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Over every song in Schwanengesang hovers the presence of a different distant beloved. In Liebesbotschaft and In der Ferne the lover sends messages to her by water and on the breeze; in Kriegers Ahnung the soldier bids his distant spouse or lover farewell (he is about to die in battle), and in Ständchen the serenader is separated from the object of his affection and never permitted to scale the balcony; Frühlingssehnsucht links longing for the advent of spring with a hopeless desire for the presence of the loved one; Aufenthalt is awash with the tears born of loveless sorrow, and Abschied, however seemingly merry, is a song of parting which bids love farewell before a journey. (Even the darkest symphonic work must have its scherzo.) The other possible Rellstab scherzo, Lebensmut is the only song which could not, in any conceivable way, be made to fit into such an anthology. Was it abandoned for this reason?
Whether by chance or planning this ‘ferne Geliebte’ theme continues into the Heine cycle: Der Atlas is someone who has gambled on love and lost; Ihr Bild, Die Stadt and Der Doppelgänger similarly describe the loss of love and measure the terrible distance between estranged lovers – in the last case a visit to her house occasions a premonition of death. Am Meer describes memories of a terrible parting, and even Das Fischermädchen is about love on the rebound, a search for a fleeting substitute for the love that has been lost back home. The ‘theme’ may even be extended into the song that was placed at the end of the cycle by the publisher Haslinger: the owner of the carrier pigeon in Die Taubenpost sends love out in terms of longing but receives nothing back. Throughout this sequence ‘she’ is absent, unable to respond even if able to listen, as in Ständchen; she is separated by distance, the impenetrable wall of a house, convention, even death perhaps, but she is not there. In four songs the lover is referred to in the third person; in one (Kriegers Ahnung) she is referred to as ‘she’, and is addressed directly at the end of the song; in six songs the singer addresses the lover as ‘du’, but only in two, Abschied and Das Fischermädchen, can we sense the possibility of a colloquy. If there were a single title which might cover the theme of these songs it might be An die ferne Geliebte. And if it were true that Schubert was still in love with Karoline Esterhazy, and felt (correctly) that he would never be able to aspire to her hand, the shared experience of unattainable love would have been another link he could claim with his great predecessor via the title of a song-cycle.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000
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