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The key is F major which, according to John Reed’s interesting classification, is a tonality which is often associated with sleep (cf. the Mayrhofer Schlaflied for example). An air of ineffable calm reigns over the song’s opening and Schubert uses the favourite device of keeping the accompaniment in the treble regions of the piano (for the first three bars at least) to give the picture of mother and child an air of innocence and freshness. Emotive words like ‘Qual’ and ‘Schmerzen’ on the other hand are decorated by expressive little melismas. The setting of ‘deine Welt’ is astonishing. Schubert has poised these two words high in the stave (on an F and held G) as if their tessitura represents the vantage point from which the whole wide world may be viewed; in this part of a healthy tenor voice we are left in no doubt that the outlook is exhilarating. After this epic high point (proof if any were needed that this is no conventional lullaby), ‘… ist deiner Mutter Brust’ descends to nestle in the warmth of the body of the music in the middle of the stave. The composer must have been pleased with this phrase (as well he might) for he repeats it at the end of the strophe.
Performers are faced with something of a dilemma. After the first two strophes (which make a perfectly self-sufficient song) the next four hang together only as a progressive story – a type of Three Ages of Man where the infant is cuddled, the lover caressed and the dying man embraced by the angel of death. Even though the song is a good one, six strophes would make it overstay its welcome. Nevertheless it is only when we read the last verse that we realize that Wiegenlied is related to the fate of Körner in Schubert’s mind, and that the composer has treated it as if it were that poet’s version of Vor meiner Wiege, another song which starts in the cradle and ends with death. It is then that we notice the somewhat hidden ‘death motif’ of a minim and two crotchets in more than half of the accompaniment’s bars, a pre-echo of another more famous angel of death in Der Tod und das Mädchen. The implication of course is that death stalks us all from the moment of birth. The singer who embarks on verse 3 must carry through to the end, and it is only at the sixth verse that death makes its appearance. Whether or not a slow strophic song of this kind can continue to engage the attention of the listener through six verses with the gravitas and eloquence the composer expected it to convey is a moot point. In later years Schubert would probably have set this text as a through-composed song.
Wiegenlied is this Schubertiad’s farewell to Theodor Körner who was such an influential, albeit posthumous, presence on the songs of 1815.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994
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