This song is one of the most beautiful of all the Schiller settings. Einstein calls it "a flower of melodic exuberance in which even suggestions of an Italian style are not out of place." The rnelody is more or less based on the earlier version, but it blossoms profusely under the nurturing hand of a gardener of melody at the height of his powers. If D250 is a shy and delicate rosebud of a song, very beautiful in its own understated way, D793 is in full bloom with a heady perfume of its own; Einstein no doubt sees the Italian style in the tendrils of vocal melisma which luxuriate in the vocal line. The accompanimental idea of the first version is retained at first — quavers alternating with rests to suggest complicity and shy approach on tiptoe. This idea is delicately established with a prelude of four hushed bars (D250 is without an introduction) which continues to support the vocal line for the first four lines of the poem. It is in the second half of the verse that Schiller gives a locale for the lovers' tryst, and it is the description of the 'leafy beach grove' with its 'green cloak' of vegetation which inspires Schubert to a new type of accompaniment. The heady intoxication of love en sourdine prompts Schubert to an accompaniment heavy with greenery in pendulous triplets — the very look of them on the printed page like leafy branches extending their shade over the lovers; the tie marks, strands of musical string, secure the flowering arpeggios to the arboreal trellis. We hear the branches' music in the right hand, but, thanks to the left, the trees themselves are also firmly planted in the music: so splendid is the melody here that one scarcely notices that for no less than seventeen bars the music is rooted on a dominant pedal. It is this device which makes time seem to stand stili for the lovers. The piano's interlude (on a tonic pedal) then seems to be the crowning glory, and there is nothing quite like it in ail Schubert — sensual and ahead of its time in its heavily perfumed romantic languor, it would not sound out of place in a piano piece by Chopin.
The words of the second verse cali for a different accompaniment and a modified vocal line, and Schubert gives us a sextuplet figure in the piano that can be made to whirr, bustle and buzz. The beat of the hammers is depicted by left-hand crotchets, each one preceded by the crunch of a grace note. In the second half of the verse the word 'sauer' prompts a flattening of pitch into the minor tonality, a semitone lower than the corresponding passage in the first verse. Other tiny details are changed here (and throughout the song) in the vocal line in order to accommodate perfectly the scansion of Schiller's words. The second half of Verse 3 is also in the minor key, an apt illustration of the contrast between the happiness of the lovers in the first four lines and the unhappiness of the rest of the world in the remainder of the strophe. The accompaniment to Verse 4 is modified slightly into a patter of breathless quavers to illustrate the words 'mit schnellen Füssen'. lt is a measure of the versatility of the composer's 'tree' motif that the mellifluous triplets of the second half of the verse (and of the postlude, of course) can easily be pressed into service as the most liquid of water music. This song must rank as one of the most distinguished of Schubert's modified strophic songs; on first hearing it strikes one as utterly strophic and only closer examination reveals how much work the composer has done to individualise each stanza. Written at the same time as Die schöne Müllerin (which is the apotheosis of the strophic song) Das Geheimnis is worthy to stand beside the celebrated cycle as an example of Schubert's vein of creativity in that crucial year of 1823 when his musical motto appears to be multum in parvo.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993
Other albums featuring this work