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Verse 5: It is as if the intrepid swimmer survives the maelstrom to surface in a still lagoon; his is a chastened view of life. The music takes a classical turn and Gluck's shade is evoked (as is often the case when Schubert refers to the Underworld).
Verses 6-7: These verses inspire a novel, though not entirely successful, experiment in unmeasured (taktlos) recitative; voice and piano come momentarily adrift. There follows frenzied activity where the singer throws himself at the high notes, presumably in pursuit of the poet who has already gone over the top. We now find the reason for all this introspection and browbeating. This song is a sort of pièce d'occasion, a meditation on the fact that Duke Leopold of Brunswick lost his life in 1785 attempting to save some of his subjects from drowning in a flood. Goethe and Herder had also composed elegies to this man whose bravery embodied noblesse oblige, but the incident took place two years before Mayrhofer's birth. One can only suppose that the poet admired the man of action (which he himself was not) and was moved by this story of manly self-sacrifice so different from the behaviour of most of the selfish and feckless aristocrats he knew. There is some justification for patriotic pride in such a German hero, and Schubert adopts court dress for a minuet in honour of an eighteenth-century prince (cf the final section, also old-fashioned and courtly, also in B flat major, of Auf der Riesenkoppe). A touch of Greek history introduces us to an aspect of Mayrhofer we will get to know well in later songs. A modified recapitulation of Verse 2 closes the song in elegiac mood.
The composition of Am See was a turning point in Schubert's life; Mayrhofer in his recollections of Schubert written a few months after the composer's death, explains why:
My connection with Franz Schubert began when a friend of my youth handed him for composition my poem 'Am See'. Hand in hand with this friend, Schubert, in 1814, entered the room we were to occupy jointly five years later. It is in the Wipplingerstrasse. Both the house and the room have felt the hand of time: the ceiling somewhat sunk, the daylight reduced by a large building opposite, a played-out pianoforte, a narrow bookshelf; such was the room which, together with the hours spent in it, will never be effaced from my memory.
The friend who introduced composer and poet was the same Josef von Spaun who had introduced Schubert to Körner. Perhaps it was also Spaun who drew Schubert's attention to the six Goethe poems (Gretchen am Spinnrade among them) which he set between October 19 and December 12, 1814. Within this line-up, Am See, composed on December 7, is concealed—some would say—like a cuckoo in the nest. But from this point Schubert was announcing his intention to set modern poetry from far and near, to pay homage to the sage of Weimar, at the same time as tuning into the creative stimuli which surrounded him in Vienna. Up to then he had set words by Schücking, Schiller, Metastasio, Pope (all long dead). Contemporary poetry had been represented almost entirely by Friedrich von Matthisson who lived in far-away Württemberg. Mayrhofer was Schubert's first living, breathing collaborator. Am See, which initiated a friendship of much artistic and personal consequence, was the first of forty-seven Mayrhofer settings; only Goethe inspired Schubert to more songs.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1989
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