What an exciting moment for Schubert it must have been to confront the poem for the first time! One always knows when a Goethe poem has 'taken' with the composer – like an inoculation – because the result is a feverish moto perpetuo: Gretchen am Spinnrade, Erlkönig, Rastlose Liebe, Der Musensohn, Versunken, Wilkommen und Abschied and the Suleika songs are all driven by a rhythmic energy which seizes the listener by the scruff of the neck and compels him to follow where the composer leads. The secret of this, of course, is the accompaniment whose task it is to whip the voice into action. In this case Schubert uses a time signature of 6/8 and relentless staccato quavers both to paint the 'rasselnden Trott' of the post-chaise, and to lend motivic unity to a challenging text which at first glance might seem to defy musical control and run amok down the page. It is significant that no other composer succeeded in setting this sprawling poem, despite the obvious musical temptation of the last verse. To bring it to heel the composer, with devilish cunning, opts for a structure that has the hint of the strophic song about it. It is as if Schubert has felt the need to point out that although man's span on earth moves in phases, to make musical sense it also has to have certain grandly recurring themes and gathering points. Thus it is that bars 5 to 12 (beginning 'Spute dich, Kronos!') have a similar melodic shape to bars 21 to 28 ('Frisch, holpert es gleich') as well as bars 87 to 100 ('Ab denn, rascher hinab!'). This gives the impression, however mistaken, that the song is in an ABA form. It is not the least part of Schubert's achievement that he gives this song a memorable tune without us being aware that he is creating melody, and that he makes the various episodes between hang together seemingly inevitably – to say effortlessly would be to belie the splendid sense of struggle in much of this music.
The topography of life is built into the song's shape: the first verse starts off on level but difficult terrain, the piano picking its way through sticks and stones with octaves in the left hand shadowed by the right. The direction 'Nicht zu schnell' ('Not too fast') gives a sense of rattling grandeur to the vehicle which sways through life. There is a most subtle variety in the accompaniment: sometimes there are six thrusting quavers per bar in both hands, sometimes the moto perpetuo function is given to either the left or right while the less occupied hand punctuates the texture with jabbed quavers or more sustained dotted crotchets.
At the beginning of the second verse ('Nun schon wieder den eratmenden Schritt') the rhythm of the accompaniment changes: for a half-dozen bars there is one less quaver on the second beat, with an emphatic sforzando in the middle of the bar. This is as if the heart has skipped a beat, and it is a wonderful tonal analogue for breathlessness, exhaustion under pressure. The climb up life's hill (from 'Auf denn, nicht träge denn') is one of the song's glories. The exuberance of youthful determination and will-power is reflected in surging left-hand arpeggios in octaves which lift the post-chaise out of the mud and shoulder it up life's hill. We move from E flat via B major (the beginning of the third verse at 'Weit, hoch, herrlich') to E minor, C major, F minor, F sharp minor and thence into A major: all-in-all a complete tonal definition of what it is to be, using the language of our own tedious century, upwardly mobile. A condensed history of a young man getting to the top is writ in these progressions.
Romantic dalliance is at its best when one is young and 'on a high'. Having reached the plateau of A major, a short interlude moves the music into D major at the fourth verse ('Seitwärts des Überdachs Schatten'). At the top of the hill there is suddenly the leisure to take care of smaller yet highly necessary details; the poet's gaze moves from high goals to lower ones, and wrenching harmonies give way to wenching ones. Suddenly everything is flirtatious and even tender (those rattling staccato quavers have changed their spots if not their dots). The little chromatic left-hand motif just before 'Seitwärts des Überdachs Schatten' plays the coquette and ignites the gleam in the suitor's eye. Exchanged glances at 'und ein Frischung verheissender Blick', underpinned by a frisson of low As in the pianist's left hand, add to a sense of sexual conspiracy.
With the fifth verse ('Ab denn, rascher hinab!'), with its implied recapitulation (which in turn implies suddenly confronting one's mortality around an unexpected corner), it is time to be off, and no mistake. The first encounter is with rising mist, wonderfully illustrated by a succession of rising chords, thick and opaque in both hands, which is yet another new texture in this astonishingly varied, and yet astonishingly unified, accompaniment. At the beginning of the sixth verse ('Trunknen vom letzten Strahl') the piano plainly illustrates that life is now downhill all the way. Perilously precipitous arpeggios, changing harmony in each bar and a threat to the safety of singer and pianist alike, hurtle down the keyboard like rock-slides in a narrow mountain pass, while the voice hangs on for dear life. But all in vain; the movement of the full-handed left-hand harmonies moves inexorably downward by semitones, dragging the vocal line with it. At rock-bottom there is a succession of pounding As which lead to A major chords (the dominant of the home key of D minor) and the composer is ready for his coup de grâce. Goethe commands Kronos to sound his horn and Schubert triumphantly provides something which poetry can only suggest. A stentorian posthorn motif (a crotchet and two semiquavers) hammered out in an exultant D major by the pianist introduces one of the most powerful pages in all Lieder. The gates of hell hold no terrors for this wild and reckless traveller, for he has tasted life in all its glory and even this last experience is one which he will savour and embrace. The imperious fanfare alternates with the quavers which have rattled throughout the song, but they do so here with a new and imposing grandeur. The postlude is terrific in every sense; it ends with D major chords repeated in the piano's tenor register, only a tone higher than those unforgettable repetitions that open Beethoven's 'Waldstein' Sonata. And it is not unlikely that Goethe and Beethoven were coupled in Schubert's mind as titans of German culture. On a page like this, thanks to Schubert's ability to capture the poet's tone of voice, the young Goethe himself materialises before our ears – a man for all time who has beaten the coachman at his own game, a man to change the world, a man to defy convention, a sinner and bon viveur (and all the better for that), but above all a leader and a young composer's hero. The song's dedicatee is of course the poet, and how could it be otherwise?
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1995