Added to that, the music for this piece does not show Schubert at his most impressive. John Reed dubs it 'a curiosity' with 'square four-bar phrases' and 'a very un-Schubertian air'. He compares it to the controversial Don Gayseros songs which show little of the endlessly inventive mood and spirit in which we have come to know and love our composer. The Gayseros songs can be written off as the experimentations of youth (for unlike Reed I believe those pieces must date from well before 1815) but Die drei Sänger was written some months after Erlkönig had stunned its first listeners, and we have the dated manuscript to prove it. It is true that there are flashes of inspiration in Die drei Sänger which are not matched by the writing in the Fouqué Spanish pastiches, but it definitely seems to be an experiment which does not come off. One can see why the composer might have been tempted to take up the poem's challenge to invent three different types of music for three different artists, but it is clear he is set on avoiding both recitative and any extravagant use of modulation. All his life Schubert was told that he was too fond of modulation for his own good. We know this from contemporary criticism of his music, and it is possible that some of his well-meaning friends and colleagues were saying it as well; his audiences after all were listening to his music with eighteenth-century ears. This ballad may have been an attempt to bend to criticism in writing a song in neo-gothic style (it is set in the same idealised corner of old Germany as Der Sänger) in the most simple manner possible – a real old-style ballad with North German Lieder-writing virtues which eschew anything fancy and exaggerated.
The poem is in twelve verses. Quite unlike the Schiller ballads of 1815 (Die Bürgschaft and Der Taucher) there is no attempt to run sections into each other in a way to make us scarcely conscious of the subdivisions of the poem. Here there is a four-verse introduction which sets up the story, then each of the minstrels has two verses each to state his case and the final two verses (for which we do not have Schubert's music but which have been set by Reinhard Van Hoorickx in the version recorded here) for the king's judgement.
Section 1: In A major (original key) this is stately yet friendly music, ideal for the court of an enlightened monarch. There have been a number of other passages similar to this in other 1815 ballads, notably Der Sänger and the conclusion of Adelwold und Emma. The tune has a somewhat antique flavour although this is not nearly as atmospheric as Der König in Thule composed soon afterwards. The two songs share the imagery of goblets being drained dry however; here this is achieved with a rather humorous trill on 'trank' with gurgling quaver accompaniment.
Section 2: In F major and with a switch to triple time, this is more stately music for the approach of the three singers to have audience of the king. The minuet movement (marked Singend) suggests a courtly dance, or in this case the deferential approach to the throne as the minstrels bow with old-world flourishes.
Sections 3, 4: The king's aria ('Sei mir gegrüsst, ihr Liedersöhne') is in B flat with a return to Common time. The modulation into A flat for 'des Gesangs Geheimniss ruht' is appropriate for entering into the realms of the secrets of art and shows a touch of Schubertian response. At this point the line veers into a type of regal recitative. There is no doubt that this monarch is sensible and wise, a real change from the kings of the Schiller ballads who are inclined to take hostages and send divers to their death. However, there is always less scope for the musical depiction of good than of evil.
Sections 5, 6: The first singer's aria is in D major and is marked Mässig, ernst. The seriousness of this borders on the dull, although at the section beginning 'die Vorwelt öffnet er dem Blick' we can just detect a trace of the sort of flowing quaver-accompanied melody in this key and metre which would reach its apotheosis in An die Musik. The sixth verse begins in C major, again a change of tonality which matches the new-born status of the world.
Sections 7, 8: The second singer is perhaps the most interesting, even though he does not win the prize. His aria is in A major and is marked Lieblich, etwas geschwind. The whirring accompaniment paints the busy activity of pre-Rheingold gnomes, and the spinning of his tale suggests just that – the hum of the spinning-wheel with the addition of the open fifths in the left hand which have been such an important feature of Gretchen am Spinnrade. We are given to understand, however, that this is superficial and meretricious in comparison to the true, noble and unadorned art of the third minstrel whose music is marked
Sections 9, 10: The signal failure of this section is that Schubert does nothing to show us why the final singer's music is more beautiful or moving than that of the other two contestants. In fact his music in very plain style seems to be more anonymous than that given to either of the preceding artists. It is here after 'jedes Antlitz' that the manuscript breaks off. Reinhard Van Hoorickx's completion sounds no more tentative than much of the original material. For verse 12 and the king's final aria he returns to the B flat major of verse 3, allowing himself an accompaniment of flowing triplets for the final cantilena.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994