The text is the first eight lines of a much longer poem by Eberhard entitled Das Feuerwerk. The theme of a dazzling firework display is only developed in the poem after the initial nocturnal description. It thus makes no sense to use this explosive title; instead, this work is published under the poem’s first line and, as such, it is the first of the many songs where Schubert indulged his fascination with the musical depiction of starlight and the night sky. There are many Schubert Lieder with this theme, and great ones among them, but Viel tausend Sterne prangen seems especially to be the musical forbear of Nachthelle, that extraordinary night-piece for tenor and chorus that Schubert composed in 1826. The accompaniment’s repeated semiquavers on a pedal C sharp in the second verse (at ‘O ewig schöne Sterne’) are absolutely prophetic of that work where twinkling stars are depicted, in the same fashion, with repeated chords in semiquavers. More old-fashioned is the fact that there is no real change of tempo in the piece, only the filling-out of note values which first appear as spacious crotchets and quavers, and are then made to bristle with demisemiquavers towards the end. There is something of the Gluckian ‘engine’ behind the build-up of energy in the piece, but he is only one of the masters who was a factor in its birth.
Although one is speaking with the advantage of musicological hindsight, in some ways this is very obviously a very early piece: the piano writing is unambitious, mainly doubling the voices, and the interludes have an eighteenth-century feel to them, Haydn-like in their cheery demeanour. But mention of that master reminds us how much all composers had learned from Die Schöpfung, and in 1812 that work was still relatively modern, having first appeared in 1798. Haydn had been able to capture a sense of the vastness of the cosmos and the breadth of the skies, and the young Schubert’s achievement here is in creating a surprisingly imposing heavenly canvas. The piece ends in a blaze of fortissimo glory, impressive in its way (and here Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte seems to be the presiding influence); but the most moving thing about it is the quiet music at the beginning. In some ways the opening twelve bars of this piece, though they contain no ground-breaking harmony, are among the most mature of the young composer’s achievements. Within this choral writing we can already hear that note of authentic Schubertian heartbreak which resounds at the same time as he rejoices – reverence and awe at the grandness and beauty of Creation, coupled with an awareness that that time given to us to enjoy it is all too short. Goodness knows how a boy of fifteen had the technical and emotional means to achieve this. If the work was performed by the composer’s fellow-students at the Konvikt (as Alfred Orel, the scholar who rediscovered this piece, believed it was) we can understand why the young Schubert quickly became a legend among his school friend contemporaries.
August Gottlob Eberhard was born in Belzig in Brandenburg and died in Dresden. He studied theology in Halle, and then painting. At first he scratched a living engraving illustrations for botanical works, but he soon became known as a novelist, and ran a bookshop in Halle. His firm published the famous Urania by Christoph August Tiedge in 1801. Eberhard is best remembered for his poem in hexameters, Hannchen und die Küchlein, which is one of those famous children’s book meant also to be read by adults. The complete edition of his works (1830) ran to twenty volumes, although Das Feuerwerk appeared in the 1807 Leipzig almanac, Zeitung für die elegante Welt. Doubting whether such a publication would have been available to a schoolboy, Alfred Orel believed it likely that Schubert took over this text from a choral setting of the words by another Viennese composer, Leonhard von Call (1767-1815). In the pantheon of Schubert’s youth there seems no end to the list of long-forgotten musical names who once stood side-by-side with those we still acknowledge as famous composers.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1999