In the first setting of Am Flusse (Volume 10), the text is interpreted from the viewpoint of the jilted lover. This results in a fine song, full of deeply sensitive feeling and gentle heartbreak. But by the time he came to set the poem again, seven years later, Schubert was only months away from writing Die schöne Müllerin, including the marvellously hypnotic song that ends that cycle, Des Baches Wiegenlied. This lullaby of the brook is both profoundly moving and completely impersonal, and it seems to me that the second version of Am Flusse is something of a study for that song, indeed a wet-run for the whole of that cycle and its governing mood of lucidity and unforced naturalness.
Goethe’s tiny lyric shows us how and why the composer had a change of heart about this poem. The poet says that the beloved songs have flowed into the sea of oblivion. Schubert responds to this by writing a beautiful song which is pared down to the bare essentials with a minimum of modulation. Indeed there is no change from an unadulterated D major for the first nine bars of music – apart, that is, from the semiquaver G sharp which decorates the left-hand motif. This conjures oblivion before our ears and we are left with the music of the stream undisturbed by human emotion, indeed almost unencumbered by the music of man. This leaves only the river’s own music which Schubert creates with an ear finely tuned to nature. All the love songs that used to be superimposed on the watery map have flowed away, leaving a blueprint of eternity. The beloved girl pours scorn on the singer’s constancy, and in the 1815 version he minded a great deal about this – that song is marked ‘Wehmutig’ – ‘sadly’. But here it is the river which speaks louder than the poet; indeed the poet has become the river, and he is beyond caring for such things as human affairs – they are all water under the bridge, and unimportant in the broader scheme of things. All signs of strong emotion have been erased the better to convey the deep resounding note of nature herself; just as in Des Baches Wiegenlied where the boy lies drowned in the stream, the role of nature is to place transient earthly happenings into a cosmic perspective. The left-hand accompaniment consists of a drone, open fifths which gently undulate beneath the surface and propel the music forward without any sense of panic or loss of equilibrium.
John Reed prefers the first version of the song, but I am not alone in thinking the second more exceptional. Theodor Werner has it, in his 1948 essay on the two Am Flusse settings, that the later version represents Goethe’s emotion ‘recollected in tranquillity’, and that the composer has now entered more fully into the poet’s mind. Certainly the narrator has passed the need for tears, self-pity or remonstration. Bearing this in mind, it is notable that the opening of the vocal line is the same descending arpeggio phrase as that for ‘Dort ist ihr Grab’ from the song Ihr Grab. Having accepted that his love is figuratively dead and buried, the singer has harmonised himself into nature’s major key, and his variation is only one in an endless passacaglia. The handful of Goethe songs from December 1822 show, on Schubert’s part, an even sharper affinity with the poet’s inner world than the songs of 1814 to 1816. But it is important to note that the composer himself has changed a great deal in this period, and that by December 1822 he had completely moved away from the virtuosity that had been a feature of his song-writing two years earlier, and in the songs at the beginning of this disc. Schubert had now discovered how to reduce the grandness of the Goethean scale to a miniature like this, without reducing the power of the poem; and he was on the brink of finding a musical language for Wilhelm Müller which gave quasi-folk-poetry, and its deceptively simple setting, an inner significance which quietly outdoes Sturm und Drang in terms of intensity.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997