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However, the two versions of the earlier setting of the piece (the second of them recorded here) are another matter. I would suggest that they were composed at almost exactly the same time as the completed second setting (a few weeks earlier at the most) and that Schubert was encouraged by Salieri to go straight back to the drawing-board. It is easy to see that the first setting was abandoned forthwith. For one thing the composer only sketched in certain aspects of the accompaniment – a practice which he was to adopt as a permanent way of working – creating the vocal line first with only hints of the piano writing, and filling in the details later. This piece was left in its skeletal state and it was Reinhard Van Hoorickx who reconstructed it, carefully incorporating what remains of the genuine Schubert into his realisation (for example, the winsome left-hand staccato of the opening and the staccato figurations, a pizzicato effect, in bar 19 after ‘Qual era il genitor’).
When first hearing the opening of this piece, the operatic enthusiast will do a double take. ‘Where have I heard that music before?’ he will ask. Schubert might well have asked himself the same thing. We know that Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte was one of the operas he heard in 1812, and it seems to have made a huge impression in him. So much so that when he came to set this text about an unhappy child and problems with its father, he began to think of the Pamina and Sarastro relationship. Schubert’s mind worked like that: certain musical images and shapes were called upon, as if summoned from a data base, as soon as he grasped the dramatic implications of any musical situation. In this way he has no need to look up his earlier work, from the past, in order to quote it. The same music would come to him afresh if confronted with a similar set of literary stimuli. Even his borrowings from himself are usually unconscious and made as a result of his ability to draw on a vast library of word-to-music associations, ready in his head and waiting to be used.
This is why he hardly noticed that the first four bars of his setting are entirely lifted from the tune (and partially the rhythm) of Pamina’s great aria 'Ach ich fühl’s' – and the unintentional plagiarism also includes the G minor tonality! This is a scenario worthy of Hollywood, or at least of Peter Schaffer: Schubert visits Salieri with an exercise to mark, handing in an aria quoting, in unconscious homage, an old rival whom Salieri certainly did not poison but, equally certainly, did not like very much. In all likelihood, Salieri acidly pointed out that the tune of Misero pargoletto lacked a certain originality, and Schubert must have been embarrassed. After all, we have failed to find much evidence of him quoting unintentionally from any of Salieri’s operas.
Apart from this little upset, the song is a beautiful one that deserves to be better known. It requires fine bel canto singing, and is rather more wiltingly wistful than the later setting which aims for greater drama. Or it may be that Reinhard Van Hoorickx has erred on the side of caution by keeping his version of the accompaniment less active and obtrusive. In this, he too seems to have been influenced by the gentle unobtrusiveness of Mozart’s accompaniment for Pamina.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1999
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