Der Fluss, D693

First line:
Wie rein Gesang sich windet
composer
March 1820; first published by J P Gotthard in 1872 as No 27 of Vierzig Lieder
author of text

 
How irresistible this poem must have seemed to Schubert, combining as it does his beloved water imagery with musical overtones. The idea of 'rein Gesang', pure song, free of intellectual adornment, has not produced music in the manner of, say, a folksong like Heidenröslein. It is the Italian aria style that the composer here identifies with purity and naturalness. We remember that the naïve musical exercises of Schubert's youth (D17, D33, D34 and D35) were for Antonio Salieri, and all in the Italian language. How often he must have been told by the old master that the Italian style was the most natural and comfortable for the voice, that German music was too intellectual. After Schubert's death Franz von Schober wrote that the composer's unique gift was to unite, in Vienna, the musical depths of the north with the melodic fire of the south ('Hier konnt' allein er nord'sche Tiefe einen / Mit Gluth und Melodie aus Südens Hainen'). The whole Schubertian style is based in a marriage of two musical temperaments, so it is little wonder that from time to time the Italian side predominates, just as at other times the Lieder style inherited from Berlin comes to the fore. Schubert wrote for at least one great Italian singer, Luigi Lablache, and he understood that the mind-set of opera stars from the south was utterly different from that of German singers. It is still the case; and the divide was no doubt even more marked in the nineteenth century. This river which Schubert casts in the role of an Italian singer is 'chosen for beauty' by the 'kindly gods', but confesses to a 'childlike mind'. Perhaps Schubert found operatic singers mindless in comparison to his song-singing colleagues, but he prized them for their stream of beautiful tone nevertheless.

The long-lined cantilena may seem impeccably Italian on the page, but no self-indulgent sobs of emotion are permitted, no swooning rubato, and not even one furtiva lagrima. The left-hand accompaniment is an unending flow of undulating quaver triplets in 12/8 in the manner of Chopin's Barcarolle. There is sensuality in this Bewegung, but also a sense of indolence. The music has a passive quality throughout, as if the river simply awaits the imprint of outside images; its role is to reflect others. The clouds, the stars and the sun understand themselves better when they see themselves mirrored in the glassy surface. The sweet vulnerability of this open-hearted and open-minded nature is heard in the music, the 'childlike mind' ready to receive whatever comes its way. Of course there is a veiled eroticism in this receptiveness, and the key of B major, always a special Schubertian tonality, here reminds us of the final section of Suleika I which exudes a similar sense of hushed longing, a need to unite with another in order to be whole. B major also indicates a magical experience, and another song in this key with virtuosic bel canto demands comes to mind - Nacht und Träume. The parallels here evoke the idea of moonlight floating through space, just as the river winds through the landscape. The silent hearts of men in that song who listen with delight ('Die belauschen sie mit Lust') have their equivalent in Der Fluss in the singer's captivated audience, and the viewers spellbound by their watery reflections.

The curve of the vocal line describes the words as the music winds and curls through the stave. The murmuring of the wondrous strings ('wunderbarer Saitenspiele Rauschen') is given to a tiny oscillating figure in semiquavers in the right-hand accompaniment which continues gently to vibrate throughout the first verse. An absolutely Schubertian touch is the setting of 'die Hörer ewig lauschen' where an unexpected E sharp momentarily lifts the vocal line above the piano's supporting chord to suggest a straining ear, the extra effort of deep listening. (In Nacht und Träume this special effort on the part of mankind to comprehend a mystery of nature provokes a memorably piquant diminished seventh on 'rufen, wenn der Tag erwacht'.) The second of Schlegel's strophes is divided into sections for Schubert's purposes. Having pained an extensive musical metaphor in the first verse the composer now lets us hear the river itself with its flow depicted in both hands of the accompaniment, at first an octave, then a tenth apart. Before 'Die Silbermasse, schlangengleich gewunden' an augmented chord peeks through the texture; this, as Richard Kramer has pointed out, occurs elsewhere in the Schlegel songs as something of a motto. The chromaticism of this section depicts the 'twisting, snake-like' progress of the river; in the suddenly murky textures (with no more right-hand octaves to brighten the texture) we are briefly reminded of the triplet-accompanied passage in Fahrt zum Hades which describes the ancient river of Oblivion. This passing cloud is soon banished by the charm of Schubert's setting of the remaining four lines of the strophe. The swaying of the bushes inspires dancing semiquavers in the accompaniment after 'die sich wiegen'. The last line of the verse includes a descending passage for the voice (the repeat of 'neu sich selbst gefunden') which is matched by dotted crotchets simultaneously ascending in the piano. In mirror fashion, object and reflection meet each other at the end of this contrary-motion scale, the gathering point of the final cadence.

Schubert uses two of Schlegel's verses for one of his own. This river sings in a strophic fashion suitable to its simple temperament, but the master has ensured that the new words fit the music well. The rustling string motif of the first verse here admirably conveys the gently rolling clouds, and the quavers under 'So schimmern alle Wesen' convey the idea of shimmer as the harmonies imperceptibly change beneath the words and add to them a chromatic glint. Because of its absence from the Peters Edition Der Fluss probably does not receive the number of performances it deserves, but even if it were easily available its difficulties are obvious. It requires a highly-placed voice with an ability to spin a line. This is given to many an opera singer, but to sing this song in an operatic manner (it is marked 'piano' and 'pianissimo' throughout) would be utterly to misunderstand it. Like Die Sterne it requires a blend of formidable bel canto technique with Lieder-singing sensibility.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996

Recordings

Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/4040CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 27 – Matthias Goerne
CDJ33027Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40

Details

Track 11 on CDJ33027 [4'50] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 6 on CDS44201/40 CD23 [4'50] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)

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