The poem dates from September 1780, some months after Goethe had penned Grenzen der Menschheit and sent it to Charlotte von Stein, together with a drawing of a pig-sty. Wandrers Nachtlied came into being in even more unlikely, and almost legendary, circumstances. The story of its composition is well known to most Germans from their early schooldays. The poem was first written in pencil on the wall of a small room on the upper floor of a hunting chalet on the Kilckelhahn in the Thuringian hills, Ilmenau, near Weimar. Goethe was an energetic thirty-one-year-old who had climbed up high to view the sunset. ‘Apart from the smoke rising here and there from the charcoal-kilns, the whole scene is motionless’ he wrote to Frau von Stein. Some fifty-one years later, on 27 August 1831, at the age of 82, Goethe returned to this spot. On visiting the same chalet he recognised his own handwriting, now faded on the wall, and pondered the significance of the passing of time. When Goethe himself recounted this incident to his friend, the Berlin composer Karl Friedrich Zelter (letter of 4 September 1831), his observations were dryly philosophical; he reflected on how much had happened in the intervening time, how much life had changed – in effect, how much water had passed under the bridge. But on that day, the poet had been in the company of the civil servant Johann Christian Mahr who left a much more emotional description of the incident: ‘Goethe read these lines and tears flowed down his cheeks. Very slowly he drew a snow-white handkerchief from his dark brown coat, dried his eyes and spoke in a soft, mournful tone: ‘Yes, wait! Soon you too will be at rest!’
This story is even more moving if we reflect that when Goethe dried his tears, Franz Schubert had already been dead for nearly three years. Goethe, in his letter to Zelter wrote of Wandrers Nachtlied as a poem ‘that you, on the pinions of music, have so sweetly and movingly drawn through the world’. Well, Zelter’s song is beautiful, but not as beautiful as the song that poor Schubert had composed in Vienna some nine years before that second visit to Ilmenau. At least it had not been among the consignments of songs sent to Goethe by Schubert, all of which were ignored. ‘If only’ is a phrase that tends to recur regularly when it comes to the relationship, or rather non-relationship, between this composer and the poet of poets. But Goethe was right about one thing: these words have resounded through the world thanks to music – not Zelter’s, but Schubert’s. And how many countless friends has the poet made who otherwise would never have heard of him (particularly in the English-speaking world) had it not been for music! That Goethe is revered in England is partly thanks to Faust, but no other single work, or body of work from the purely literary standpoint, can rival the good done for his cause by the world-wide reception of the lied. Countless listeners, first enamoured of Schubert and Wolf, have come to love German literature in its own right.
The poem was published under the title ‘Ein Gleiches’ (‘Another One’) so that it is a pendant to the first Wandrers Nachtlied – ‘Der du von dem Himmel bist’, set by Schubert in 1815 (D224, Volume 1). It is a model of concision and conceals the logic and clarity of Goethe the scientist. The massive peace of which the poem speaks comes in ordered stages and pervades the whole of Creation. First the mountain peaks (‘Gipfeln’), the mineral world on which the poet was a considerable authority. Then, in the treetops (Wipfeln) no movement can be detected; Flora is still. We ascend the ladder of Creation. Next comes the repose of Fauna as the birds fall silent (‘Die Vöglein schweigen’). And finally, at the summit, Man – nature’s greatest achievement – who will soon rest also. Everything is so ordered and logical that we can scarcely believe that the poetic effect is also overwhelming; but therein lies the power of Goethe, and here is as perfect an example of what made him great as might be found – the extraordinary balance in his nature between artist and scientist, between truth and fantasy (Dichtung und Wahrheit, if you will), between the wise judgement of Apollo (who weighs each syllable and tests the truth of each statement) and Dionysos who fills what might otherwise have been dry and learned with such a rush of sensual feeling that, time after time, lines of his poetry make the hair stand on end at the back of one’s neck (as it happens, A E Housman’s test of great poetry). This poem truly contains the completeness of Goethe, the clinical eye of observation tempered by the great-hearted compassion so much more extraordinary than a sentimental story about a snow-white handkerchief. There is unerring ability to live in the present, to celebrate what is actually happening at any given moment. At the same time there is a perception of the larger picture, both in terms of time and space (for this view from Ilmenau is a vast and glorious panorama, no matter how pithy the poem). And Goethe, for all his deafness to the greatness of Schubert (for whatever of a number of reasons), understood something that English writers (and composers) had forgotten since the time of Shakespeare, and not yet re-learned in 1780, or even much later. This was that the greatest art of the most learned poet could also take the form of a simple lyric, truthful, unpretentious, yet serious, and open to serious musical setting.
The key is B flat major, one of Schubert’s more neutral tonalities, although one can think of another spellbinding night-scene in this key – Der Winterabend. On reflection, because the scene is beyond emotion and in a sense impersonal, one understands the choice. The introduction in solemn dactyls announces something softly significant and universal; the composer uses this rhythm for the turning of the earth and the movement of the stars, and here we immediately sense the inscrutable majesty of a defining moment in nature. The piano sound is cushioned and smooth, the spacing of the chords suggesting the solemnity of ceremonial. This is the tessitura of tenor and bass singing in close harmony, and the pitch that we might hear the mournful tone of an alphorn resounding across the valleys. (Schubert chose B flat major to depict the wide open spaces of Der Hirt auf dem Felsen.) There is a hint of a melodic shape in the introduction which pre-shadows the contour of the vocal line, and the 6 – 4/5 – 3 cadence in this first bar makes magic of an harmonic cliché. The second bar, a V – I cadence, is another commonplace somehow turned to gold. With Spartan economy Schubert later uses this figure as the accompaniment to the song’s two closing bars.
At the entry of the voice, both singer and audience are already in the grip of an atmosphere conjured from seemingly nothing. The observer is very still, the vocal line begins on a level plateau of B flats; there is a small upward inflection as his gaze takes in the sight of the peaks (at ‘Gipfeln’) until a return to B flat on the word ‘Ruh’, where Goethe has provided his own vowel-music for a word that sounds ineffably peaceful in its own right. At ‘in allen Wipfeln’ there is a jump of a fourth as the singer refocuses his gaze to the middle-distance and sees the treetops, all of them. The eye is at work, but the body is still. This tranquillity must be reflected by a seamless mezza voce legato. At ‘Wipfeln spürest du’ the introduction of a German sixth in the accompaniment adds the first note of chromatic poignancy and mystery – we are witness to a sight so mighty that a shiver runs down the spine. In the semiquaver syncopations between the hands we hear the last stirrings of nature before complete repose. At ‘kaum einen Hauch’ (supported by a diminished-seventh harmony) the concentration deepens. There is ‘scarcely’ a breath of air, but the accompaniment tells us there is still some movement in the distance. The dotted-crotchet D flat has the observer transfixed, waiting to see whether a trace of wind remains in the treetops, straining to hear the dying music of nature. The tree-rustlings have been depicted in the lower octaves of the piano, and now the birds twitter over a lighter, clearer piano texture. They are not yet silent (that moment is to come); they are in the process of falling silent, and Schubert allows himself to repeat ‘schweigen’ with a touch of affectionate vocal cantilena for their fading strain.
There is a brief moment (only a quaver) of silence for the voice after ‘im Walde’. We hear the last rustling in B flat major from the piano. Then the devastating change to G minor for ‘Warte nur’. We have arrived at nature’s total silence, something almost as eerie as a total eclipse, and the point of the whole song. Only the observer standing on the hill is not at rest. From our privileged vantage point we have viewed all the various aspects of Creation – mineral, vegetable, and animal – and we are reminded that we are no less susceptible to change and decay than they are. It is difficult to say whether what follows is meant as a warning threat or a promise of release, and Schubert pitches his music in such a way as to include both possibilities. The two settings of ‘Warte nur’ (descending phrases in dotted rhythm, first in G minor, then opening out to F7) are rather stern as if part of a warning. But in the setting of ‘balde’, and a consolatory return to the tonic chord of B flat major, we encounter something spiritual, as if the voice in its upward flight to the heady realms of mezza voce has touched the hem of the divine garment. This tiny word – ‘soon’ – a gentle horn-call where voice and piano part in contrary motion, promises ineffable peace. But it also mirrors our fear of the unknown, and our reluctance to leave all this beauty behind us. The preceding bars (from ‘Warte nur’) are now repeated, although rebarred in a subtly different way. This near-symmetry is a masterstroke; only the greatest composers are unafraid to repeat their ideas. This makes of the closing of the song a solemn ritual and a benediction where the gravitas of inevitability (‘Soon you too will rest’) sets the seal on an imperishable masterpiece.
It also sets the seal on Schubert’s settings of Goethe, a farewell. Although it is not possible to set an exact date to the song, it is likely that this was the last new Goethe poem that Schubert set. All later Goethe settings are re-workings of poems (the Mignon songs) that he had already worked on for some years. This is also the last of the many Goethe settings to appear in the Hyperion Schubert Edition.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000