It is no accident that the opening tune in G minor has this down-to-earth quality—that is exactly where the wanderer is, his feet condemned to trudge the unfriendly earth. The vocal line starts in the lower part of the voice as if the singer at 'Ich auf der Erd' is looking down at his feet; then at 'am Himmel du' he gazes up at the moon and suddenly the tune jumps an octave into the heavens. Both travellers, the moon and its admirer, then occupy the middle of the stave at 'wir wandern beide rüstig zu'. In the third line of the first verse this contrast of tessitura also serves to underline a difference of mood—the traveller's 'ernst und trüb' as opposed to the moon's 'mild und rein.' It is all so natural and apt that one needs to remind oneself that it takes a special type of composer to reflect word-to-music details in such a way that we take them for granted There are other things in this song we scarcely notice on first hearing: the contrasts ('Ich' and 'du') in the first line have been harmonised by the straightforward apposition of G minor and D major chords, tonic and dominant; in the second line the moon music of 'mild und rein' is underpinned by D minor which gives a plaintive modal twist to the proceedings. The question ('Was mag der Unterschied wohl sein?') ends the verse in this same key; Schubert then simply changes F natural to F sharp in two chords (D minor—D major) and lo and behold we are in the dominant of the home key of G minor. It could not be simpler, but who else but Schubert could have done it? The tune of the second verse is exactly the same as the first but for the last three notes which fall earthward as they bitterly sum up the traveller's fate. Such a tiny difference as this—an upward inflection for a question ('Was mag der Unterschied wohl sein?') and then downward for the answer ('doch bin ich nirgend, ach! zu Haus') defines Schubert's genius for the modified strophic song.
But the greatest marvel is to come—the healing balm of moonlight streaming out in the major key. Up until now the accompaniment has been strongly accented chords, so simple on the page that they could be strummed on a guitar, the traditional instrument of travellers. Some of the chords are rolled in a no-nonsense manner which helps establish a mood of hearty self-reliance and the strong dotted rhythm of the jaunty little interlude which introduces the third line of the first verse suggests a certain type of grim courage, even defiance. At the beginning of the third verse ('Du aber wanderst') everything changes as the music softens into the major key. Instead of the heavy accented footfall of the traveller we hear the moon swimming (thanks to flowing semiquavers and a touch of pedal) in a pool of light and well-being. What is even more exceptional is that envy, bitterness or unhappiness are banished as the protagonist is overcome by admiration and love; in music of the greatest tenderness he salutes the moon as a marvel of nature. This song is thus a textbook case of how Schubert uses the polarity of major and minor ('the contrast', in Fischer-Dieskau's words, 'of masculine and feminine, of hardness and softness, of light and shade, of day and night') in order to depict that special realm of the spirit which is far removed from banal reality. The final verse is a compromise between the hearty opening and the dreamy atmosphere when the G major was first introduced into the picture. Compromise is the order of the day, for now the traveller can go on with life in a new perspective; in wishing happiness to those luckier than himself he has recovered his spirits. The four bars of the postlude allow him to walk offstage accompanied by a beam of light and as content as he will ever be.
It is worth noting that the words 'aus Westens Wieg' in Ostens Grab' in the first edition of Seidl's poems (and thus faithfully set by Schubert) make no sense in planetary terms. The sun and the moon rise in the East and set in the West. Seidl corrected it in later editions of his poems and we have accordingly changed it for this performance. One or two things in twentieth-century life are as fixed and reliable for us as they were for the composer, including, thank heavens, the workings of the sun and moon.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1992
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