It is easy to see why the Schubert of 1816 was tempted by this poem. It starts with the words 'Auf den Wassern' and this phrase alone sets his imagination working with water music. The idea of contrasting the mellifluous musings of the swan with the craggy vocal line of the eagle prompts the young Schubert to his Mozartian and Beethovenian styles, as if these two great composers were also archetypes and natural phenomena in his mind. The swan is of course Mozartian in its unruffled elegance, the eagle more animated by Sturm und Drang. But the poem is in three parts, and a third voice has its say after the royal beasts representing beauty and power have completed their conversation (admittedly in only four of the fourteen verses Schlegel provides for this purpose). Schubert speaks with his own voice in the music for the doves; these are cosier, more domestic creatures than the noble species which have begun the song; they are neither beautiful nor strong but full of love, as the word 'Lieblich' at the head of their music confirms.
Even a work as simple as this shows touches of mastery in terms of word-setting; indeed in this instance it is the text which has prompted a deliberate limitation to the musical language. The song opens with the music of a rippling stream prophetic of Der Neugierige. At the end of the second line of the poem (at 'verschweben') the ear expects a cadence to take the music away from the home key but, somewhat disappointingly, it returns full circle, like the gliding swan itself, to its harmonic point of origin. This gives the music a rather short-breathed quality, but it perfectly defines the limited geographical boundaries of the bird's life. The line 'Und mir schwindet nie im feuchten Spiegel' also shows Schubert's innate mirror-the-word abilities: the depth of the lake is sounded with the movement of the bass from G to F natural, and thence at 'Spiegel' to a C major chord on the bass note of E (the first inversion of the subdominant). The downward jump of an octave on 'Spiegel' in the vocal line also illustrates this.
For the next section devoted to the eagle we move from G major to a bustling Beethovenian scherzo in C minor and 6/8 time. Semiquaver figurations suggest the flapping of wings. There is a long dominant pedal point on 'Ich haus' in den felsigen Klüften, ich braus' in den stürmenden Lüften' where rumbling octaves in the bass support surging right-hand chords in quavers like the flight of a bird wafted hither and thither by turbulent air currents. We then return to the swan whose more gentle music aspires to a 'heavenly land' in the same way that the eagle is drawn to the searing 'immortal sun'. These are creatures with great aspirations, but the doves of the final section (in E flat major) are less ambitious. They simply want 'easy success' and 'a charming reward' - in other words a quiet life protected by Venus. The splendid and lonely life of swan and eagle is not for them. And here Schubert comes into his own with music of a broader melodic line (in 4/4 as opposed to the 2/4 of the swan) and affectionate turns of phrase that suggest that he identifies more with the plump doves than the other creatures. The setting of 'Suchen und irren, finden und girren' delightfully suggests the cooing of birds: tripping dactyls alternate with the trochees of 'irren' and 'girren' with their onomatopoeic double r's. There is a domesticity about this music which brings to mind another 1816 song An mein Clavier, particularly at the cadence with the first appearance of the words 'Wunsch und Genuss'.
There is something about Lebensmelodien which suggests a song for Therese Grob. Certainly the moral of the story is that happiness with a beloved partner, in the manner of the birdcatcher Papageno, is the most blessed thing that life has to offer. We know that these feelings were very much on Schubert's mind in 1816, culminating in the Therese Grob songbook made for the baker's daughter in November of that year.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996
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