The rolling E flat major triplets of the introduction are timelessly linked with the opera world. Here their function seems at first to be exactly the same as with many a tender effusion of Donizetti or Bellini. Admittedly, part of the purpose of such neutral undulations is the preparation of hospitable ground and fallow soil in which melody is able to sink its roots, and blossom. But Schubert is seldom merely an efficient gardener; his song landscapes incorporate decorative features. In the third line of the poem we read of the ‘Geräusch des Wasserfalles’ and it is this imagery which instigates the incessant background murmur of the waterfall. These descriptive, and far from neutral, triplets bind the song into a satisfying whole from the musical point of view; at the same time the musings of the lonely poet’s disparate imaginings are focused into unified expression.
John Reed avers that the Matthisson songs of this period were composed under Salieri’s supervision, and this may well be the case. If Salieri had permitted Schubert to move on from Metastasio and use fragments of Schiller for his exercises (see the note for Dithyrambe) he may even have allowed his pupil to introduce him to Matthisson’s poetry. Salieri actually composed a setting of this poet’s Andenken (published much later in a supplement to an issue of the Wiener Zeitung der Mode und Kunst). It is fascinating to speculate whether it was the student’s example which encouraged the teacher to venture further into the sphere of German Lieder.
In any case, the ingratiating poise of the opening vocal melody, two bars which are eloquently reflected high in the piano’s right-hand stave, would have pleased the Italian. The sinuous tune continues to unwind: a four-note rising scale at ‘Hier, beim Geräusch des Wasserfalles’ (a two-bar phrase which is repeated to encompass the rest of the strophe) is one of the song’s unifying thumbprints. For the second strophe the music modulates into the dominant (B flat major) and Schubert constructs another melodic line which depends on repetition for its effect. Here the composer is so intent on pursuing the continuing sense of the words that he has failed to take into account the singer’s need to breathe. It seems that Salieri’s lessons have been too well learned: the vocal line here is rather too seamless.
The poet’s longing (at ‘Es sehnt wie hier’) occasions a shift into F minor with triplets entering the left hand for the first time, like pulsating heartbeats. The appearance of diminished-seventh arpeggios adds to the pathos. The climbing four-note motif from the first strophe reappears, this time a fourth higher. The song is beginning to sound like a genuine tenor piece; and now, at the heart of it, Schubert introduces recitative to follow aria, a reversal of the time-honoured operatic procedure. But first, arioso: the accompanying triplets continue to support a vocal line (‘Durchbebt dich auch / Im Abendhauch’) which abandons melody in favour of something nearer the inflections of speech. And then, at ‘Er ist’s, der lind / Dir, süsses Kind’, safely settled in the holy reaches of the subdominant, there is a clearing in the music, a peaceful grove in the music’s landscape. The triplets yield to the stillness of minims and semibreves and, in recitative that is anything but secco, the poet directly addresses his beloved with a sensual intimacy where the ruffling effects of the evening breeze are mirrored in the gentle movement of semiquavers in the vocal line. It is clear from this that it is he who, in spirit form, is doing the touching and caressing. We are not aware of a break in the song, only the momentary suspension of time. This had been part of Schubert’s careful plan.
For the poem’s sixth verse the aria resumes in C minor; the waterfall is no longer in the picture, but the accompaniment’s triplets depict, equally suitably, the mysterious, and slightly restless, movement of the spirit companion who is forever at the beloved’s side. Although this section is cast as melody, the words move swiftly by in the manner of recitative (apart from the held tempo of the strophe’s last line, suddenly in gliding crotchets – ‘In stiller Nacht vorübergleiten’). The role of this section is to set up the final verse which will bring the various strands of this song together. A bar of accompaniment returns the music to the home key of E flat major in conventional manner. The last strophe is musically modelled on the first with various adaptations. In the end, it is as if we have heard a simple ABA structure, but Schubert’s architecture has been more subtle than this. The climactic cadence at ‘In allen Welten’ brings a moment of impassioned dalliance on a diminished seventh. It is as if Schubert has imagined his music fixed in the heavens, as if caught in unresolved space, alongside the narrator. The elongation of the second, and final, ‘umschweben’ is more subtle than a stock-in-trade Italianate melisma; the vocal line holds its ground on a held B flat, a metaphor for the spirit’s steadfastness, and the changes of harmony underneath, in the accompanying triplets, signify movements of time and place within the ever-shifting universe.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1999