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9 amazing covers of Franz Schubert songs

Robert Rowat

"Approval or blame will follow in the world to come."

— Franz Schubert

It's hard to say what the afterlife holds for musicians who choose to tamper with Schubert's songs by performing them in instrumental arrangements.

On one hand, you've got to admire their love of Schubert's songs and desire to say something with them. On the other hand, you can imagine poor Schubert rolling in his grave when these cover versions end up destroying the fine balance of poetry, melody and artistic intent achieved in the 600-plus Lieder he composed during his short life. ("Ave Maria" on kazoo, anyone?)

But at the end of the day, good music is good music, and the best compositions can withstand just about any reconfiguration, no matter how weird. Sometimes the covers actually add a new facet to Schubert's little gems.

We had fun combing YouTube with this in mind, and the following nine covers of Schubert songs stood out, for a variety of reasons.

1. 'Ave Maria' for wind symphony

Schubert's most famous piece of music, "Ave Maria," entered the world as "Ellens Gesang III," the sixth song in Liederzyklus vom Fraülein vom See (Song cycle from The Lady of the Lake) in which it bore German lyrics translated from Walter Scott's famous poem. But nowadays, most people know it as a sacred song with Latin lyrics, sung at weddings, funerals and any number of occasions calling for a moment of musical reflection.

You probably haven't heard "Ave Maria" played by an orchestra of wind instruments, though. This arrangement by Frank Ticheli takes Schubert's simple strophic song and transforms it into an epic Wagnerian Prelude. (Wait for the triangle!)

2. 'Ständchen' for solo guitar

After "Ave Maria," "Ständchen" (Serenade) is the most-covered Schubert Lied. Franz Liszt recognized its appeal and made an elaborate piano transcription, but we're partial to the way "Ständchen" sounds on guitar. Is there an instrument more suitable for serenading?

3. 'Gretchen am Spinnrade' for marimba and vibraphone

Gretchen, the protagonist of Schubert's "Gretchen am Spinnrade," is a bit neurotic, obsessing about Faust (the man she loves) while she works away like a maniac on her spinning wheel. The piano part in the original song famously depicts the spinning wheel's perpetual motion, but we love the way it sounds on marimba in this fun arrangement. Also noteworthy is the way the vibraphone resonates (1:50 in the video) at the point in the song when Gretchen would sing "sein Kuß!" (His kiss!)

Advice to Gretchen: forget Faust. We all know percussionists are better partner material.

4. 'Der Erlkönig' for a cappella voices

This might be our favourite cover of any Schubert song ever. First, unlike the others, it retains the words (by Goethe), which is a plus. Then there's the intricate arrangement by Mark Williams, who directed and sang with the Swingle Singers in the '90s, that passes the narrative among different singers in the group to help identify the song's three characters: the boy, his father and the evil Elf King, who's pursuing them.

And finally, the way the performance has been recorded — in a dry studio, close-mic'd — gives you the feeling that the song's hair-raising action is happening inside your head.

5. 'Der Leiermann' on a quartet of bass saxophones

From the sublime to the ridiculous. We hesitated before including this one, but the group Deep Schrott does call itself "the only bass saxophone quartet in the universe," so for that reason alone we had to share it.

The 24th and final song of Die Winterreise, "Der Leiermann" depicts a street musician suffering in the cold, playing a barrel organ with an empty bowl at his side. It's a desolate scene, and the sonority of four bass saxophones does add to the song's foreboding, existential lament.

6. 'Heidenröslein' for jazz trio

Never say Schubert doesn't swing. Romanian-German pianist Eugen Cicero won the German Recording Prize (now the ECHO Awards) in 1976 for his jazz album of Schubert compositions, and this peppy version of "Heidenröslein" illustrates why. He titled it "Wonderful Rose."

7. 'Die Forelle' for accordion

Schubert must have been fond of fish: his 1817 song "Die Forelle" (The Trout) became so popular that he was commissioned two years later to use it as the basis of a quintet for piano and strings (a.k.a. the "Trout" Quintet.)

He also must have liked to raise a stein now and then, as this beer-hall polka version of "Die Forelle" demonstrates.

8. 'Der Musensohn' for harmonica

Not only does this gentleman play a mean harmonica, but he's also a bit of a ham.

"I'd like to play for you now The Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov," he says at the beginning of his video. "It was written some time ago. But I can't play that, so I'm going to play a German favourite called 'Der Musensohn.'" Take it away, Cecil.

9. 'Du bist die Ruh' for alto saxophone and piano

Let's conclude on a more serious note. At their May 2012 recital at the University of Michigan, alto saxophonist Katherine Weintraub and pianist Kathryn Goodson played an arrangement of "Du bist die Ruh," one of Schubert's most exquisite songs.

"Sometimes the simplest-looking songs can be the most challenging," baritone Roderick Williams told the Guardian. "Trying to achieve the perfect diminuendo at the top of the scale in 'Du bist die Ruh' can be testing — not least because it happens twice."

We like how Weintraub approaches this song the way a singer would: with restraint and beauty of tone. Bravo.

More to explore:

Remembering Stuart Hamilton

Listen to Ben Heppner's 24/7 Opera Gems stream

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