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Most of the composer's water songs move forwards, like a stream gushing from its source on its way to the sea; but here we have a type of water-borne stillness, and Schubert relishes the challenge. In the same way Poulenc wrote La Grenouillère, a song about a Parisian island haunt of Renoir and the Impressionists, where the laziest of minims and crotchets (in the same key of D major as it happens) somehow conjure the sound of lapping water and tethered boats as they gently bump against each other. Much of the special beauty of Schubert's barcarolle lies in the accompaniment, which is one of those one-off inspirations of which he was capable when confronted with the strong imagery of a poem. The ideas of stretching and drifting here inspire a layout in the piano writing that the composer was never to repeat. The tessitura of the accompaniment is low and dark as befits the depths of waters by night, the voice poised above it like moonlight. The boat undulates slightly and we hear this in the bass, slowly rocking between tonic and dominant with an occasional slip into the subdominant; the texture of this bottom line is occasionally enlivened by a tiny tremor of semiquavers deep in the left hand as the current swells and subsides. Drifting semiquavers are also to be found in the alto and tenor voices of the accompaniment moving hither and thither in the inner fingers of the pianist's right hand - the same fingers the boatman uses as he plays aimlessly with the rudder. The slight splashing sound this makes is intimated by the piquant accidentals of G sharp and D sharp in the key of D major which break the surface of the tonal waters, not ebulliently (as in Die Forelle where G natural in the key of D flat adds the necessary glint and splash) but with a sensual and delicious laziness.
This relaxed feeling is to be found in the pacing of the vocal line where the singer can only bring himself to sing a two-bar phrase before the piano takes over for an interlude. The idea of breathing the cool evening air ('Atme kühl im Licht des Mondes') is emphasised by taking the time to do just that after singing about it; miraculously the following bar of piano music (originally designed for a gently moving rudder) here seems perfectly descriptive of a deep breath, in and then out, under Dr Schubert's stethoscope. The singer is pronounced healthy, it seems, for the setting of 'Träume süss im stillen Mute' (exquisitely prophetic of the stratospheric floating notes of a later barcarolle, Des Fischers Liebesglück) is demandingly high, particularly in the light of the phrase to come where the voice is made to plunge almost two octaves lower as the accompaniment slides down in a chromatic scale in sixths between the hands. The boatman thus abandons the rudder and allows his vessel to float free for a moment or two as he looks at the stars. He sees these shining back at him as if in a mirror, and the descent into the vocal and pianistic depths places the heavenly light as far under the waters as the stars themselves are placed high in the sky. The combination of water and starlight was always a heady cocktail for this composer; the playful semiquavers which ornament 'Wo die Sterne lieblich schimmern, spiele wieder mit dem Ruder' remind us of the intoxicated melismata of 'tausend schwebende Sterne' which end the Goethe setting Auf dem See. The final delightful touch in this first section, a detail which is unique to Der Schiffer, is a bar of music for the singer without words. Some might argue that the composer had meant the final words of the strophe to be repeated; but Schubert surely meant a hum at this point, specifically marked ppp, for it fits perfectly the mood of this musing boatman, too deep in his reverie to articulate his feelings verbally.
There is only one thing missing however - the boatman's girl. In Des Fischers Liebesglück thoughts of love on the water are followed by the real thing, but in this song the singer can only dream, and he does so in the middle section. Syncopated semiquavers in the relative minor depict the first stirrings of sexual longing. 'Das blonde Mägdlein' is conjured before our eyes, the gracious upward inflection of 'Mägdlein' perfectly descriptive of the alluring will-o'-the-wisp out of his reach. There is suddenly an Italianate cast to the vocal line at 'Sänge schmachtend zarte Lieder' with just a hint of the male bravado and impatience (bordering on exaggeration) which is the hallmark of the professional serenader; for an instant the boatman sees himself in this role, and smiles with us at the idea, for he is probably far too lazy to sing anything at all. The change from B minor to B major at 'Himmlisch wär' mir dann zu Mute' implies that the wooer has received his reward, in his fantasy at least. The flirtatious sense of the verb 'tändeln' is perfectly caught by the rocking rhythm between the hands, the semiquaver syncopations somehow expressive of racing heartbeat, the exchange of cheeky smiles, and the choppier waters engendered by two in a boat rather than one. This restless movement subsides and two dotted crotchets (a long sigh as the boatman accepts that he is alone after all) lead us back to a recapitulation of the opening music. This is a very conventional cadence from B minor back to the relative major via a dominant seventh, but it is magical nevertheless. The first section is much abbreviated, but happily so, for we hear just enough music to imagine the singer re-settled into his reverie, playing once again with the rudder and whiling away the night in his dreams. Schubert wrote many water songs and many nocturnes, but here, as in Gondelfahrer, he memorably unites the two genres. The sparkling colours which paint his various streams by day in other songs give way here to the glow of moonlight, and deep pools of longing intermittently and languorously ruffled by the stirrings of desire.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996
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