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Schubert follows suit, for however much we adore this song we would not wish him to compose like this all the time. We know how Schumann used the Ländler form in 3/8 in Es ist ein Flöten und Geigen from Dichterliebe to paint the earthbound musical banalities of village life, and it is part of Schubert's wry humour to point out that a flock of birds is as clannish and self-satisfied as the common herd of humanity. This song is also prophetic of another wryly comic Lied, Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt where Mahler parodies Ländler commonplaces in order to underline that fishy behaviour is not confined to the deep; he was a master of the sinister and even brutal overtones of country life as expressed through the banalities of popular music. The modern listener who thinks of Alfred Hitchcock's film The Birds might be persuaded to find a hint of menace behind the very Austrian charm of this song, for unalloyed sweetness is sometimes a sign of danger in Vienna. The exploration of the darker side of Austrian Gemütlichkeit intensified as the nineteenth century grew older, but in the setting of Täuschung from Winterreise, another Ländler, Schubert shows us that he too understood how tragedy can be played out to the accompaniment of a lilting waltz.
Of course here, as always, Schubert responds to the text in his peerless way. Words like 'lieblich', 'fröhlich' and 'singen' flit from branch to branch; but 'schweben' floats on one note as if gliding on an air current. Thus the shape of a tune is decided by verbal images. The notes of the next phrase are almost an exact repeat, apart from 'Erde' which jumps the octave instead of staying in the same tessitura, and 'blicken' which answers the upward inflection of 'singen' with a downward lilt. This surge upwards followed by a dropping interval conjures the image of a vantage point high in the sky: our ears are musically directed to follow the birds' gaze earthward. We may be sure that this sort of mastery was second nature to our composer, and that he scarcely rated these felicities as anything special. In the middle section the birds look down on mankind in every sense. Schlegel undoubtedly knew The Birds of Aristophanes, where the eponymous high-flyers pity men as 'dwellers by nature in darkness … poor plumeless ephemerals'. The human race is thick-headed, and we hear this in the droning left-hand open fifths under 'Die Menschen sind töricht'. (Goethe talks of 'der stumpfe Bursche' - 'the dull lad' - in Der Musensohn and we meet the species again here.) This music is also appropriate for the lamenting tone in the following phrase, the accented passing note of 'jammern' (an E major chord crushed by a passing A sharp) illustrative of a human moan, and a complete contrast to 'flattern gen Himmel' which is not weighed down by an extraneous accidental and is thus free to float, as light as air. The hunter makes an appearance (one is reminded of Der Jäger by Brahms which is also a dance of this kind) but there is no minor key to imply the danger of being shot. These birds take the prospect of death as lightly as life itself. As in Der Schmetterling we feel that the implacable dance rhythm behind the music is the composer's means of depicting on-going rituals which are governed by instinct rather than morality. In human terms, the birds might be thieves, the butterfly a promiscuous roué. But Nature has ordained it thus, and accordingly there is no sign of regret, guilt, fear or sadness in these charming songs.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996
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