The poem was first published in the almanac Taschenbuch für Damen 1803. If one lyric in this recital were to be nominated as typical of the Schiller which appealed to the composer, it would be this. It contains a happy mixture of the romantic description of nature, gentle yet resonant on the ear, and the rugged determination of Sturm und Drang — a marriage of the feminine and masculine which befits Schiller's status as an important playwright, as renowned for his creation of Amalia, Thekla and Maria Stuart, as the Moors, Wallenstein and Don Carlos.
Verse 1: The key is D minor and without any piano introduction we plunge into the poem; there is something to be said for this shock tactic when the first word is a dramatic 'Ach'. The sixteen-year-old composer is not yet a master of melody or rhythm. The descending vocal arpeggio of the opening seems rather uninventive, and the word-setting of 'die der kalte Nebel drückt' (a succession of alternating minims and crotchets) does not do full justice to the scansion. 'Hätt' ich Schwingen, hätt' ich Flügel' is based on another arpeggio (A major) with the piano deftly adding brief embellishments on the same chord. One cannot avoid the impression that the singer is as much in search of a tune as an exit from the claustrophobic valley. There is a sense of scale however, an air of importance enhanced by a confidently rolling accompaniment and the use of the bass clef for the vocal line. Schubert has definitely cast his singer in heroic mould.
In contrast, the second setting from 1821 has a remarkable groundplan — a strongly melodic 'symphonic' movement in B minor which, in doing away with recitative, rhythmically unifies the poem's disparate images. At the same time the mature Schubert uses changes of key rather than tempo to illustrate the distance between reality and exalted visions. An example of this is the change into G major at 'Dort erblick ich schöne Hügel' which in the first version is rather a lame recitative. It is perhaps a significant pointer to how Schubert 'heard' certain images in terms of keys that even after a gap of eight years, and despite a different tonality for the later song, he uses the notes of an A major arpeggio for 'Hätt' ich Schwingen, hätt' ich Flügel' in D636. This is also the key for the Schlegel song Der Knabe D692 with a poem that might be summed up by the same six words.
Verse 2: The words 'Harmonien hör' ich klingen' are all set within the chord of A major, as if to illustrate that chords are what harmony is all about. (In the second version the composer manages to illustrate the felicity of magical harmony with a change from G major into B flat, and without interrupting the rhythmic flow.) This early version meanders somewhat for this verse although there are charming touches: 'Töne süsser Himmelsruh' set to a phrase of appropriate heavenly length; the vocal line of 'goldne Früchte' suggestive of fruit hanging heavy on the bough; an appropriately glowing diminished seventh harmony for 'glühen'; the euphony of sixths and tenths for the idyll of 'werden keines Winters Raub.'
Verse 3: The first four lines are recitative — not perhaps Schubert's most inventive use of the genre. In D636 these lines are incorporated into the seraphic B flat section, all the better to lead to the contrasting water music (churning semiquavers) which the second half of the verse requires. In D52, however, at 'Doch mir wehrt des Stromes Toben', Schubert shows himself not yet a master of the aquatic genre. There is drama aplenty in these thunderous chords, and noble vocal line, but no fluidity. It is as if the waves of the Red Sea have been parted by Moses and are standing stiffly to attention.
Verse 4: It is here that the young Schubert suddenly strikes form. The accompaniment of the Allegro agitato (quavers in the left hand alternating with pairs of semiquavers in the right) is extraordinarily illustrative of a small boat pitching and tossing in stormy waters. The harmony is so anchored (in F minor) that we can also tell that it is not sailing on the open sea, but moored in the harbour and awaiting its crew. This is more subtly indicated in D636 with less movement in the bass line at this point, but one scarcely notices this detail in the sweep of the whole. In D52 we note how the little semiquaver motif in the right hand becomes more anguished (larger intervals, higher leaps) when it is discovered that 'der Fährmann fehlt'. The vocal line stretches into longer note values here to indicate emptiness, a lack of a boatman, and the momentary dejection of not knowing what to do. It is at this point that the older. more mature Schubert joins hands with his younger self. So satisfied was he with the last section of his youthful composition that he takes the music beginning with 'Frisch hinein und ohne Wanken' almost note for note into D636. The key is différent, pianistic details have been changed and the note-values halved, but in essence the music is the same until the end of the song. According to the musicologist Bertha Schnapper in her Die Gesänge des jungen Schubert the young composer was using a traditional march tune in this section, but even if this is so it was a borrowing that had stood the test of time. The music is both bracing and, in its optimism and strength (cf the Senn setting Selige Welt, Volume 2), is typical of the cali to spiritual arms which lies at the heart of many of Schubert's Schiller songs.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993
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