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As in much of Schubert's music of this period (1818-1820) there seems to be a strong Italian influence here; the song is linked in this way to Der Fluss. On the printed page it has the look of an operatic cantilena to the point that interesting verbal prosody seems to have been sacrificed for the smoothness of the vocal line, and where the composer has been content to allow most of the accompaniment to consist of rather bland triplets. This however is to reckon without divine inspiration, for here Schubert's simplicity is highly sophisticated and intentional. The stars are not lightweight human beings whose rhythms move hither and thither; their radiance is for all time and undisturbed by temporal considerations. Thus they sing 'unruffled by life's storms' and Schubert has made a song which, in the right performers' hands, radiates peace and a celestial aura which is both touching and appropriately impersonal in the sense that it is above all human strife.
The key is E flat major, and it is interesting that Schubert was later to choose this tonality again for his other great song about the stars, Die Sterne of Leitner. The opening bar is a simple triplet arpeggio in the home key of E flat followed by a spread-chord dotted minim on the same notes, three beats in all (in 9/8 time). This is followed by a bar where the same music is crucially modified by sharpening the B flat to a B natural, thus making an augmented chord which Richard Kramer has pointed out is something of a code in the Schlegel settings. (We find this thumb-print also in Der Fluss, Die Gebüsche and Sonett III.) We stay on that augmented chord for a pregnant two beats. Its effect here is to suggest the gradual opening up of a natural mystery to our scrutiny, as if we were being allowed to pass through the portals of the heavens. This impression of being led somewhere, of being taken by the hand into a sacred shrine, continues with the remainder of the introduction which moves from the subdominant back to the tonic. The stars then begin their address. The dotted-rhythm triplets we hear in the piano in these opening bars derive from Schubert's response to the verb 'staunen', and express mankind's astonished reaction to the radiance of the stars; the piano thus asks voiceless questions on behalf of perplexed humanity, and the stars continue to gently reprove us, light of heart and with hearts of light.
With the fifth line ('Dann flösse die Liebe aus ewigen Schalen') we come to the core of the song - something of a starry manifesto. For this music, which is in the subdominant key of A flat major, the deepest peace reigns: all bumpy rhythms are ironed out in the accompaniment (nothing but triplets underpins this aria) and the vocal line broadens to a point where only a star can manage the long-breathed phrases. It is here that Schubert defies the normal rules of prosody by giving a dotted crotchet (six in all) to each of the syllables 'flös - se die Lie - be aus' …, but how superb this is to convey the generous and impartial outpouring of love to starving mankind; the sound is spread as smoothly across the stave as butter on heavenly bread. It is cruel, of course, that after these two bars the singer should be required to extend this line and rise, without a further breath, to the top of the phrase, hold a long note (again appropriately) for 'e - wigen' (eternal) and then descend to 'Schalen' without gasping and fainting. In the heavens, as we know, oxygen is not even a consideration. With scarcely pause for breath, and as if to illustrate the difference between inhalation and exhalation, the same musical phrase is inverted, another six dotted crotchets (descending this time) for 'at - me - ten al - le in …' plus another crowning phrase on 'rei - nen Azuren'. And so the song continues on its way, each phrase the most stringent test of singing technique, and each phrase sublimely beautiful when sung well. The pianist, with not much to do, can only listen in astonishment, as the poem describes, along with the rest of mankind. This is one of those songs where virtuosic demands constitute something of a spiritual challenge, the surmounting of which is part of the music's power. The singer with the breath control needed to execute these phrases seems synonomous with someone who has 'seen the light'. With these musical difficulties it is little wonder that the piece did not find a publisher in Schubert's lifetime.
By 1820 Schubert was a master of the strophic song. His apprenticeship in this area had been completed in 1815/16 when he acquired his ability to find music for one strophe which equally suited another. In the second verse we notice details that seem specially arranged for these new words: 'Nun sind ja geöffnet die himmlischen Tore' is supported by a piano line which seems to blossom outwards, opening up like a gate as it gently climbs the stave; the airy setting of 'von Sternen umflogen' seems especially appropriate for the image of stars circling around the singer's head, high in the tessitura, each note a jewel in the constellation's diadem. The song is immeasurably richer for having two strophes, but its lack of a postlude makes the ending seem rather peremptory. Although there is nothing to authorise it, the pianist is tempted to return to the beginning and play the introduction again. But perhaps Schubert is right. The song should end in mid-heaven, as if, in coming to the end of the song, we leave the stars to their eternal work, unable to maintain indefinite contact with their wavelength. A postlude with its inevitable rallentando and 'putting the song to bed' might imply that these wise immortals have shone only for our temporary benefit.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996
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