An Silvia

Franz Schubert

An Silvia in A major

D891, Op. 106/4 • “Was ist Silvia, saget an”

About this work

This is one of Schubert's three settings of Shakespeare texts from July 1826, the other two being Ständchen ("Hark, Hark, the Lark"), D. 889, and Trinklied ("Come, thou monarch of the vine"), D. 888. The composer was at the height of his powers, producing in the same year such masterpieces as the Symphony No. 9 in C major ("Great"), the String Quartet No. 15, and the four songs from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister, D. 877.

The text of this song is taken from Act Four, Scene Two, of Shakespeare's The Two Gentlemen of Verona as translated by Eduard von Bauernfeld. While Schubert had set many songs from the works of Matthisson, Goethe, Kosegarten, Schiller, and others, his interest in Shakespeare came late; not surprisingly, all three of the Shakespeare songs are of high quality. This song was first published in 1828, and the edition in which it appeared was dedicated to Maria Pachler, a patron of the composer who lived in Graz.

"An Sylvia" is a wonderful example of Schubert's adaptive approach to song writing. At this point in his career -- only months from the composition of Winterriese, and a mere two years from death -- the composer had explored nearly every approach to text setting available to him, at times pushing the boundaries of harmony, declamation, and musical form well beyond previously established limits. Yet here he created a simple strophic song -- one that, in its basic materials and form, is practically indistinguishable from even his earliest works. Its elegant and self-possessed nature is perfectly suited to Shakespeare's subtle wit and poetic meter; it needed nothing more adventurous to bring out these qualities. The dialogue between the two "gentleman," who are extolling the virtues of young Sylvia, comes to life in the simple arch shaped melodies, and the structure of Schubert's verses is such that their repetition is welcome -- in this way it is reminiscent of several entries from his earlier Die schöne Müllerin.