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Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt 'Sehnsucht', D656

Fourth setting. April 1819; first published in 1867
author of text

The assignation of Mignon's fragile and feminine text to five hearty male voices may seem to be rather bizarre, but this chorus is a work of the composer's maturity and Schubert understands that the lyric has a universal significance outside its dramatic context in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. He goes back to the poem and, thinking about the lines where Mignon gazes into the firmament, places her outside her normal milieu of the drawing-room. An unaccompanied chorus resonates more freely and wildly than a vocal line grounded by the piano – a delicate instrument (even more so in Schubert's time) which has to be kept indoors for the sake of its health. A chorus can be sung in the mountains, or under the stars; the message of Mignon's longing and loneliness can be sung to the moon or flung into the firmament – 'in die Weite' (to slightly change Goethe) even though there is no response beyond the dying echo.

It is clear that Schubert has thought a great deal about this sumptuous setting. It is the only one of his male choruses in five parts: two tenor lines, and three bass. The key is E major and the first tenor line is quite demandingly high while the second bass line goes down to low Es. There is a certain contrapuntal inter-reaction between the tenors and basses particularly at 'Ach! der mich liebt und kennt' where the composer uses different parts of the chorus to illustrate the idea of two people separated by a chasm (in this case different clefs) attempting to communicate. The setting of 'Weite' (marked fortissimo with a diminuendo to piano) is taxing but highly effective. At 'Es schwindelt mir' there is a daring canonic effect of great modernity. Schubert recapitulates the first eight lines of the poem which once again emphasises the broad idea of gazing into the firmament. He then repeats 'Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt' no less than four times, each set differently with a different emotional inflection, rising to a high and anguished crescendo for the third time, and then dying with great pianissimo pathos at the final bars. This is a beautifully crafted piece of work but one is nevertheless aware that Schubert needed the possibilities of the lone individual voice pitting itself against the piano to work his most profound vocal magic.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1995


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/4040CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 24
CDJ33024Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Track 20 on CDJ33024 [3'11] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 20 on CDS44201/40 CD21 [3'11] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)

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