The majesty and scope of this song is one of the miracles of the Schubert canon, and because of its difficulty in performance, for the singer especially, one of its best kept secrets. On two pages it paints and effects the gigantic natural phenomena of sunset and moonrise with astonishing modernity. Einstein says that it would 'probably be dated not 1820 but 1900—if there had still existed in 1900 a German composer of such abandon and freedom as Schubert.' Fischer-Dieskau thinks that Alban Berg had this song in mind when on a radio interview in the 1930s he defended the 'unvocal' leaps of atonal music by citing similar examples from past centuries. For all that, Freiwilliges Versinken is hewn in the giant marble blocks of an antique civilisation, even if, like the temple of Karnak in Luxor, it defies chronology and seems to have more to do with Moonman or Martian than distant history. The song starts with two bars of portentous trills embedded deep within mighty chords. These bars are repeated quietly as the singer, hushed with reverence, addresses the god. The repeat of 'Wohin?' is Schubert's idea, as is the insertion of the adjective 'kühlen'. This totally disrupts Mayrhofer's metre and rhyme scheme, but it is a cost well worth paying: if you were to draw a line on the score between `Helios' and the second 'Wohin?', a full tenth higher, the course of the rising sun would be traced on the stave, the high point of the sun god's journey from which he must now descend. The second 'Whither?', thrown into the void of space, aches with mortal longing to understand the Mysteries. The mortal listener is faced with a similar longing to understand how, using simple ingredients, Schubert weaves a cosmic spell. Trills and measured ornamentation, like the dotted rhythm of the introduction to Nachtstück D672 invoke the help of Handel's ghost to put the sun a-bed. Another ghost, that of the Heine setting Der Doppelgänger, is present in the guise of a demi-semiquaver shudder at 'Ich nehme nicht', and more significantly at 'Wie blass der Mond'. This is a stunning example of how Schubert's mind worked in translating images into music, for the pale moon is also the sun's ghostly double; thus an idea from 1820 rises again in the Schubertian firmament in 1828 because the same poetic image summons it forth. A single rumbling trill in the bass under 'versenken' prefigures that device in the first movement of the B flat Piano Sonata D960, also from 1828. Schubert had made other songs about the setting sun (An die untergehende Sonne D457) where the line seems always to flow in a downward direction, but the perilous leaps at 'scheide' and 'herrlich' (also 'Krone' and 'lege') are something new, and it is these intervals which Alban Berg must have had in mind. The last lines of the second and third verses are harder still for the singer, requiring a smooth entry into mezzo voce in conditions (at the end of a long breath and an ever climbing line) of death-defying danger. The successful execution of this (particularly at 'weiter Ferne') represents a true awareness of the vocal mysteries—Tamino had to endure no harder test. The rising of the moon and the emergence of the stars in the piano's postlude is almost as miraculous as the act of nature it describes.
Helios now goes underground, far from the sight of mortal man, to recoup his powers. Having had his performance, the artist goes home to face the private cost of exhaustion and the challenge of renewing his song, making it ready to survive another day in the heat and glare of public scrutiny. No mortal Greek knew what fuelled and nourished the sun in the nether regions, and it was not their business or concern to judge. This double life, half of it lived in the unnatural intensity of the spotlight, the other in the Underworld full of tortured doubt, is the lot of the artist who, like the sun, may say 'I do not take; I am wont only to give.' There could be no better epitaph for Schubert himself. The sun, like all artists, can easily be taken for granted, but, like artists, he is a giver of life. Helios has his munificent day but, equally munificently, he yields his power and lets go. Mayrhofer felt the need to make this romantic illustration of what the Chinese refer to as Yin and Yang, the balance between male and female, active and passive, in human nature—the waxing and waning of one making possible a mirror image of strengths in the other.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991
Other albums featuring this work