This setting must surely have been designed as a companion piece for the Harper's song. It shares both the key (A minor) and key signature (2/4) with Wer nie sein Brod
, as well as the relentless semiquavers in the accompaniment which provide both songs' impetus and energy. Perhaps Schubert had it in mind in 1816 to integrate Mignon's songs into a Wilhelm Meister
cycle and – as was to be the case with the Gesänge des Harfners
published as Op 12 in 1822 – the tonality of A minor was to be the unifying key. What the song lacks is a long, spun vocal line direct and memorable enough to engage our emotions. There is a great deal of harmonic activity and ingenuity, and Mignon's emotions brush the borders of many keys (the accompaniment bristles with sharps and flats) but all this frenetic activity merely seems to dissipate the intensity of the lyric which has at its heart a core of simplicity and world-weary resignation. The recapitulation of the tune for the last two lines of the lyric (which we hear three times in both D359 and D481) is accompanied by sextuplets; the same passage flowers into accompanying triplets in D310B in a similar way. Schubert could not resist his favourite A minor / A major axis and much of this section is ambivalently poised between the two. At the very end we modulate unequivocally into A major for the piano's postlude which undulates and sighs in ravishing manner as if Mignon is accepting her fate with a gentle smile shining through the tears. This piano writing is surely the most beautiful and original feature of this setting.
This third setting of Mignon's lyric seems less close to the final setting (D877 No 4) than the second D359 (dated 1816, although we do not know exactly when in the year) which contains many similarities of shape, mood and detail. This raises the possibility that D481 may well precede D359 chronologically and thus be the second, rather than the third, setting. If this is the case, Deutsch has dated them the wrong way around, and Mandyczewski in the Gesamtausgabe has ordered them correctly.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1995