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Interpretative Analysis: "Who is Sylvia?" By Franz Schubert.

In the interpretation of a song the mere singing of the words in an intelligent way is not sufficient to bring before an audience the composer’s as well as the poet’s intention. Something more than intelligence is required, and that something is sensibility to poetic fancy and imagery, to the intangible atmosphere and feeling pervading the poem and the music, which you must feel and experience and make part of yourself before you can give anything out to your auditors and make them experience it.

I do not mean to subordinate intellect to emotion in singing; the two must go hand in hand, the former guiding the latter. The reason for emphasizing the emotional side is that it is only through the senses that you can reach people. All art appeals to the senses, arousing feeling. Therefore, in music, to have only an intellectual grasp of a song makes the performer seem cold; because, since no appeal has been made directly to the feelings through the senses, the auditors have no means of entering into a common enjoyment of the song. I have said “seem cold” because there are many people, singers and those who are not, who feel much which they cannot express. It is for these especially that the following methods of procedure are given.

The first thing to do in taking up any song is to go over the words until you have so definitely experienced the feeling expressed in each idea that in reading it aloud to another you can make that person feel all that the author felt, see all that the author saw. It is the province of art to make others see. And, when you can make them see, you have begun to be an artist. The first step to a possession and control of this principle is getting the general and specific intentions of the poet. The second step is to make some one else see and feel them as clearly as the poet did. To do this you must learn to look upon yourself as a medium for expressing some idea, to consider yourself an instrument just as your voice is an instrument, and to transfer consciousness of self into consciousness of subject, making it so great and important that your personality is so merged in it that it cannot stand between it and you.

When you have reached this point you are ready to see what the composer has done to enhance the words, to emphasize them, to reproduce their poetic atmosphere, meaning, and emotional trend, to bring out their dramatic effect. When you have studied this out and when you feel, as you must feel in all good songs, that the words and music are perfectly wedded, then you are ready to make another feel and see what the composer felt and saw. When you do this you serve the poet as well as the composer. This point remains: How are you to serve the composer alone, how are you to put into the music the feeling and emotion which the poet has aroused in the composer and you? The means for this are fourfold: Color of tone, Attack, Pause, and Movement.

The song which I shall analyze from an interpretative stand-point is written in one of the very early song-forms, derived from the dance, and usually called the strophic. It is a form used by the Greek poets and common to folk-songs, in which the same melody serves for more than one stanza.

“Who is Sylvia?” by Franz Schubert, is in this form. One melody serves for three verses. The form is an easy one in interpretation, and at the same time it is very difficult. It is easy because the attitude of the composer is the same toward every stanza, or strophe; so that, once mastered, it serves for three successive occasions. The difficulty lies in trying to avoid the monotony into which this leads. The solution of it is in tone-color. Though the melody be the same each time, you bring out the poet’s meaning by varying the color and the shades of color in the tone which you use each time the phrase occurs.

My reasons for choosing tone-color as the best mode for expression in this song are: First, that the form of the song is so perfect; it has its beginning, its middle, and its end so inevitably growing one out of the other that any attempt to rubato the time, to pause unduly, or to attack too suddenly would spoil the perfect lines of it, just as the proportions of an otherwise perfect statue would be spoiled by the undue accentuation of some feature. Second, because the other modes, attack, pause, and movement are essentially dramatic, and this is not a dramatic song. To go back to the matter of form, its perfection is the result of the verse. There is an irresistible swing in it which Schubert has caught into his music and followed out, line by line, giving in music the same rounded metrical effect which the spoken verse gives.

Before proceeding to the analysis of the song the circumstances of its composition should be given. One day in Vienna Schubert was walking with some friends. Happening upon a beer-garden, they entered it. On the table at which they sat was a volume of Shakespeare. Schubert picked it up and glanced through it. After a little time he suddenly broke out: “Oh! I have such a pretty melody running in my head. If only I had some paper!” One of his friends quickly made some staves on the back of a bill of fare, and Schubert at once wrote down that burst of lyric enthusiasm which in effect is like some of Shelley’s exquisite poems, “Hark! Hark! the Lark!” “To Sylvia,” the words of which form a serenade in “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” was composed a little later in the day. Both of them, like Athena from the head of Zeus, were born full-armed, perfect. This is an instance of Schubert’s astonishing spontaneity in composition and of his wonderful richness in ideas.

You will notice that the accompaniment of the song is marked pp, which gives a chance to express a subdued wonderment in the voice in measures 5-10. This prepares the way for the mental attitude in measure 12 to the end, which the voice should express in a color which will give the effect of awe and reverence aroused by Sylvia’s heaven-sent purity, beauty, and wisdom, ending in a burst of admiration expressed in the singing voice just as you would in speaking.

The attributes of Sylvia in the first stanza are such as to strike the physical eye, giving the impression of a beautiful, but cold, statue. In the second verse, to a pp accompaniment, the poet asks whether her inner nature, her human qualities of love and sympathy, correspond with her outward appearance. In measures 5-8 the voice must express a desire to hear an affirmative answer. Measures 8-10 carry out that idea in a tone of quiet, but warm, assertion. Measures 12-17 should be given in a rich, sympathetic, but not heavy, tone, and, in measure 19 to the end, the voice should become more expressive and elastic, striving to convey, by color, both the emotion of love and the effect on Sylvia’s expression.

Still, to a pp accompaniment the voice in the third verse should express the subdued insinuation and flattery of a lover desirous of his lady’s good graces, and should gradually lose the subdued effect as he grows bolder and asserts freely her supremacy over all mortals and finally offers garlands to her as to a deity.

The foregoing analysis is mainly suggestive, and not in any way final or complete. This must necessarily be so, because each person will have a different interpretation of the poet’s verse, and also because development of one’s powers increases and deepens penetration and sympathy; so that what might seem right to do now would at some future time be totally inadequate. Do not be afraid to change. It is a sign of growth. In art you must welcome it as you would anywhere else, and with even more joy, because it brings increase in power to what you love.—Robert Bruce Pegram.

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