This is a marvel of impressionistic calm. The sea is motionless but we are also aware of the sinister implications of a becalmed voyage before the era of steam power. A tensely wrought melodic line is underpinned by breathless modulations - the arpeggii in the piano part convey stillness and fear at the same time. The song is only one page long but it somehow suspends time and place: the horizons are endless, the ship is cradled in dark waters, the piano part seems to measure the sea's depth, its chords vibrating like a sounding with line and lead. Above the vocal line there is no trace of wind in the sails. Fischer-Dieskau has written that 'the score of the song looks like a drawing' and indeed here is a map of motionless semibreves and the undulating lines denoting arpeggii seem nautically illustrative. The only undercurrent is one of human apprehension at the void created by Nature who has withdrawn her cooperation.
Goethe's poem dates from 1787 when, during his Italian journey, he voyaged from Naples to Sicily, and encountered all weathers. Schubert never even saw the sea - Austrian lakes were as near as he got. Beethoven also set the poem (chorally with orchestra} at more or less the same time, linking it with a happy ending - a setting of the pendant poem, Glückliche Fahrt (Prosperous Voyage). Schubert preferred to leave the ship at sea, captured for ever and set under glass on the waters' depths.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1988