime in its apparent simplicity. But there are so many subtleties to it: the opening line's arching rise and aching fall through the tonic minor chord, the central phrase's yearning leaps to the minor sixth of the dominant, the closing line's supple turns around the tonic. And then there is the heartbreaking harmonies' movements to the relative major and then the tonic major which relapse into the tonic minor which mirror the melody's sweet melancholy. And then there is the song's structure of two strophically set verses followed by a climactic third verse in which the singer entreats his sweetheart to join him and "make me happy" set to music which rises to the heights of submediant minor passion only to sink back to tonic minor melancholy. But, still, the singer has his hopes and, in a final stroke of genius, Schubert ends the song in the tonic major.
For all the infinite sentimental abuse to which Ständchen has been treated, the heart of the piece -- its hope even in the face of the hopeless -- remains pure and strong.
-- James Leonard
Select a specific Performer, Conductor or Ensemble or browse recordings by Formats & Featured below