The resonance of this poem is so similar to the preceding song, and to a song written two days later, that it is tempting to ask oneself if Schubert at this time was not going through a rare period (rare for him a least, common enough for Schumann and Brahms) of allowing personal concerns, in this case a romantic crisis, to influence his choice of text. Only Hugo Wolf seems to have prized literary discernment more than the chance to celebrate occasionally, in song, the chiming of his own circumstances with the scribblings of a lesser poet. Schubert's love for the baker's daughter Therese Grob is widely known, as is his frustration that he would never have the means to ask her to marry him; Vergebliche Liebe
is not an exact fit for his situation (as far as we know Therese never treated him in a deliberately cruel fashion, though this song gives us pause for thought), but it is about a hopeless passion sustained through thick and thin. The opening is a wonderfully rhetorical 'stromentato' recitative, it is as if we open a door to enter into the music, and discover it in mid argument the first phrase an impassioned reply to an off-stage warning that the lover is wasting his time. Note that the word 'Treue' has a long-lasting note value to match its meaning; only 'Schmerz' is longer still. Blazing conviction yields to melancholic introspection. The introduction of devious C flat into the E flat major tonality on the word 'Spiel' (as out of place here, as manipulative games should be in a love affair) continues as a harmonic red herring throughout the passage at the end of verse two in which he poet complains of a goal always eluding him. This leads to a chord in the dominant and with a sudden change of tempo, the second part of the song (Verse 3). This is a page of wild and unreasonable determination, halfway between aria and recitative, with the piano's sudden awkward stabbing octaves interrupting the proceedings like gasps of pain. The composer adds the repetitions of 'immer' and 'nimmer' and his own exclamation marks. A similar unhinged distress (also in 3/8, and also marked 'Schnell') is to be found in the Körner setting Sehnsucht der Liebe
written two days later. The setting of the final line is prophetic of the ending of another dramatic song in C minor from five years later, Gruppe aus dem Tartarus
D583. The shape of the phrase 'bricht die Sense des Saturns entzwei' has Saturn's scythe breaking in two (with the descent of a fifth) in the same way as the poet's heart is rent in two in this song. It is clear that the composer sees the condition of unrequited love as a form of living hell.
Schubert set only one poem by Josepf Karl Bernard who was very well known in Vienna as a critic and journalist. He was later the librettist for Spohr's opera on the Faust story, and of Libussa, the opera by Conradin Kreutzer part of which Schubert heard (he walked out after the first act) at the end of 1822. This libretto had ordginally been meant for Beethoven with whom Bernard was on friendly terms. He was editor of numerous specialist journals dealing with the arts the most influential of which were probably the Zeitschrift für dramatische Kunst, and Modenzeitung which he edited for nearly thirty years.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1990