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It so happens that Dickens wrote eloquently of the eponymous Cricket on the Hearth (1845) in one of his Christmas books and the characters in that story feel the same gratitude to the house cricket – Gryllus domesticus or acheta domestica – as the singer of this song: 'There are not, in the unseen world, voices more gentle and more true, that may be so implicitly relied on, or that are so certain to give none but the tenderest counsel, as the Voices in which the Spirits of the Fireside and the Hearth address themselves to human kind.' We find the cricket on the hearth in English literature as early as Milton's Il penseroso (one suspects that there are not many hearths today which boast of a cricket next to the kettle) and in the eighteenth century Southey wrote of a place on earth 'Where … Contentment sits and hears the cricket chirp'. This is a different species from the cicada, the rampant songsters immortalized in La Cigale by Chausson, and Chabrier's Les Cigales who 'sing better than violins'. Even Ravel's Le grillon with its more fastidious chirrupings lives outdoors and is a different type of cricket, acheta campestris. Unlike the unceasing song of massed cicadas in the summer heat, the domestic cricket chirps only from time to time; it can fall into silence, or it can suddenly begin a concerto (in Dickens's story it is the humming of the kettle which sets it off in competition).
At the very beginning of the song we hear a dry little chirp on the first and third beats of the bar where both hands play together – in the left a motif of a rising fifth, tonic to dominant. This seems to imitate splendidly the sound of the scraping of one tiny forewing against the other, as left hand grates against right. There follows a gentle shudder of four semiquavers preceded by a grace note, also in the left hand, while the right hand continues with its comparatively bland mezzo staccato chords. This is no doubt meant to be a continuation or an elaboration of the cricket's song. But, as is often the case in Schubert, the motif does service for a number of ideas: the fact that it is echoed in the vocal line on the words 'erwärmten Herd' and 'Flamme hin' suggests that this is also the music of the flickering flame of the hearth, the acciaccaturas suggestive of sparks and a lick of flame. There is a delicious complicity in the way that this semiquaver figure is bounced between voice and piano.
At the beginning of the second verse, the 'cosy, peaceful hour' adds a crucial F natural to the chord of G, the suspended animation of the seventh chord. The semiquaver figure here certainly represents the kindling of flame, the vocal line moving downwards for 'Lohe senkt' and up again for 'Funken auf'. It is astonishing how Schubert can always incorporate the most picturesque and appropriate word-setting into a song like this without disturbing its overall shape. An example of this is the phrase 'Allein das Böse wirft man hin' where the action of throwing away or discarding bad thoughts occasions a moment of drama and the imperious jump of an octave. The setting of the words 'Es störe nicht die Nacht', where the vocal line touches a high G (in the original key) when the phrase is repeated, depicts sheer delight; we can hear the smile on the poet's lips as he almost hugs himself with pleasure.
The fourth verse, like the second, begins with the dream-like ambiguities of the seventh chord. At 'sorgenlos ein holdes Bild mit sanfter Lust die Seele füllt' the semiquavers of voice and piano coincide for the only time in the song, as if the filling of the soul with pleasure requires an exact lining up of source and recipient, a docking-station of the spirit. There has been a change to the subdominant and, as we wander further from the home key (into the submediant for 'Ergibt man sich der Ruh'), we feel ourselves pulled deeper and deeper into a world of contentment and rest. The fifth verse stays away from the tonic and gives the composer the opportunity to make the contrast of a forte passage: at 'Was in dem Schwarm der lauten Welt' there is a strutting canonic effect as the left hand, in strident octaves, chases the vocal line at the distance of a crotchet. The semiquavers of contentment are momentarily banished. Thus is depicted the stress and hassle of town life. The way the composer has engineered the return to the tonic at 'Zirpt immer, liebe Heimchen, in meiner Klause eng und klein' is nothing short of masterly; how clearly do we hear in the very harmony an impatience to return to the place where all is right with the world, and safe as houses. When we finally get to the home key it is almost as if we are being tucked into our beds by the hands of a loving parent.
The final verse has a surprise: after 'wenn euer Lied das Schweigen bricht' the left hand crosses up into the treble reaches of the piano and the silence is broken with a cadenza for the cricket soloists who prove their versatility by singing in a different register. This magical peroration includes a vocal line which is more florid in the final printed version than in the song's original appearance as a supplement. The tenor Ludwig Tietze sang the song at one of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde gatherings at the end of 1826 and this may have been when Schubert recast the song for a real tenor as opposed to the high baritone of Vogl. Accordingly the second version has high notes not found in the first. These however do not seem to have been grafted on to the song for effect; they simply add to the singer's feeling of heady delight. As Dickens put it: 'To have a cricket on the hearth is the luckiest thing in all the world.'
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996
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