Take my life, my flesh and blood,
Plunge it all in Lethe's flood ...
The three songs Schubert chose for the Opus 21 set were united not only by their poet and vocal range but also by water. The set was advertised as Drei Fischerlieder von Meyrhofer (sic) fur den Bass. The ponderings of Ulfru foreshadow Auden's poem Fish in the Unruffled Lakes in which mankind turns an envious look 'on each beast and bird that moves'. Because no man can feel safe on land Mayrhofer's fisherman longs for the underwater security of the fish. His music with its little shrugs and sighs and wry smiles is a very Viennese combination of charm and pessimism, and it is the only one of the Mayrhofer songs which is written for a working class rustic. Ulfru has more of a definite character than his unnamed colleagues in Fischerlied and Fischerweise; he is neither a hero nor very good at his job, but he is a survivor who has the precious gift of self-awareness, a Shakespearean clown who philosophises in a merry minor key. Much more prized by singers is the Byronic Der Schiffer which expresses Schubert's musical confidence in 1817, but the musings of Wie Ulfru fischt reflected the bitter-sweet paradox of Schubert's own view of the world in that devastating summer of 1823.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1988
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