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The number of times Schubert set Das Grab is an illustration, if any were needed, of the infinite care that the composer was capable of taking if a poem fascinated him. There seems nothing much to these words beyond a generalised description of the horrors of the grave and the promise of the afterlife, but that is perhaps to read them with a blasé twentieth-century eye accustomed to much greater brutality in literature. The words seem to have worked potently on Schubert's imagination for he takes the task of setting them very seriously whilst never attempting anything that obscures the simplicity (and finality) of the text. It is also interesting that he never seems to have thought of the poem as suitable for a solo song; this view of death emphasises the fact that it is something that affects us all – a communal, and thus choral, concern.
The first sketch for this poem (D329A) is a fragment which dates from the same day as the setting recorded here. This is an unaccompanied four-part canon in C minor (SATB) which breaks off after thirteen bars and is crossed out by the composer. For D330, as we can hear, Schubert abandons the idea of a canon; also different is the fact that the setting is for TTBB, has a piano accompaniment, and is in the key of G minor. Notable are the flattened harmonies for 'tief und stille' and the radiant transition into the tonic major for 'unbekanntes Land'.
A few months later in February 1816 Schubert sets the poem again (D377). It is in C minor this time but it is also for piano-accompanied male chorus (TTBB). The tune seems more static and ritualistic, and seems deliberately less expressive in terms of melody.
More than a year later, in June 1817, Schubert composed the most interesting and impressive of all his settings of this poem (D569). It is for unison male chorus with piano accompaniment and in the key of C sharp minor.
The fifth setting dates from 1819 and reverts to the very first idea of unaccompanied SATB chorus. It is the only setting in the major key (E flat) and it is an obvious attempt to emphasise the peace of the afterlife rather than the terrors of death. Such evidence of Schubert's assiduous care with elusive poems which haunted him needs to be pointed out. All five settings of Das Grab are all but unknown, lost within the many pages of the vast Deutsch catalogue and understandably obscured by the welter of masterpieces which plead more urgently for our attention.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994
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