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Schubert’s ‘Shepherd’ adopts old form with hidden agenda

A William Blake woodcut from John Robert Thornton’s “The Pastorals of Virgil” (1821), contemporary influences as Schubert wrote “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen’’ (1828).
A William Blake woodcut from John Robert Thornton’s “The Pastorals of Virgil” (1821), contemporary influences as Schubert wrote “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen’’ (1828).

On Sunday, Boston Chamber Music Society presents a program including Franz Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (“The Shepherd on the Rock”), for soprano, clarinet, and piano, a rare Schubert lied written specifically for concert rather than salon performance. Anna-Milder Hauptmann, a leading prima donna in Vienna and Berlin, admired Schubert’s songs, but asked the composer for something more “suitable for a large audience.” After several years’ procrastination, Schubert finished the piece in October 1828.

“Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” dressed an old trope in up-to-date fashion. That trope was the pastoral: gentle lyrics of nymphs and shepherds already epitomized in ancient times by the Roman poet Virgil’s Eclogues. The fashion was Romanticism: The shepherd is now Byronically alone, in a characteristically forbidding landscape.

The text of “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” mixed portions of poems by Karl August Varnhagen von Ense and Wilhelm Müller — political liberals both. Varnhagen was a diplomat whose republican enthusiasms caused friction with his increasingly authoritarian Prussian bosses. Müller’s political writings frequently encountered official censorship; even his seemingly benign lyrics often reveal political dimensions with a little hermeneutical prodding. Is there such a dimension in “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen”? The work’s final section exuberantly insists, through Müller’s poem “Liebesgedanken,” that “spring will come,” a seasonal renewal that might symbolize any long-awaited arrival: of love, freedom, democracy, peace.

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That is, undoubtedly, a stretch (even poetically, given the breeziness of “Liebesgedanken”), but the stretch has precedent. For centuries, the pastoral was a political arena-by-proxy. Medieval and Renaissance critics mined Virgil’s Eclogues (particularly the fourth, cryptically referencing a long-awaited birth) for harbingers — and justifications — of Christian theocracy.

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Even 17th-century French prescriptions for an abstract, anodyne pastoral, scholar Annabel Patterson has pointed out, concealed nervous conservatism; for a Romantic example, Patterson cites Robert John Thornton’s 1821 schoolbook edition of eclogues by Virgil and others, with illustrations by William Blake — both, in their own way, implicitly critiquing divisions wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Virgil’s Eclogues themselves were permeated with contemporary politics: the Roman civil war that followed Julius Caesar’s assassination, and the hope of postwar restoration. Pastorals were often the poetic equivalent of a cornfield in a campaign ad.

That’s probably not what Schubert intended. But Schubert probably didn’t intend “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” to be as poignant as it turned out, either. He died just a month after finishing it, never seeing the following spring the song so ebulliently anticipates.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.