The song was published posthumously in E flat major to make it more accessible to the average mezzo or baritone, but Schubert's key is E major, as it is performed here. The marking is 'Geschwind' (`Fast') but the composer moderates this with a restraining C - four in the bar, as opposed to two. There are interpretations of this song which make of it a relative of Erlkönig, Wilkommen und Abschied or Auf der Bruck, where the excitement of a horse-ride pounds throughout the music. Admittedly the image of the hero's horse comes early in the Schlegel poem, and it might be argued that the music is driven forward in a similar way to the Goethe and Schulze masterpieces. It seems to me, however, that there is no steed in this forest, only the magical rustling of what Wagner would later call 'Forest Murmurs' (Siegfried, Act II) and the frissons of the imagination as man fancies that he is in the deepest communication with nature: this is above all a song about the power of thought. The poem does not belong to the Abendröte cycle, but it might well be part of that set - a magnified and extended Die Gebüsche where the songs of many bushes and trees combine to give the forest musical voice. But despite the size of this work there is much here that is gentle and subtle, and in the interpretation, and its relatively moderate tempo, we should be able to hear at least as much of a connection to the mysteriously ecstatic undulations of the song Abendröte, as to the more overtly theatrical Schubert songs. It is true that this music sends a shiver down our spine, but not in shock or horror.
There are nearly ten bars of piano introduction, and from the beginning we are aware that Schubert is in adventurous mood. Two bars of excited oscillations, a moto perpetuo of rippling semiquavers which will form the accompaniment in one shape or another almost without interruption, are in the home key of E major; these lead (via a bass which sidles downwards) to two bars in C sharp major no less, remote and dramatic with a touch of the sinister. Another drop in the bass line takes us to A7, and from there we climb back up to two further bars on a dominant pedal which returns us to the E major murmurings of the opening. The stage has been set, and the grand scale of the song established.
The entry of the voice provides a dramatic jolt with the sudden move to D sharp major at 'Windes Rauschen'. This drop of half a step is only to a curiously written E flat major of course, but Schubert somehow makes us hear it as a rising harmony because the vocal line climbs from G sharp to A sharp; thus tension mounts as the harmonic ground gives way beneath our feet. This short phrase is complemented by a sequence - 'Gottes Flügel' - a bar later and a tone higher. We thus have two separate dramatic exclamations (the effect is of gasps of wonder) before we go into the secret and intimate world of the subdominant (in first inversion) for 'Tief in kühler Waldesnacht'. The effect is of being told something awesome and mysterious. The final word of the phrase ('Waldesnacht') returns to the tonic key and is ornamented by a grace note which suggests a shudder of excitement. Within a bar the whole process of this first section is repeated, the same words now set higher in the voice for the poem's first line, and returning to exactly the same notes for 'tief in kühler Waldesnacht'. Mention of the hero's steed ('Wie der Held in Rosses Bügel') prompts the pianist's left hand to abandon semiquavers in favour of left-hand octaves in the manner of Auf der Bruck. In illustrating the poet's metaphor (for it is only 'Wie der Held' - my italics - the over-riding image is that of the power of thought) Schubert brings a note of strident grandeur into the music. The old pine trees ('die alten Tannen') are made to rustle splendidly at first hearing with a leap upwards, and then a drop, of an octave (the same intervals serve 'Geistes Wogen brausen'); but at the repeat of the words their music takes on an almost military precision as it marches up the stave in thirds in E major, followed by 'Geisteswogen' which plunges down in the opposite direction, this time in E minor. The effect of this long-arched structure in the vocal line is very Schlegelian: it is as if the forest itself inhales and exhales, a living thing suddenly animate as it seems to speak to the poet with the breath of nature.
In the second strophe ('Herrlich ist der Flamme Leuchten') flashes of lightning are brilliantly depicted in the exchange of staccato left-hand quavers with the dancing arpeggio figurations of the vocal line, which bristles with the electricity of consonants sung at high speed (a test, this, for any singer's diction). Thunder finds musical voice in the forceful bass notes, reinforced with a slew of acciaccaturas, under 'Tod'. It is a brilliant touch that these occur a full bar after the plunging octaves of 'Blitze', just as thunder follows lightning. It is Schubert's genius that he uses this phenomenon of nature to add, with perfect timing, an ominous rumble to his setting of the word 'death'. He is then faced with the problem of how to cap this effect for the even more evocative 'Rasch die Flamme zuckt und lodert', and here he astonishes us even more. Once again the vocal line climbs as the bass line falls. The capricious nature of the sparking flame is caught in three dazzling arpeggios in the piano with basses on D (first inversion of B flat major), D flat (a diminished seventh chord), and C (second inversion of F minor). These are followed by triumphant quaver chords breaking through from B flat minor to major, and thence to F major, the only time in the whole song when the pianist is given any respite from breathlessly pulsating semiquavers. Above this passage (reminiscent of the 'Ewigkeit' section of Gruppe aus dem Tartarus) the vocal line, suddenly ecstatic with a vision of the godhead, expands into dotted minims and semibreves. To balance this music (the song is made up of repeated phrases throughout) Schubert allows us to hear the passage again: the listener hears the same tune for 'Rasch die Flamme zuckt und lodert', but the piano harmonises those particular words with glittering arpeggios of completely different harmonies. This Schubertian legerdemain, where the composer demonstrates his ability, as always, to conjure St Cecilia's 'immortal fire' (as Auden calls it), shows us that a flame never flickers twice in exactly the same way.
With the third strophe we are led into regions of peaceful enchantment; it is as if we have come to a clearing in the forest which is other-worldly in its beauty. Schubert emphasises this by allowing the four-bar interlude to dematerialise before our ears, like mist lifting to reveal a vision of loveliness. First the bass notes thin out, and then they rise, coaxing the right hand up into more ethereal regions of the piano. The harmonic progression is from F major via G7 to C major, the flattened sixth of the tonic - the so-called 'Neapolitan sixth', and one of Schubert's favourite key relationships. It is here that singers find the vocal placement perilously high, and it was this passage which no doubt persuaded the publisher Diabelli to transpose the whole song down a semitone. And yet it is this heady texture, as if the singer were spiritually intoxicated by what he sees, that was surely the composer's intention. At first the pianist's left hand doubles the vocal line, but at 'Trauer doch in linden Wellen' a delightful dialogue begins, as between voice and cello, where their paths diverge. The whole mood of this section is pastoral. The flower imagery of 'Zaubert Blumen aus dem Schmerz' prompts music prophetic of the 'Rose nahet, Lilie schwankt' section of the ballad Viola , another instance of a left-hand melody flowering in support of the voice beneath a seraphic flow of semiquavers in the right hand. We move into the key of D flat major by a remarkable twist of harmony which gives the highly-placed setting of 'lockend an das Herz' an element of both delight and pain; the idyll is over, and we return to more galvanising areas of the forest. At 'Fernab hin der Geist gezogen' there is a quickening of the mood as the song is once again invaded by spiritual electricity, the beginning of a long build-up to the music of the fourth strophe. The left hand returns to the bass regions, and the second and third times we hear the words 'Fernab hin der Geist gezogen' we are rewarded with a grand and sumptuous phrase based on the subdominant of D flat major; a G flat octave deep in the bass supports a yearning drop of a fifth on 'Fernab hin' as if to emphasise the distance between us and the spirit, and the longing of mortals to follow where it leads.
Everything has been leading to Schlegel's fourth strophe, the vibrant heart of the poem and the lines which must have meant the most to Schubert, uniting as they do the ideas of unfettered freedom, the fulfilment of love, and the spiritual nature of creativity. The composer introduces these words by providing a breathing-space, an interlude of six bars of gentle semiquavers where the performers gather their strength for what is to follow, and the listener is given a moment of respite. We are in the key of D flat until the entry of the voice, where a sudden enharmonic change to C sharp major is a sign of the roller-coaster of heightened emotions and quickly changing harmonies which is to follow. The piano writing suddenly takes on a ferocious difficulty in its layout, as if the simple wrist movement that has been required up to this point is insufficiently taxing to reflect the idea of 'Drang des Lebens', as if the very playing of the accompaniment should be a 'Kampf der starken Triebe wild'. The way that the vocal line is divided into short phrases punctuated by rests is similar to the opening of the song, but significantly there is less time between vocal exclamations here, as the composer tightens the screws of tension. At 'schönsten Liebensfülle' the vocal line becomes suddenly high and quiet (to illustrate 'Geistes Hauch' - 'breath of the spirit') and gently lyrical. There is a new figure in the left hand of the accompaniment, quavers phrased in ascending fifths and sixths, suggestive of unappeased longing, pounding heartbeats, or the impatient panting of unassuaged passion. All these words are now repeated to similar melodies, but in different keys; like the pianist's eye, the ear is bewildered by the speed with which the harmonic scenery shifts - we feel as if we are in Schubert's hands on a dangerous joyride and can only hang on for dear life. Even by the high standards of excitement and virtuosity generated by this song, the setting of the passage beginning 'Schöpferischer Lüfte Wehen fühlt man durch die Seele gehen' is spectacular, dealing as it does with the very nature of the highly-charged creative inspiration which fired the composer to write this music in the first place. The pianist's left hand falls in chromatic steps and the right hand ascends in semitones in wrist-torturing swirls of semiquavers, bearing the voice upwards with it. The feeling of being shaken deeply, penetrated with a shattering emotion, is caught in some of the most extraordinary music that Schubert ever wrote. The virtuosity of this passage suggests a searing strength and masculinity, but this is so much more receptive and vulnerable than a standard showing of Beethovenian strength, so much more exciting than the music for the hero's steed earlier in the song. This is the voice of Romanticism, as far away as can be imagined from the formulae of the Vienna classics. The words are repeated in a higher sequence where the tessitura of the piano writing suggests even more strongly the lightning flashes of divine inspiration. The section ends with a more reflective setting of 'Fühlt man durch die Seele gehen.'
A three-bar interlude leads to a vocal bridging passage which is a means of disguising the recapitulation in the manner that Haydn and Beethoven used to tease the listener accustomed to the rules of sonata form. Thus in two juxtaposed passages we hear Schubert's vision of the future, as well as his debt to the past. 'Windes Rauschen, Gottes Flügel' is set ominously low in the voice, with a rise of a ninth and then an octave drop - this is not the music that we have associated with these words at the beginning of the piece, and we expect yet another episode in an already long song. It soon becomes clear however that Schubert is using this phrase to engineer a return to the music of the beginning; we arrive at 'Tief in dunkel Waldesnacht' with a brilliantly plotted landing into the home key of E major, an immensely satisfying return, for we have come full circle and survived a journey through the forest; spared the Loreley and Erlking who have no place in Schlegel's universe, we have encountered spirits of a more uplifting kind. This music is essentially a shortened and varied recapitulation of the first strophe, and there is a coda section using the first two lines of the last strophe once again. It is as if we are gradually receding from the picture which has been conjured by Schubert's music; the forest is allowed to return to its natural state as it no longer interacts with man. In the same key of E major Robert Schumann created a postlude to his song Waldesgespräch (the poem by Schlegel's admirer Eichendorff) where the fading piano lines evoke the forest folding its supernatural secrets deep into its own bosom. Here Schubert returns the voice to the depths of low Bs ('Tief in dunkel Waldesnacht') as dark as the forest itself. Six bars of ever-softening and receding piano music (still articulated in rustling semiquavers) conclude this towering masterpiece, one of the most miraculous of all Schubert's longer songs, and a fitting summation of his collaboration with Friedrich von Schlegel.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996
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