Schubert: An introduction to The Hyperion Schubert Edition
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Analysis can scarcely explain why this modified strophic song touches all who hear it; much of its perennial appeal lies in its melody, the power of which is a Schubertian miracle, so perilously near does it lie to a foursquare hymnbook commonplace. Like that other famous hymn Litanei it seems a distillation of the most elevated religious feeling, and it seems only natural that the faiths of Christian and pagan should be considered in the same breath in Schubert's work. This 'Schiffer' is not a modern revolutionary like the boatman of another Mayrhofer song—Der Schiffer D536; neither is he the rustic voluptuary of the Schlegel song of the same name, D694. He is a genuine gods-fearing seafarer, such as might have served Odysseus, and the man's calling is acknowledged by the two spread chords which open the work like the ripple of water in the wake of a plied oar. Throughout the song built on a generous and resonant bass line, there is a feeling of contact with the currents and depths of the sea, but, at the end of the second verse especially, the navigator's eyes and voice are turned heavenward with awe, and the vocal line is somehow bathed in starlit radiance. The key is A flat, which Schubert often uses for evocations of the wonders of god-in-nature. That the gods are kind and merciful is apparent from the beautiful softening of harmony on 'eure Milde'—the simple expedient of a seventh chord, but who but Schubert knows how to place an everyday harmonic standby as tellingly as this? The piano part of the first two lines of the middle verse doubles the vocal line, a simple but perfect way to reflect the meaning of 'doppelt mutig.' The third verse, a repeat of the first as far as the vocal line is concerned, allows the boatman to resume his work, and finish his prayer as he rows; the work is hard, the voyage long and perilous, the progress of the rowed boat slow and arduous—all these things are felt in the depth and grandeur, the tidal tug, of the piano's left hand. The promise of an offering to the Dioscuri at the end of a voyage, if the boatman reaches home, is as heartfelt and pious a promise as ever man made to his maker. The hazardous homebound journey of Odysseus again comes to mind.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991