This is a strophic song but we neither notice nor complain that we hear the same music three times, so beguiling are its many felicities of vocal line and accompaniment. It is a barcarolle with vocal obbligato, a fascinating synthesis of piano piece and Lied. It shares its original key of A flat minor with the fourth Impromptu of Op 90 (D899) which has its own variation on the idea of a gentle descent of semiquavers, wafting between minor and major, with a left hand obligato voice singing like a Loreley amidst the waves. On the printed page the right hand semiquavers of the introduction to Auf dem Wasser zu singen
are phrased in twos, and in order to avoid a frozen shoulder and wrenched wrist the pianist adopts a complicated ruse; as one finger leaves a note it is replaced, in a split second, by another on the same note. This happens time and time again as the fingers sidle, crab-like, down the keyboard, a sleight of hand that must be imperceptible, although it is as tricky as attempting to hold water in a clenched fist. In a liquid performance where no rigid pattern of bar lines on tidal flow is imposed, the effect is exactly what Schubert intended: music to paint the gentle lapping of waves, the undulating movement of the boat on the current's swell, the rustling reeds on the shore and, in the final verse, the ineluctable (but in this case audible) passing of time. The vocal line starts beneath the water level but rises to hug the piano fioriture
note-for-note in cascading thirds. The last line of each verse is repeated and on the long held note the singer, like an intrepid surfer, braves a minor tidal wave to emerge into the sunlight of the major key. This is of course a musical metaphor for the liberation of the soul from its shackles, and the pianist's right hand, in the ecstatic interlude, appears to stretch heavenward to touch the highest note we hear. The power of this metaphysical message is not often enough pondered by audiences, diverted as they are by the song's melody and shape. The composer's involvement with that message is nonetheless complete. It is one of those handful of strophic songs where meaning is built into the repetitions: human beings are the ephemeral passengers aboard this barge of time, endlessly rocked by the womb-like waters of life. The song seems to have always been resonating somewhere, and the composer has plucked it out of the air, before releasing it once more into infinity. In putting it down on paper he has added to it the indefinable ache of personal awareness and sorrow without self-pity which is his special watermark. There is also in it the joy of an understanding won through pain. The song dates from 1823 and is thus contemporary with Schubert's health crisis, and the composition of Die schöne Müllerin
Friedrich Leopold, Graf zu Stolberg-Stolberg was born in Denmark. He worked on various literary ventures with his brother Christian; they were thus forerunners of such fraternal collaborations as the Schlegels, Grimms and Goncourts. Both Stolberg brothers as admirers of Klopstock were members of the Göttingen Hainbund. They travelled to Switzerland in 1775 with Goethe who found them disturbingly unruly. In 1781 Friedrich married Agnes von Witzleben, the muse of his poetry. It was on their honeymoon that he wrote Auf dem Wasser zu singen and dedicated it to her ('für meine Agnes'). Stolberg worked for a time as a diplomat, and as far afield as Russia, but the adventures of his youth yielded to an ultra-conservative attitude in politics and a conversion to catholicism. He who had earlier been an enthusiastic translator of Homer chastised Schiller for the type of 'pagan' poetry. Schubert made nine Stolberg settings.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991