It cannot be claimed that the Novalis hymns rival the Beethoven settings of Gellert. The words of Novalis are infinitely more demanding and subtle, and Schubert is not able to exploit the grandiose harmonic simplicity which makes Beethoven’s confident way with Gellert especially memorable. And yet it seems that these hymns (and this one in particular) had their adherents in the Schubert circle. Refuting Kreissle von Hellborn’s low opinion of the Novalis hymns, no less a Schubertian than Josef von Spaun tells us that Hofsekretär Josef Gross, who was a most gifted musician, valued this song as ‘the most beautiful of all the songs which Schubert ever wrote’. Spaun also tells us that the singer Vogl placed an extraordinarily high value on the Novalis songs. It is difficult enough for modern-day performers to think themselves into the conventions of strophic song; regaining contact with the pious world of eighteenth-century church Lieder is an almost impossible task for the average concert singer of today. Some of these Novalis poems made their way into contemporary evangelistic church songbooks (with music other than by Schubert of course) with the difficult strophes simply left out. The third strophe of this song shows the influence on Novalis of his teacher Abraham Gottlob Werner and that learned man’s theory of ‘Neptunismus’, the concept of a gigantic ocean (‘Urmeer’) which dates from the time of the Creation. This produces water and geological metaphors which are combined with eschatological imagery of the last hours on earth. The fourth verse, in which Novalis veers towards Roman Catholic imagery (as is often the case), stems from the poet’s years in Jena and a visit to Dresden where he viewed the Sistine Madonna of Raphael. Naturally, neither of these verses found their way into the contemporary hymn books.
The most exceptional thing about the music is that half of each strophe is in the original key of B flat minor, a tonality used by Schubert seldom, but usually associated (as in Gretchens Bitte, Der 13. Psalm and Ihr Bild) with deep and contemplative devotion. The second half reverts to B flat major where all the conditional clauses and ‘ifs’ of the earlier lines melt into the certainties of redemption. The melody, accompanied by discreet chords, is in the hymn-tune style with a succession of tuneful sequences. The conviction with which the words are sung makes a great difference to the song’s effect. The postlude is attractive without being especially profound, but that is perhaps to judge it unfairly in comparison to a religious song like Litanei composed in a less esoteric and more openly emotional mood.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997
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