Review of "The Schubert Song Companion"

The Schubert Song Companion, by John Reed. ISBN 0-7190-1093-4.

This book is, in the words of its own preface, "a comprehensive guide to Schubert’s songs", 631 of them in all. (A phenomenal total, considering how young Schubert was when he died; but I’m reviewing the book, not the composer!) From Abend to Zur Namensfeier des Herrn Andreas Siller, they’re all described, over a total of 460 pages. Every song, apart from a few fragments, gets at least a third of a page; some get more.

Each entry begins with the title, poet’s name and date of composition of the song, together with its Deutsch number and location in the Peters and Mandyczewski editions; then come the opening bars of the piece, and a translation (sometimes abridged) of the words. Then follow Reed’s comments.

These comments usually begin with information about when the poem was written, where the manuscripts may be found, and other such matters of more concern to the historian than the listener or performer. (This is not a complaint; a book such as this is clearly intended for both audiences.)

In writing about the music itself, Reed is obviously constrained by lack of space: in a few paragraphs one cannot give a detailed analysis, or much in the way of suggestions for performance, of any song other than the most trivial. (Few of Schubert’s songs are trivial.) However, what he has to say is always worth reading. (I don’t always agree; for instance, it seems a little odd to describe Der Lindenbaum (from Winterreise) as being about "the conflict between dream and reality": it is the past, not an imagined present, that haunts the protagonist here.)

For most of the songs, some of the comment consists of evaluation of the song’s merits ("a slight but charming strophic song"; "The music is so enchanting that we return to the beginning of each verse with a fresh sense of anticipation"; "Neither the sentiments nor the music will sustain eight verses"). Since inevitably most of the songs in the book will be unknown to most of its readers, this is helpful, although it’s less helpful when looking at a song one has already decided to listen to or play or sing...

One thing the book isn’t is an anthology of advice on performance in the mould of (say) Gerald Moore’s book on the song cycles. There isn’t space in a single book to do that sort of job for 631 songs. Perhaps the best way to describe what it is is to say that the notes on each song somewhat resemble what you might find in an unusually good set of liner notes in a CD. ... Which brings up an obvious comparison: Graham Johnson’s incredible notes in the booklets that accompany the discs in the Hyperion Schubert edition. Johnson wins here, but he has a considerable advantage in space; probably a factor of 2 or 3 over Reed.

After the main body of the work come several appendices:

The book is well enough laid out; it’s not difficult to find any given song in it. The typography is perfectly acceptable. Less acceptable is the fact that there is no index. Why?