No Comment, Quotation — December 28, 2008, 8:41 am

Schubart’s Defiant Trout

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In einem Bächlein helle, da schoß in froher Eil
Die launische Forelle vorüber wie ein Pfeil.
Ich stand an dem Gestade und sah in süßer Ruh
Des muntern Fischleins Bade im klaren Bächlein zu

Ein Fischer mit der Rute wohl an dem Ufer stand,
Und sah’s mit kaltem Blute, wie sich das Fischlein wand.
So lang’ dem Wasser Helle, so dacht ich, nicht gebricht,
So fängt er die Forelle mit seiner Angel nicht.

Doch endlich ward dem Diebe die Zeit zulang.
Er macht das Bächlein tückish trübe
Und eh ich es gedacht, so zuckte seine Rute,
Das Fischlein, das Fischlein, zappelt dran,
Und ich mit regem Blute Sah die Betrog’ne an.

Die ihr am goldnen Quelle
Der sichern Jugend weilt,
Denkt doch an die Forelle;
Seht ihr Gefahr, so eilt!
Meist fehlt ihr nur aus Mangel
Der Klugheit. Mädchen seht
Verführer mit der Angel! –
Sonst blutet ihr zu spät.

In a clear stream in happy haste
The impulsive trout darted by like an arrow.
I stood on the bank and watch in sweet quiet
The bath of the lively fish in the clear stream.

A fisherman with his rod stood on the bank
And saw cold-bloodedly how the fish moved about
So long as the water stays clear, I thought,
He won’t catch the trout with his fishing rod.

At last the thief became impatient.
He maliciously made the stream opaque
And I thought, his rod quaked
The fish, the fish was writhing on it,
And I, filled with rage within, looked at the deceived.

You who linger at the Golden Spring
Of a safe youth,
Contemplate the trout;
Recognize her danger, and hurry!
Generally she is missing only
Wisdom. Maidens, keep an eye on
That seducer with the rod! –
Lest you bleed too late.

Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, “Die Forelle” in Gedichte (1782)


The fortress of Hohenasperg sprouts up on a promontory in the agricultural country that faces the Neckar River a short distance north of Stuttgart. Today this area has gained renown throughout Europe for one thing: in the fields around the fortress farmers grow some of the world’s most prized white asparagus, offering delectations to the attentive followers of the asparagus cult every spring. However, the fortress has a darker past, as a prison which housed a number of political prisoners. Its most famous guest sat there, wasting away, in the decade in which Americans fought their revolution and slowly forged a new nation, 1777-87. His name was Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, and he is the author of the poem “The Trout,” which Schubert composed as a Lied and then used as the basis for his best known chamber work, the Trout quintet.

At first blush, the “Trout” reads like a perfect, innocent Rococo theme with rhapsodic wonderment for nature held within bounds. To the modern esthetic sense, it is 90 percent trite and 10 percent truite. The music is wonderful, but those lyrics are a bit too precious. Just the sort of image that might decorate a teacup produced in one of the pretentious porcelain factories founded by the aspiring petty tyrants which dotted the landscape of Central Europe in Schubart’s day. But look a little deeper. There’s more to that trout than first meets the eye. It’s a story of deceit and defiance, in fact. Indeed, Schubart identifies with it. This little tale of the trout on the hook is remarkably autobiographical.

Schubart was by the reckoning of most of his contemporaries an artistic genius, but also something of a rogue. In particular, Schubart had little respect for the sexual taboos and conventions of his time, and his amorous adventures were constantly getting him in trouble. His difficulties were compounded by the fact that he earned his keep as a church organist in the residence-city of Ludwigsburg—the home of a relatively significant German princeling, the duke of Württemberg. The church was Lutheran, and the Lutheran musical tradition is rich and wonderful, from Praetorius to Bach, but Schubart made clear that it wasn’t much to his decidedly modern taste. He scandalized the church by performing extracts from Rameau’s operas in the gallant style during religious services. Schubart also wrote some curious, part comic works on music theory, the Reflections on the Aesthetics of Music, parts of which were originally translated and published in Harper’s in 2005.

In the words of his detractors, Schubart had a “head full of English ideas.” Evidently, that referred to the English language, not to Englishmen. He read the Scot Ferguson and the writings of other Enlightenment figures (there is a distinct echo of Tom Paine in some of his writings, and Ben Franklin is quoted and extolled in one of his more interesting poems), but he formed a passionate attachment to the cause of the American colonists across the Atlantic who had risen against their Teutonic overlords from the House of Hanover. The American revolution was not quite such a distant affair for the subjects of the dukes of Württemberg because their master ran a fairly successful business. He sold his soldiers as mercenaries to fight for his cousin, George III. Indeed, Schubart’s own son was placed in training to serve as a part of the mercenary corps.

Schubart raged over this fact and he took to publishing occasional verses ridiculing the petty and narrow-minded duke. In the end he had to flee the duchy and take up the life of a publicist in two Imperial cities, Augsburg and Ulm, where he edited a popular journal of the arts and politics. He emerged in this period as an advocate of Enlightenment values, a translator of English verse and novels, and an opponent of the vestiges of feudalism in Germany. He also valued and used the tools of satire. The duke of Württemberg, however, seethed in anger against Schubart and resolved to ensnare and silence him. Schubart was, like the trout in the muddied waters, lured back for a visit under the pretense that all had been forgiven. He was immediately seized and thrown in the dungeon of Hohenasperg. There were no charges, no trial—the order of the tyrant was enough. Schubart spent nearly a decade of his life confined in the basement of the fortress tower, deprived of light, and initially forbidden to read or write.

Later, as the harshness of his imprisonment was mitigated, he used his prison time to craft his Life and Opinions, a marvelous work which breathes the same air as Fielding’s Tom Jones, though with some fiery political undertones, and to write about poetry and music theory. For his contemporaries, Schubart was the model of the free spirit driven by wit who resisted the capricious tyranny of old Europe. He was a tragic, but beloved figure, cherished for his self-deprecation. (“The wise man seeks true freedom,” he wrote, “but the idiot, the ungovernable fool resists and thereby manacles himself.”) Midway through his imprisonment, Schubart composed the poem “The Trout.” Can there be any doubt but that he was thinking of his own capture and imprisonment when he did so? Could this be a peculiar, tyrant-defying trout?

Franz Schubert took Schubart’s “Trout” and made it immortal. In its simplicity and sparkling energy it provides the model for much of Schubert’s artistry in the Lied form. His song makes use only of the first three stanzas, avoiding the fourth in which Schubart tells us–employing images that would fascinate Sigmund Freud– that his trout is a metaphor. But isn’t this obvious enough? Schubert was right to discard it, since Schubart was following the Baroque form of unwinding the “lesson of this story” in some concluding lines of verse; moreover, he probably suspected, as I do, that the lesson was somewhat different from the one that Schubart, sitting in his prison cell, provides.

Before its publication in 1828, we know that Schubert’s song was very popular among his friends, since he copied it out at least four times. In one surviving letter, Schubert even suggests he is fully appreciates Schubart’s political subtext, he calls this his little “tyrant” song. He also recalls the circumstances of the composition, late in the evening of a gleeful gathering with friends during the course of which he “made the acquaintance of one glass too many of a strong punch,” he finished the work, reached for the sandshaker to blot it and discovered to his horror he had poured black ink all over the sheet instead. A photograph of the original, doused in ink and almost illegible, has survived to this day.

Listen to Ian Bostridge sing Franz Schubert’s setting of the Schubart poem, op. 32 (DV 550):

Listen to the fourth movement, andantino with variations and allegretto, from Franz Schubert’s piano quintet in A Major, DV 667 (1819) composed on the Lied “Die Forelle,” performed here by Julian Rachlin, Mischa Maisky, Mihaela Ursuleasa, Nobuko Imai and Stacey Watton. You will hear a simple theme mined repeatedly for its thematic possibilities, in one of the most charming works of the chamber repertoire.


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