Perhaps Schubert was going through a particularly religious phase at this point of his life. After all, it is known that the Esterhazy family with whom he spent the summers of 1818 and 1824 was deeply devout, as were the two pretty daughters, and the composer was susceptible to the enthusiasms of people he liked and admired. But there may be another explanation, and this lies in the rather unusual character of Anton Pettenkoffer (1788-1834) who, on the Thursday evenings of 1819 and 1820, hosted musical gatherings in his third-floor apartment in a house in the Bauernmarkt. Earlier there had been a private orchestral society which met at Otto Hartwig's, but these new premises were bigger, and the meetings were avidly attended by the Schubert circle. This was an opportunity to hear much unfamiliar music, and the gatherings were precursors of the genuine Schubertiads which date from 1821 or so. We know that Handel's Messiah, Haydn's Die Schöpfung and Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze were all performed at Pettenkoffer's, and that Schubert himself took part, playing the viola. The host had a penchant for sacred music and it seems likely that at least some of Schubert's religious compositions of the time, including Der 13. Psalm and Lazarus, were conceived for performance at the home of the same patron.
This song has remained a fragment, and it would be tempting to say one knows why the composer put it to one side, were it not for the fact that it is more likely that the final page has simply been lost. Like Evangelium Johannis (also a fragment) it seems less than convincing as a piece of Schubert; its simple aria style seems rather plain for what we know of this composer's response to deep and significant words. It is the accompaniment in particular which seems under-developed. Although it has never been questioned that the work was written for voice and piano, these andante triplet arpeggios drifting down the stave, and the subsequent gently undulating semiquavers, seem infinitely more like harp writing. If this song is genuinely for piano, it is certain that Schubert never wrote anything more anonymous for the instrument. The lack of pianistic detail and elaboration is astonishing considering how often the words might have suggested something more interesting. Not only would the harp have been a highly appropriate instrument to accompany the Psalms of King David (who was a harpist after all), but it also seems possible that there would have been a harp among the orchestral instruments available at Pettenkoffer's. It was about this time that people were beginning to play Erard's splendid new double-action harps tuned to the key of C flat. The piece as it stands is entirely performable on the harp, and the key of B flat minor with its five flats, rare in Schubert songs, is an ideal tonality for performance on that instrument.
If this is not harp-accompanied music, Schubert deliberately restricted himself to a background accompaniment of the greatest simplicity, and no doubt had it in mind that the accompanist could imitate a harp sonority, perhaps using a harp stop, on the piano. It is also possible that he had the slightly inept fingers of an amateur organist in mind, and that the piece was written for performance in a church where the acoustic would preclude fancy detail in the accompaniment. But the idea of a harp prevails, because this sonority with this vocal particular line would make perfect sense, and would also provide the colour and texture missing to give the piece a magic of its own. Most unusually, one is reminded of certain lieder by Schumann that share either a Jewish or harpist theme, sometimes both (Aus den hebraïschen Gesängen Op25 No15 comes to mind- a Byronic reworking of a Psalm, with its arpeggios slowly spiralling down the keyboard- as well as the more virtuosic Die Tochter Jepthas Op95, and the mournful Harfner Lieder from Wilhelm Meister Op 98).
The vocal line also seems deliberately reined-in, as if too much theatrical emotion is inappropriate: the controlled asceticism of the Novalis hymns comes to mind, and of course we could simply be overhearing the composer in experimental mode, attempting to be more and more expressive using the simplest means. There are tiny touches of word-painting- for example the held G flat suspended in mid-air at 'Wie lange noch mein Feind obsiegen?' and the softening modulation into the tonic major at 'Schau herab!'. The recitative at 'Sonst spricht mein Feind' is disappointingly stiff. The final section of the song is a gentle dance in 6/8. Here the atmosphere is that of a charmingly unpretentious Singspiel aria in Schubert's Claudine von Villa Bella style, although the metre of Mendelssohn's translation is an awkward fit for this sort of pastoral simplicity- there are too many words and too few occasions for the singer to breathe. The last six bars in this performance are by the eminent Schubert scholar Eusebius Mandyczewski and are no more than an adequate continuation of the ideas already unfolded. It is likely that Schubert would have composed a postlude, but Mandyczewski was wise enough not to try to provide one.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1998