It is just possible that someone else might have thought of the idea of the rippling arpeggio which accompanies the beginning of the vocal line (at 'In einem Bächlein helle') and which depicts the flight of an arrow or the merry upward movement of the fish through an octave and a half's stretch of water. It is inconceivable, however, that what follows could have been thought of by anyone other than Schubert. At 'ich stand an dem Gestade' the pattern changes: instead of a sextuplet built around the chords of D flat and A flat7, the composer devises a little rush of notes, an ornamentation of the main motif, which contains at its centre a tiny chromatic figure of three linked semitones. The trout is brought to life at a stroke; all of a sudden we can see (or rather hear) its collision with the smooth surface of the stream. The darting movement of the fish causes the water (hitherto represented by a simple arpeggio) to break up into a hint of spume and spray. Like the refraction of light this has chromatic implications. The arpeggio is caught up on the lines of the stave; and, as it breaks and spreads beneath the pianist's fingers, the glint of adjacent semitones add a head of sparkle to the stream of music. There is something about the sheer cheekiness of this motif which conveys utter delight – the joy in being free and full of energy. In conjunction with the marvellous tune it energises us and sets the foot tapping and the eyes dancing, as if we are at one with that trout in the sheer pleasure of being alive. By the time we know the outcome of the story we might add, as so often with Schubert, “Enjoy it while you can, it might not last long”.
The vocal line is in Schubert's best tradition of saluting the wonders of nature. There is something about the movement of even quavers in 2/4 which the composer identifies with the innate perfection of flora and fauna. Examples of this are the openings of Heidenröslein, and of the Schlegel settings Der Schmetterling and Der Knabe where butterfly and bird are given voice in measured quavers in the same carefree folksong mode. The shape of the vocal line is also remarkably similar to that of Erinnerung: Die Erscheinung, a Kosegarten song from 1815 which is also set at the water's edge. Die Forelle is in modified strophic form which adds a dash of dramatic variety to the charm of the whole. Muddied waters are just as much grist to Schubert's mill as sparkling ones and the dirty work afoot at 'Er macht das Bächlein tückisch trübe' is splendidly described by triplets in the dark middle register of the piano supported by an alternation of chords too close to each other for comfort or clarity. The astonishment and suspense of the onlooker is brilliantly displayed in a passage (at 'und eh' ich es gedacht') which slips into recitative without our even noticing the change; the tricks of Schubert the magician are becoming ever more subtle in 1817. Note the splendid effect of the piano's staccato chords underneath the consonant of 'z' in 'zuckte seine Rute'; we can almost see the quick wrist action as the fishing-rod jerks its prey out of the water. The last convulsive movements of the fish are wonderfully painted by the vocal line at 'das Fischlein zappelt dran' with its repeat of 'das Fischlein' as if the trout's fate hangs in the balance before it is brought ashore. This is the only moment in the song's accompaniment when we hear a chain of sixteen ordinary semiquavers; pulled out of its element, and thrashing around on dry land, the trout can no longer command graceful sextuplets. The anger of the last verse can be rendered rueful or furious according to sympathies. Schubert was obviously less than a compleat angler. The postlude, which seems to recede and die away as if the observer were walking on, is almost as delicious as the meal which now awaits the fisherman. Unlike Schlechta's Fischerweise which warns men against scheming girls, Schubart's original intention with this poem was to warn girls against masculine wiles. The composer chose not to set the last verse of the poem which pointed this moral. This leaves the song firmly in the realm of nature where it seems a sad necessity that one species should prey on another.
There are five versions of this song, none of them significantly different from the others apart from the questions of introduction (or lack of it) and length of postlude. The piece was so popular that the composer was obliged to write it out often. On one famous occasion in February 1818 he sprinkled ink on the finished manuscript (the third version, written out for Josef Hüttenbrenner) rather than sand. The first edition of 1825 used the fourth version which is without introduction, but there is a final manuscript copy which the composer wrote out in 1821 with four bars of introduction. This is the only authentic version of the prelude, although here we have chosen to perform the time-honoured version of the introduction (with the addition of an extra bar at the beginning) published first by Diabelli and printed in the Peters Edition.
The song was given a new lease of life in 1819 when Schubert used it as the theme for variations in the fourth movement of the so-called 'Trout Quintet' D667 for piano, two violins, cello and double bass. In doing so he seems to be acknowledging how well known the song had become and repeating it 'by popular demand'.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994
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