It sounds like something that may have appeared in a play, incidental music for the character of a nurse. There is no sign of the sophisticated work Schubert has been doing in this period – no trace of the melodic and melismatic suavity of the Metastasio exercises, nor of Zumsteeg-inspired balladry. At first glance we would seem to be entering the world of the Viennese Singspiel and its style like watered-down Mozart. But it seems to me there is a sadder theme behind this music written for a simple working woman (is the child the nurse’s own, or simply a waif in her care?) and that here the composer is developing important aspects of his future musical language where the bare bones of simplicity move us most of all. Reed talks of the song’s playful tenderness, but there is something less than playful about this scenario. Certainly there is a merry little bell-ringing motif at the repeat of ‘Am hohen, hohen Turm’, but this is surely only whistling down the wind. Ammenlied is a winter song, written in winter; indeed, it is Schubert’s first winter song and, as such, the humble antecedent of a glorious line to come. There is a faith in spring – a ‘Frühlingsglaube’ – about the first three strophes: a belief that singing about spring will make it come more quickly, and that things will soon change. But the frozen little daughter of the last strophe is not expected to survive the harshness of the season. She can only look forward to death, and the welcome of the angels.
Schubert knew about infant mortality; he was no stranger to the death of children, including his younger siblings. Other songs reinforce the notion that Ammenlied is a tragic song. It is most closely related to Lied D373 (1816?) with a text by De la Motte Fouqué. This begins ‘Mutter geht durch ihre Kammern’ and the theme is parental distress over loss of a child. Lied is also in G minor, is written in 2/4 and has a similar hieratic rigidity where grief is depicted through folksong simplicity. In Ammenlied, mention of a ‘hoher Turm’ (high bell-tower) brings to mind the opening of the Mayrhofer setting Der Hirt (also 1816) another 2/4 song also characterised by quavers, ominously repeated on one note in the accompaniment. (This song bemoaning the loss of a faithless girl prophesies Gute Nacht from Winterreise). And in Ammenlied, the repeated quavers pointing toward death will find their apotheosis (once again in G minor) in Der Wegweiser from Winterreise where the winter traveller’s best hope for the future is the peace of the grave. With this in mind it is possible to hear the bells of the first strophe as a peal rung for the dead – something of the so-called Zugenglöcklein.
These signposts to the future may seem fanciful. But Schubert’s song output seems more of a piece the longer one studies it; after all it encompasses only fifteen or so years of productivity. There is less a question of his shedding the past than of building bigger and grander edifices on what has always been a part of his musical language and understanding. In this way, the composer’s musical beginnings are incorporated, elaborated and refined rather than thrown away. Out of the tiniest song acorns grow the mightiest Lieder oaks. The end of Der Wegweiser is pre-figured in the closing bars of an even earlier song (see the commentary on Leichenfantasie D7). The composer’s motto could well have been ‘En ma fin est mon commencement’ – ‘In my end is my beginning’ as well as ‘In my beginning is my end’.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1999