In reality the song is a dialogue between the voice and the pianist's left hand, the quasi-cello bass line of the music. The right hand is the true accompanist and mediator in this heavenly conversation; it pulsates in a way which is crucial to the mood of the song although the listener may only be subliminally aware of its magic. Except in the postlude to each verse, these chords have no special thematic significance, but the piano needs to repeat notes in order to sustain a harmonic background, and the accompanist has to find a means of allowing these chords to 'happen' without appearing to strike each one individually – something which would break the music into a succession of pedantic downbeats. Underneath what should be a gliding stream of harmony, the left hand sings its heart out, warming the voice into action. The setting of 'Du holde Kunst', with a touching downward leap of a sixth between the second and the third word, suggests obeisance and reverence. Reference to the bleak hours and life's tumultuous round remain in the bottom part of the stave, earthbound, and difficult in tessitura for many sopranos and tenors. After 'wilder Kreis umstrickt' an eloquent little falling chromatic motif in the left hand (a single bar) is a prelude to the magic which will lift the spirits (and the vocal line) into higher regions. At this point a generous and eloquent four-bar phrase takes wing ('hast du mein Herz zu warmer Lieb entzunden'), this time without the dallying on long low notes which has characterised earlier phrases. It is as if the whole song has caught fire and is aglow with the warmth of music itself. The next phrase ('Hast mich in eine bessre Welt entrückt') directs its glance heavenward; there is scarcely a phrase in all Schubert more descriptive of longing and aspiration as the inexorably rising bass line shoulders the melody aloft. This phrase ends in the relative minor as if to show us that there is no pleasure without its cost in pain, a paradox, sweetly bitter and bitter-sweet, which lies at the heart of so much of Schubert's music. The repeat of these words returns us to earth in two succeeding downward leaps, each of a sixth, and as the voice comes to the ends of its line we find ourselves back in D major. The message seems to be that a bit of heaven has been brought down to these realms, and that the lower regions of our dreary planet have been transfigured by Music's beauty. The piano postlude mirrors this descent in a succession of sequences of chords built around apoggiaturas which lean and sigh, tugging on the sleeve and pulling the heartstrings. A simple yet heart-stopping excursion into the subdominant subtly emphasises that this hymn of praise is also a type of prayer. The second strophe introduces the idea of the harp which probably inspired the piano's gentle right hand strumming.
As in all Schubert's really great strophic songs the vocal line is suitable for both verses; note for example how the interval of a sixth which has bowed down to Music on 'holder Kunst' is also deeply eloquent and descriptive of the sigh of 'ein Seufzer'. The final words of thanks at the end of the song ('du holde Kunst, ich danke dir') can be unbearably moving. This song was the last encore sung by Lotte Lehmann at her farewell recital at New York's Town Hall in 1951. After a lifetime of service to music she was too choked by tears to sing these final lines, the accompanist finishing the song for her. Schubert was also attempting to give voice to the almost inexpressible. To write music about music is the hardest thing of all, and in the wordless gratitude of the postlude, this most literary of composers retreats into that realm of art where words simply cannot carry the depth of his feeling. 'Such a song' writes Richard Capell, 'wins for the author a tenderness that is more than admiration from the coming and going generations.'
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994