This is one of the most accomplished of the Mestastasio settings, the most sophisticated of all from 1813, and a rival to the Didone abbandonata
settings of 1816 (recorded in Volumes 9 and 32). It is sung by Venus in Metastasio’s Gli orti esperidi
, and if Salieri selected this text for his pupil he could not have made a better choice. He must have been astonished by the flair and imagination with which Schubert responded to the plight of the goddess who claims to be tossed by the waves, trembling between hope and terror. Was it just coincidence that only the day before composing this aria (the manuscripts are clearly dated) Schubert began work on his most ambitious ballad, Schiller’s Der Taucher
? This long and elaborate work is about the young knight who recklessly dives off a cliff into the most dangerous depths of the sea in order to rescue the king’s goblet. From the point of view of pianistic illustration this is also a work devoted to water in its most dramatic moods. Son fra l’onde appears to be a study for Der Taucher
, and in it we detect a level of confidence which was no doubt inspired by the young composer’s engagement with his exciting new project. Compare, for example, the accompanying figurations at ‘Per la fè, per la tua vita / Or pavento, or sono ardita’ with the stormy water music (also in C minor) for the fifth strophe of Der Taucher
(‘Und es wallet und siedet und brauset und zischt’). And in other aspects of Son fra l’onde, the composer seems to have the wind behind him. The vocal line is notable for its muscular strength and the eloquence of its long-spanned lines. The length of each phrase is beautifully judged for the singer’s breath, and the tessitura is ideal for a more dramatic voice. There is no more sign of the unreasonable vocal demands that marred the earlier ballads. For this, we have Salieri, that old operatic pro, to thank.
We have no way of knowing whether Schubert took his German songs to Salieri. Legend has it that it was Hagars Klage which had first aroused the old boy’s interest in Schubert, but it has also been assumed that the ballads after this were composed behind his back. If so, it is an extraordinary coincidence that the two texts match up in such a way, and in such close chronological proximity. One would be delighted to imagine the following scenario: Schubert takes Salieri his first sketches of Der Taucher; the Italian is interested and impressed, although he insists that he does not know enough about German to help with pieces of this kind – he is only prepared to mark the exercises in Italian; but he suddenly remembers that Mestastasio wrote a text about the stormy sea, and sets it forthwith as Schubert’s next exercise.
Another explanation of the coincidence is that Schubert had been lent a number of books containing Metastasio texts, and that he was permitted to make his own text selections for his exercises. This was almost certainly the case with the large number of Schiller exercises for vocal trio written in 1813, and it may have extended, after a while, to the Italian texts. Having embarked on Der Taucher, and being forced to break off from it in order to prepare a new exercise for Salieri, it would have been quite understandable if Schubert had been drawn to this turbulent and watery poem.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1999