There is little about this strophic song that would rule out an early date (such as 1813 or 1814): the Italianate melody is typical of the music Schubert was writing during, and soon after, his training with Salieri. But it might be argued that the chain of modulations within the melody sounds too sophisticated for this apprentice period. The fact that the famous version of the song, Der Unglückliche D713 was composed only in 1821 is also a factor in postulating a date later than 1813-1816. But the two settings of Pichler’s poem could not be more different. Der Unglückliche is an elaborate song-cantata made up of various sections in different tempi – it could not be further from a strophic song in terms of its conception. And there are other instances when more than a decade separates two settings of the same text. An example of this is L’incanto degli occhi: the first version dates from 1817 at the latest (it is probably much earlier than this) and the second version was composed only in 1827. The whole question of a date remains tantalisingly open.
On first hearing one is reminded of the opening of the famous Walter Scott Ave Maria (Ellens dritter Gesang), but this is also something to do with the stately flow and shape of the accompaniment’s rolling mezzo staccato figurations. (This also serves to remind us how very Italian in style is that supposedly Scottish-inspired prayer; perhaps Schubert responded to intense Roman Catholicism with a Roman, or Italian, style.) Aiming at hypnotising repetition rather than individual detail, the composer allows the general flow of the cantilena to govern the song’s shape. Apart from appropriate moments of vocal melisama (airy triplets for ‘mit leisen Lüften sinket’, legato syncopation for ‘den müden Sterblichen’) he does not allow himself to be diverted into the illustrative, word-inspired, commentary which is usually the magical factor in his response to poetry in his own language. Indeed, the song is so plain and simple in its marriage of musical and verbal means that one might be tempted to doubt its authenticity; that is, if one did not know how hard it is to write a Schubertian pastiche even half as good as this.
Die Nacht is cast in four broad and identical musical strophes of thirty bars each. The eight strophes of Pichler’s original poem are thus paired off for musical purposes: the first, third, fifth and seventh strophes begin in the opening melody in G major, and the second, fourth, sixth and eighth strophes (the ‘B’ section) change to a more stormy mood in E minor. For this performance we perform six of the eight strophes. It is worth noting that D713 uses only six-and-a-half strophes of Pichler’s poem, finishing, in superbly dramatic fashion, in the middle of the seventh. In the version recorded here the composer respects the poem more perhaps, but is infinitely less musically adventurous.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1999
Other albums featuring this work