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Novalis writes out his hymn in one long strophe, but the divisions in the poem are printed here to allow the listener to see how the composer divided the work into distinct sections. The first of these (marked ‘Mit Andacht’, ‘with devotion’) approximates the naturalness of speech in the way it weaves in and out of melody, stopping briefly (with cadence and fermata) to draw breath and consider the next point. It is clear that it is a matter of priority for the composer that the text should be clearly understood. The effect is of something spoken clearly from the pulpit with a variety of passion and rhetorical gestures to accompany points, some of which are made vehemently, others calmly.
At ‘Wer hat des irdischen Leibes Hohen Sinn erraten?’ there is a short seven-bar recitative (marked as such). These questions (the second is ‘Wer kann sagen, Dass er das Blut versteht?’) are followed by the most striking and grandiose section of this hymn – searing music for the words of a seer, and an appropriate match for the unusual and mystical imagery. The accompaniment is not complicated; it consists of a succession of mighty chords, spaced evenly as if to herald and punctuate a pronouncement of some import.
The section beginning ‘O! dass das Weltmeer Schon errötete’ is less successful because even Schubert finds himself at a loss to do justice to these words at the same time as retaining the simple overall style that he had planned for the piece. The accompaniment surges (or, if one is not careful, plods) in a quasi-Italianate manner; the energy this should generate might be considered to approximate to the drives of thrusting desire, but it falls short of the mark. The words ‘Durstiger und hungriger Wird das Herz’ call forth a tremolo-accompanied phrase that is both melodramatic and something of a rarity.
The final section recovers the momentum. The composer creates an ingenious ‘circular’ melody (accompanied by triplets) for ‘Und so währet der Liebe Genuss’. This two-bar phrase is heard twice but the added sixth in the chord of B flat major (in the song’s original key, that is) leaves the harmony seemingly unanchored and free to float in space – this phrase is going nowhere in particular, and could be heard again and again. It is thus an exact musical analogue for the words which talk of the pleasure of love lasting through all eternity. A return to the ‘Italian’ music (at ‘Hätten die Nüchternen’ ) is followed by the B flat6 arpeggios, this time representing the infinite richness (something which need never come to an end) of love.
The music for the whole of this piece, somewhat stiff, not particularly melodic and thus not particularly memorable for the usual reasons that music stays in the mind, is hardly the stamping-ground of the average Schubertian. But it has qualities that are a fascinating indication of a young composer attempting to look into his own soul, and who is drawn to texts which reflect his own position as a young man with the typical young man’s problem of reconciling a search for spiritual growth with sexual desire. Plato in his Symposium (a work also studied in the Bildung circle) referred to these conflicting desires as the black and white horses of the charioteer. By all accounts, the frolicking of the black horse of sensuality was an important and even obsessive part of Schubert’s make-up, and Novalis was saying in his great and resonant voice that these feelings were not dirty or sinful but part of one of the holiest and most uplifting experiences available to man, and that the artist who addressed these issues was himself Christ-like.
If the flesh was important to Schubert, so were the workings of his heart and brain; and his instinct at this time was to find a philosophy that could harmonize all three. There is every indication that at least for a while he was nourished by the fearless poetic syntheses of Novalis which, through the magic of poetry, made one glowing thing of many shadowy issues.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997
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