Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 26 – Christine Schäfer, John Mark Ainsley & Richard Jackson
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The poem addresses the moon, and in failing to find a response begs the grave for a moonbeam of solace. The hushed atmosphere of the opening (the key is A minor) is created by a wide spacing of the parts, the harmonies hollow and mournful. There is a suggestion of the moonlight's shimmer at the demisemiquaver ornamentation of 'Freund des Schlummers', but in this context the sleeping ones are the dead, and what we hear may be a shudder. A similar frisson on 'Schweige nicht, ob im Grabe Dunkel wohnt' seems to confirm this. The poet asks whether dark or light (the music changes to C major for the latter) reigns in the grave. He receives no answer. 'Alles stumm?!' asks the chorus, moving from A flat major to a dissonant doubling of grating seconds (B flat and C). With each repetition of the phrase the word 'stumm' is set to a different mysterious chord, thrice staccato, and for the last time on an E flat major chord. This leads us to the second question; this time the poet addresses the grave. Schubert repeats the music of the opening, this time a semitone lower (A flat minor). So many moonbeams have been drawn to the depths, is it not possible that the grave can give back a gleam of moonlit hope? And then, as in some kind of horror story, the grave itself answers (there are quotation marks on the last line of Seidl's poem missing from the printed music) and the effect is chilling indeed. We suddenly remember that we know those demisemiquaver shudders from Der Doppelgänger, and that this song packs a similar sinister punch. Here is the stentorian voice of a yawning chasm, its terrible mouth twisted in judgement and scorn – 'Come and see!! – What do you think? – Do you see heavenly light shining back at you? – Look for yourself!' It is seldom in his vocal music that Schubert strikes a note such as this, implacable and bloodcurdling, where the sound of a piano with its civilized overtones would be out of place. And we also remember that this music is not summoned in the interests of telling a story, and that it seems clear from the extraordinary vehemence of the musical response that we are hearing what the composer himself feels about the permanence of death.
We move from the distant realms of C flat major (B major) to E major, and are thus prepared to return to the home key of A minor. The final 'Komm und schau' ends in A major. Was there ever a Schubert song in A minor which did not tantalize us also with the major key? Here it comes only on the very last note. There is no consolation of an afterlife implied here, only acceptance of the finality of death and the rest it brings from human strife. As Schubert himself wrote in a letter to his family: 'As though dying is the worst that can happen to us humans!' Maurice Brown believed that 'Grab und Mond with its gravitas … is new in Schubert, and contributed something towards the treatment of similar moods in Müller, when the composer encountered Winterreise'. Also that the tone of the Heine settings, 'half-tragedy and half-mockery, had its modest beginnings in the composition of Grab und Mond.' If this is the case, the poetry of Seidl was clearly an important stepping-stone to the last phase of Schubert's song-writing career.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996