While he lived, the schoolmaster's son Franz Schubert made no great splash in the world. Intimates called him Schwammerl, or Mushroom, supposedly because he was small and round. His occasional travels never took him more than 200 miles from his native Vienna. Before his death, much of his music was played only at private gatherings or not at all. Yet the catalog of symphonies, piano sonatas, chamber music and sacred works he brought forth in his brief 31 years—four years fewer than Mozart's, 26 fewer than Beethoven's—places him well and truly in the company of the immortals. Arguably most impressive of all is his legacy of song, inexhaustible in its Shakespearean variety, upward of 700 items, each, to the mind of Graham Johnson, "a law unto itself."
Within that phrase lies the raison d'être of Mr. Johnson's three-volume, 2,800-page study "Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs," an encyclopedia in all but name, informed as much by practical musicianship as by musicology and academic research. Organized alphabetically, the volumes offer an entry for each song, with full German text and Richard Wigmore's sturdy English translation; a biography for of each of Schubert's 120-plus poets; portraits of the composer's Tolstoyan circle of friends and associates; and some three dozen monographs on general topics, ranging from accompaniment, chronology and dedicatees to pedaling, publishers, tonality and transposition. There is also a full complement of erudite appendices, among them "A Schubert Song Calendar," placing the songs against a timeline of Schubert's life. The wealth of illustrations range from the familiar to the rarest of the rare.
While Mr. Johnson's judgments in contentious matters strike balances worthy of Solomon, his voice is consistently personal, energetic and full of surprises. Here is a man who can effect a seamless segue from Rimbaud the symbolist poet to Rambo the action hero, drop an apt quote from Woody Allen, and grant the genius of Goethe without glossing over his longueurs. Mr. Johnson knows where to find a guitar arrangement of Schubert's bleak song cycle "Winterreise," as well as (more improbably still) a swing version of "Der Leiermann," the sequence's last and most disconsolate song. And he remembers, because he was there, the recording session when the perfectionist American baritone Thomas Hampson threw a music stand across the studio in a fit of self-criticism.
Acknowledging that his maximum opus required a small army of helping hands, Mr. Johnson writes: "None of us perhaps realized how much work was involved in preparing and proofing such a detailed encyclopaedia, especially when written by a travelling accompanist rather than a team of full-time scholars"—a traveling accompanist, be it said, who not only maintains a punishing concert schedule but also serves as senior professor of accompaniment at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London.
Well, no one will accuse Mr. Johnson of having rushed into print. The work now at hand crowns a project that he has been working on for the better part of three decades. In the beginning came the Hyperion Schubert Edition (1987-99), the first comprehensive survey of the songs ever recorded, with Mr. Johnson in charge throughout as casting and programming director, accompanist, and author of the uncommonly informative liner notes.
Lending the Schubert venture instant and much-needed credibility, the national treasure Janet Baker signed on for the inaugural release, an anthology of settings of Goethe and Schiller, the twin pillars of German classicism. The international galaxy of singers who gravitated to Hyperion in her wake, some 50 in all, included stars at their zenith (Thomas Allen, Elly Ameling, Arleen Auger, Lucia Popp, Margaret Price); new planets just then swimming into view (Ian Bostridge, Matthias Goerne, Simon Keenlyside, Christopher Maltman, Christine Schäfer); and the quartet of trailblazers with whom Mr. Johnson had founded the ensemble known as the Songmakers' Almanac (Felicity Lott, Ann Murray, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Richard Jackson).
In its way, the note on Ms. Baker's opening track, the first of Schubert's three settings of "Der Jüngling am Bache," was as prophetic as her program. The dulcet pastorale of a pensive youth by a brook—"in effect Schubert's first song," Mr. Johnson argues, though it was preceded by some unwieldy student exercises—prompted references to Mozart (Schubert's idol), Salieri (Schubert's teacher) and the 15-year-old composer's purposeful departures from strophic form (varying the melody from stanza to stanza without losing sight of its primary contour). The implicit themes of influence, craftsmanship and invention would continue to reverberate throughout Mr. Johnson's commentaries.
A model of concision, the little essay on "Der Jüngling am Bache" filled slightly less than one page in a thin booklet of 24. But as the recording series grew, so did Mr. Johnson's texts. Over the years his collateral essays touched on Schubert's family background, his schooling, the musical models he studied and left in the dust, the women in his life and also the men, his religious attitudes, his phenomenal industry, his unrealized ambitions, his vast reading (despite a lack of money to buy books), and also the venereal infection that in 1828 was to claim his life. Farther afield, Mr. Johnson dealt with repressive politics in Schubert's Vienna, innovations in piano construction, stylistic evolution in the performance of Schubert's songs and much else. In time, the booklets bulked up to the point that new packaging had to be designed to make room for them. Mr. Johnson's notes for the final release, which included the posthumous cycle "Schwanengesang" and other masterpieces from Schubert's last year, ran to no fewer than 112 pages.
If only in hopes of a larger point size, the clamor for publication of the notes in book form started even before the last volumes were in the can—and the task proved to be Herculean. Scholarship marches on; minutiae of all sorts had to be brought up to date. And topics as yet untouched or only glanced at the first time around required full-dress essays of their own. There were losses, too. No logic could justify a program-specific meditation like "Death and the Composer" or a fantasia on all the music Schubert never lived to write. Happily, those haunting occasional pieces may be found on the Hyperion website.
Born in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1950, trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and in private study with such distinguished accompanists as Gerald Moore and Geoffrey Parsons, Mr. Johnson stands in the very front ranks of what aspirational contemporary usage often dubs "collaborative pianists." (Not, as he dryly points out, that their fees have improved as a result.)
In a foreword to the first volume of "Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs," Mr. Johnson offers a brief and charming self-portrait that is lightly Proustian in sensibility and discreetly Joycean in its wordplay. "A 10-year-old in Bulawalo," he tells us, "I unsuccessfully partnered an equally young violinist in the D major Sonatina D384. Our lack of ensemble drove the violin teacher, the late Richard Thorn, to a state of despair. For years afterwards his name was linked in my mind with the difficulty of the composer's music and the insuperable challenges of accompanying. Like the boy pricked by the rose in HeidenrösleinD257, I realized that certain things in life must be learned from scratch."
Young Graham found Schubert "less satisfying than Mozart and Beethoven, a bit of both, and yet neither." His elders assured the boy that he would understand Schubert better when he grew up. "In the meantime this composer, like the birds and bees, was an adult mystery and a special case," he continues; "one could hear this in the irritating way the grown-ups referred to him as if his very name were surrounded by a halo." Yet the theme that played on the radio for the classical-request radio program "Let's Be Serious" always struck a chord. Only years later, in England, would Mr. Johnson discover that it was that evergreen Schubert apostrophe to music, "An die Musik," played by his future mentor Gerald Moore in his own solo arrangement.
"On looking back," Mr. Johnson writes, "it is as if Schubert and one of his great interpreters were calling for my attention, tapping gently on the windowpane, without my being able to recognize either of them, much less guess how huge their importance would be later in my life." So huge as to have marked him out to shoulder sole authorship of this indispensable encyclopedia. That an incidental autobiography of such quality runs through the pages only draws us deeper into Schubert's web.
The temptation to quote Mr. Johnson in extenso is overwhelming, but for now snippets will have to do. Here he is on "Gretchen am Spinnrade," set to a delirious monologue from the heroine of Goethe's "Faust" when the composer was all of 17. "From that moment in October 1814 when Schubert decided to imitate the sound of Gretchen's spinning wheel with a whirring, pianistic clatter, the lied was altered forever," he writes. "This piano writing was both mechanical and emotional—the unifying moto perpetuo of a spinning wheel running out of control and, with it, a young girl's life." Like the song, the prose takes the breath away.
Even where the technical analysis drills down to the particulars of words and music, the narrative flow sweeps the reader along. Take this passage on the late song "Der Zwerg," the subject of Mr. Johnson's final alphabetical entry. A queen, a homicidal dwarf, a ship adrift at sea: The elements are in place for a brutal vignette from "Game of Thrones," but what Schubert delivers is the apotheosis and ultimate sublimation of the Gothic genre that he had been cultivating from his teens.
"The spirit of Beethoven, brandishing the rhythm of Fate from the C minor Symphony Op. 67, is blatantly evident at the forte outburst of [bars] 80-81, but this motif has quietly pervaded the accompaniment from the beginning," Mr. Johnson writes. (The rhythm of fate—"da da da dum!"—has just about invaded our DNA; see Matthew Guerrieri 's dazzling 2012 study, "The First Four Notes: Beethoven's Fifth and the Human Imagination.") "Here it is both erotic (as in the Suleikasong [a sublime Persian-scented love lyric]) and associated with destiny, as in Beethoven. If Der Zwerg dates from the end of 1822 or later—about the time Schubert discovered his illness—it is no surprise that sexual desire and death are woven more closely together, and more destructively, than in any of his other songs." Throughout these volumes, whether the subject is the piano part or the vocal part or the interplay between the two, the nuts and bolts never come before us for their own sake but only as they shed light on Schubert's art.
"There is no shortcut to getting to know Schubert's songs," Mr. Johnson writes early on; "it is perhaps best to tackle the task slowly, over a number of years." A few pages later, he adds, unnecessarily, that his work was "clearly not designed to be read cover to cover." Perhaps not, but it is very, very hard to put down.