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As a message to the beloved the song is a rather pallid and less passionate counterpart to the dusky passions of the oriental Suleika who is also parted from her beloved and attempts to communicate with him at a distance. (Schubert settings of Marianne von Willemer’s words were to be composed only a few years later.) Within the strict stylistic bounds of the sonnet it is hardly surprising that there is an element of ladylike decorum here, while Suleika throws discretion, literally, to the winds. But that decorum, particularly when a male poet idealizes feminine behaviour (in the manner of Chamisso’s Frauenliebe und -leben), is part of the song’s context, and thus musical vocabulary. It is no surprise that this poem appealed tremendously to Mendelssohn (Op 86 No 3, 1831) who threw his heart into a setting which arguably outdoes Schubert’s in terms of sincerity and beauty. That Brahms also set the poem (Op 47 No 5, 1858) is a sure sign that he was not intimidated by Schubert’s setting. The reticence and ‘comme il faut’ of the girl’s behaviour chimes more with the Victorian values of Mendelssohn, the ultra-respectable family man, than with Schubert. And Brahms simply renders the song more daringly emotional, having at his disposal the chromatic vocabulary of a later epoch.
We might have wished for something like the letter aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, but Minna’s demeanour (as projected by Goethe) is no match for Tatyana’s temperament and musical language. We find ourselves rather in the Mozartian world of the letter duet from Le nozze di Figaro where Susanna and the Countess compose a letter of entrapment for the Count, also in B flat major (Schubert’s original key for the song, although the Peters Edition publishes it in A). The introduction proposes four bars made up of two phrases, one answering the other as in ‘Shall I write a letter?’ and ‘Yes, I shall’. Question-and-answer are very much a part of the musical scheme. Thus the pauses here between musical phrases betoken the flourish of the pen (very much after Mozart’s example) and the time taken to think of the next line. Directly after ‘Ein Blick von deinen Augen in die meinen’ the cello-like echoes in the tenor (and thus masculine) line beautifully paint the idea of a wordless reciprocated glance. This tender little reply motif is a feature of the whole of the first section of the song – which is to say the first eight lines of the sonnet. Mention of searching in vain for joy in other things (‘was anders wohl erfreulich scheinen’) prompts a momentary modulation to the mediant; but this is unsatisfactorily outside the current preoccupation with Mr Right, and the vocal line returns quickly to the home key, unsatisfied with the glimpse of outside reality and almost obsessively grounded in a little melody imprisoned within the narrow interval of a fifth. There is a much stronger switch of key (this time to the submediant) at ‘da fang’ ich an zu weinen’ – we can hear tears welling up and coming to the surface in the unusually engineered modulation. This is a link passage into the second section of the song marked ‘Etwas bewegter’.
For the final six lines of the sonnet Schubert changes from 3/4 to 2/4. He finds a delicate and fragile, almost palpitating mood for the girl’s fantasies of reciprocation. Here we can also sense a hint of an operatic set piece as cavatina yields to cabaletta. Triplets are split between the treble and bass staves where we hear only two notes in each group of three in any one hand. This highly uncommon feature in the accompaniment is to be found in Sonett II (Petrarch) from 1818, where the poet speaks of his abject adoration for Laura and feels himself less than complete and lacking the wholeness of reciprocated love. In both songs the effect is the same: the unevenly distributed threes depict someone at sixes and sevens. The final ‘gib mir ein Zeichen’ is most affectingly done, though to say that ‘it could not be more passionate’ (Fischer-Dieskau) seems an exaggeration. Here, for once, Mendelssohn seems Schubert’s superior. Whether Schubert was entirely satisfied with the song is open to doubt; it was not one of the pieces which he published in his lifetime, and almost anything by this poet was usually given priority by the composer when it came to work on the stocks waiting to appear in print.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997
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