This song is the only one in the canon where Schubert set his own words. It is a touching farewell to the composer's friend Franz von Schober who was leaving Vienna. The music is heartfelt but simple, as if Schubert was embarrassed (or at least thought it inappropriate) to lavish ornate invention on his own literary efforts. Pièce d'occasion
it certainly is and was probably penned, words and music almost simultaneously, within a few minutes, and written into his friend's album. Schober was Schubert's host at this time; the composer had lived in the Schober apartment for eight months but had to vacate his room there in favour of Axel, the elder brother of the family. Axel, a talented painter of flowers, was a first lieutenant in the Austrian Tenth Hussars and was due to return on military leave from France. Tragically he died before he could do so. He was already ailing when his younger brother left Vienna to fetch him, this little song ringing in his ears.
It is possible that Schober had originally intended to go away for a long time (perhaps to Sweden) and that he was forced to return quickly to Vienna only by his brother's death. If this was the case, however, and there were to be only two people in the Schober flat (Axel and Schubert), why did the composer have to move out? The prospect of a long separation from a beloved friend (which actually turned out to be relatively short) has long been held to account for the mournful tone of this song. But a number of other friends, also very dear to the composer, left Vienna from time to time without musical comment; compare the elegiac tone of this lament to the comic Epistel
written in mock Italian style to Spaun who moved to Linz. It seems to me that the Schober family's concern over Axel's health must have been well known to Schubert; perhaps they feared the worst. Was this song meant to comfort and show concern, to give spiritual support for Schober's sad and ominous journey? The third verse could have applied equally well to the prospect of Schober's sad parting from his brother, and the 'Bestimmungsort' (the decreed place) may refer to the town where Axel lay ill, as well as the grave which parts all friends, and brothers.
The doubling of the vocal line by the piano in much of this song seems to show solidarity: 'Whither thou goest, I will go.' The modulation into the relative major on 'lieber Freund' is as tender as an embrace. Schubert was devoted to his own brothers, and if this song was written taking Axel's illness into account, tactful empathy is to be found everywhere. John Reed finds echoes of Vor meiner Wiege here (it is in the same key of B minor). That song was about mother and child, and the key is one which the composer often chooses when writing of emotional ties of great intimacy (Grablied für die Mutter is also in B minor.) Here we get a sense of family, and realise that Schubert considered himself an honorary part of the Schober family too; he had certainly been treated as such. The whole seems to be a companion piece to, and mirror image of, An die Musik in terms of its chronology, its key (B minor is the relative minor of the D major of An die Musik) and simply because the two things that were really sacred to Schubert were music and friendship, both containing much mingled happiness and sadness and relationships both major and minor. And of course the enigmatic figure of Franz von Schober hovers behind both pieces, tantalisingly silent about his friendship with the composer after Schubert's death, and perhaps closer to the composer than any other member of the circle. What these two men from such different backgrounds and with such different temperaments saw in each other remains one of the unsolved Schubertian mysteries. The composer was steadfastly loyal to Schober when the poet-dilettante's behaviour seemed to have deserved less. The music with Schoberian connections, whether settings of his poems or pieces linked with him such as this, always strikes a note of very special affection.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994