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We hear the sound of spade against earth throughout. The right-hand harmonies are scrunched together as two surfaces, notes in a chord jostling for primacy, are made to strike each other; there is also an accent marked on the first and third beats which emphasizes the unremitting rhythm of a hard, thankless occupation. The shift in tessitura between two-bar blocks of the accompaniment betokens the movement of earth shovelled down into the abyss from above as it gradually obscures the coffin. The vocal line itself underlines this: in the octave leap at the beginning we can hear the contrast of the dark of 'düster' and pale of 'bleich', as well as being able to see the gravedigger's heaving gesture as another spadeful of earth hits its mark. This difference between treble and bass clef also comes to signify the distance between heaven and earth, something also painted by the switch of key signature between F sharp minor and F sharp major (in the song's original key) which happens no fewer than three times.
A lesser composer would have made this song completely strophic, but this is a very good example of the modified strophic song in Schubert's mature style; there is nothing automatic about his response to the words. As in many other cases he seems to have started off wanting to write a strict strophic song, but cannot resist the temptation to mirror various details as the text unfolds. Having taken two of Schlechta's verses to make one musical verse of his own, Schubert is content, at the beginning of the third verse, to re-use the magisterial music of 'Nicht so düster und so bleich' for 'Denn der Herr sitzt zu Gericht'. The fourth verse also begins with the same music as for the second, but the image of a sharp dagger ('scharfer Dolch') piercing the heart unleashes an orgy of chromatics: the rise in semitones on the line 'und nagt sich zu deinem Herzen' depicts the tortures of hell as the victim whines in pain. It is here, incidentally, with striding full-handed chords in the accompaniment, that we are put in mind of the implacable march of Schiller's setting Der Pilgrim. The poem has three more verses to go and Schubert maps out his plan. The final two verses must have the same musical shape as the first two, but a seven-verse poem defies the easy symmetry of groupings by two. This spare middle verse ('Doch der Liebe Tränentau') occasions another shift into F sharp major utterly in tune with its theme of tears of love and flowers. The interlude after this strophe ascends into the most ethereal regions of the keyboard, as if to paint the azure regions of the 'Himmels Blau'. The sixth verse has resonances which remind us of Des Sängers Habe – of course the two songs are by the same poet who may well have discussed mortality with Schubert, and offered up verses like this specially tailored to be meaningful to his friend. We can only imagine Schubert's daily inner struggle with thoughts of the grave at this stage of his life. By shifting the accompaniment into the bass at 'Bis Posaunen klingen' we have a marvellous change of sonority suggestive of trombones; this recalls not only the last trump but also the graveside wind music so common at Austrian burials and celebrations of All Souls' Day. (Beethoven wrote Equali for four trombones for such an occasion.) And so the song continues without pause for breath, the occasional shaft of light high in the treble clef mitigating the grim thoughts of dust and worm; the accompaniment to the last words ('Jugendlich entschwingen') jumps as high as the compass of Schubert's piano allowed, a moment of blissful and other-worldly contrast to what has gone before. The postlude is an elongated version of the prelude; in its progression from the top of the keyboard to the bottom by stages it encapsulates the struggle inherent in the song between life and death, heaven and hell, the open grave and the finished burial mound. As the song ends deep in the bass clef, it is thoughts of 'ashes to ashes and dust to dust' which set their seal on the music and which triumph over brighter hopes.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996
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