The entry of the voice echoes the ritornello, the stepping motif very much a feature, indeed the spare use of the left hand alone to accompany the vocal line, underlines the soft but ineffable tread of the royal progress. Beautiful enharmonic modulations do not cause a change of direction, only a slight bending of the light around astral corners. Another statement of the ritornello and the second verse begins in the same way as the first. But it is here that anyone expecting a well-behaved strophic song is to be surprised. The point of the piece is that the moon is all-seeing and all-encompassing; his aerial view sees every shade of life and emotion. The illustration of the words 'wenn ein schrecklicher Geier … nagt' change our course. For the third verse flowing triplets and kaleidoscopic modulations reflect first the tears and then the laughter of mankind. The delighted whispering of lovers is uncannily caught in an accompaniment suddenly spiced with playful accidentals, and just as suddenly we are with the silent sufferer on his thorny path. This is followed by a marvellous little interlude, scored for muted brass perhaps, which just as suddenly melts into the rueful love music of the fourth verse. Triplets rustle in the middle of the texture, the little finger of the pianist's right hand picks out two notes which alternate for five bars (yearning? constancy?); there is a premonition here of the great 1819 nocturne Abendbilder. Memories of boyhood suddenly make the music gambol with touches of vocal coloratura and pianistic staccato. The exit from this mood is achieved by an unaccompanied bar on the word 'unbekanntes'—a semitone lift into 'Sehnen' and we are in a fervent world of longing for we know not what.
The fifth verse is quite simply a miracle. Hardly ever has Schubert asked the pianist to do so little; the right hand stave is as empty as the ethereal void. It is as if everything has been cleared away to enable the questing lover to address his sidereal friend, face turned upward, and cap (and the barest of left hand chords) in hand. When the right hand joins in again, it is with a phrase of the simplest supplication. The harmonic intensity of the following interlude would not be a surprise to find in Mahler. The first real recitative now comes; the realisation that death will separate mortals from moonlight temporarily throws the scene into Stygian darkness. There is drama here, but the words 'wo ich bald ruhen werde' do not rage or rant; the wonderful acceptance of mankind's frailty paves the way for the last return of the ritornello.You must go your way, and I mine, the poet says, and the music adds a smile of resignation without the slightest suggestion of self-pity. Mention of the beauty of the earth brings music of such fervent humility, such awareness of the here and now where we are simply lucky to be alive, that we hear the moon's motif no more. At last we are earthed, for this long contemplation, the moon's lesson as it were, has brought, if not peace of mind, gratitude for life itself. The opening of the Andante of the A major Piano Sonata (D784) has a melodically similar rise and fall to the closing bars of the song.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1990
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