In Praise of Drinking

1815 was an extraordinarily creative year for Franz Schubert. Aged 18, working as a schoolteacher and receiving composition lessons from Antonio Salieri, in the same year he composed four operas, two symphonies, 150 songs (nine in one day!), liturgical music (including two masses), one string quartet and several piano pieces.

Among these compositions were a few drinking songs which he knocked out at short notice (even on the same day) for jovial gatherings of his wine-guzzling friends. These cheerful works celebrate the hearty camaraderie of drinking and he fittingly scored them for solo male voices and/or choirs with piano. Like the drink whose virtues the songs extol, they are best enjoyed in a convivial atmosphere – with a glass in hand – and not the formal confines of the concert hall. The often straightforward piano accompaniments which Schubert would play suggest that he too wanted to join in the fun and drink alongside his friends without noticeably affecting his playing.

Celebrating friendship and togetherness, these songs however contain few reflections on life, although common to German drinking songs of the period, Death sometimes makes an appearance only to be roundly scorned, as in the Trinklied D148 from 1815:

Amid life’s teeming throng
There are so many hollows
and the last one is the grave.

So, brothers, fill your glasses.
If we’re to go under soon,
let’s go under intoxicated by wine.

Schubert wrote only a dozen or so drinking songs which is surprising given his love of carousing but he was already writing in a tradition with deep roots.

The Early Middle Ages (ca 500 – 1000 CE) is sometimes called the Dark Ages, but for students and scholars all was not unrelenting pious gloom. In the ninth century during the reign of Charlemagne, itinerant scholars and clerics became known whose lifestyle and often picaresque writings in plays, songs and poems spoke of something other than lofty spiritual ideals.

When his might is manifest
Bacchus’ mounting fires
Kindle in the manly breast
Amorous desires

[from Bacche, Benevenies]

Renowned for gambling, drinking and debauchery, the so-called goliards wrote numerous irreverent hymns and drinking songs which mocked the church authorities and brazenly celebrated worldly pleasures and excesses. They wrote in Latin and vernacular languages in styles which often satirised and subverted forms and conventions. Their songs are also among the earliest preserved examples of written secular music.

The goliards’ student high jinx were frowned upon and initially tolerated by the church but in the early thirteenth century, thanks to their disruptive behaviour, they were forbidden from taking part in the chanting during services. Later in the century they were banned from preaching altogether and had their clerical privileges withdrawn.

The most famous (and notorious) collection of goliard poems and songs is found in a thirteenth-century manuscript from the abbey of Benedicktbeuren near Munich which was published in the nineteenth century with the title Carmina Burana.

Containing the complete texts of two medieval passion plays, this astonishing manuscript also includes some 250 hundred poems and songs from various sources, celebrating what one scholar described as “that excitement, that daring, that laughing-at-convention which characterizes independently minded youth”.

Carl Orff (1895 – 1982) selected 24 of these poems for his striking Carmina Burana (1936), a cantata which exuberantly updates early-Renaissance sound worlds with modern sensibilities and an infectious, percussive rhythmic drive that owes much to Stravinsky’s Les Noces. Its electrifying O Fortuna is one of the most instantly recognisable openings in all classical music and has been frequently copied in films, television, sports, and video games.

The often boozy, educated irreverence of goliard songs (and a focus on youthful preoccupations) finds parallels in later song traditions from which Schubert’s own songs derive, especially the German Studetenlied  (student songs) and Trinklied (drinking songs), songs which had largely a social function and often, if not invariably, accompanied with uninhibited drinking.

The first collection of Studetenlieder appeared in 1781. Edited by Christian Wilhelm Kindleben, it contained traditional songs dating back to the middle ages including the anthem Gaudeamus igitur. By the nineteenth century, such were the popularity of Studetenlieder that student associations produced their own editions (the so-called Kommersbuch). These were often leather bound and pierced with Biernägel (beer nails) to raise the covers from the beer-soaked tables.

Although Brahms never studied at university, he clearly enjoyed the beer-swilling student life when he visited his friend, the violinist-composer Joseph Joachim at University of Göttingen in the summer of 1853. When he was later awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Music from the University of Breslau in 1879, he was clearly thinking of that summer when in gratitude he wrote his Academic Festival Overture. Instead of a producing stiffly formal piece for the university dignitaries, in a rare flash of humour he startled them (but delighted the students) by dishing up what he later described as a “rollicking potpourri of student [drinking] songs”. This mischievous piece starts in a sober fashion but increasingly gives way to a sense of fun as the different drinking songs are introduced, building to an emphatic statement of Gaudeamus igitur in the exhilarating climax.

Gaudeamus igitur is perhaps the most famous of all the Studentenlied but it is surely fitting that modern editions of the Kommersbuch still contain the song Meum est propositum from the original thirteenth-century Carmina Burana (“My intent is to die in the tavern, Where the wine is near the mouth of the dying…”). A sentiment expressed the world over in drinking songs, including those of Schubert.


Kevin Painting

Published 6 November 2016 on primephonic