The key of B minor alone points to music of the deepest emotion, a companion piece to the much later Vor meiner Wiege
which is about a dying mother. Because the composer lost his own mother at the age of 15 it is tempting to see the song as autobiographical. At least one scholar has postulated that the words are by the composer himself, and bearing in mind that he had written words for Abschied
ten months before, it is not impossible that he was once more moved to write his own verses for setting. Whether or not this is the case, there is still the question as to why he should choose to write a song of this kind for himself, more than six years after his mother's death. According to the memoirs of Josef Ludwig von Streinsberg (a friend of Spaun who was connected with the composer since his schooldays) Schubert wrote this song on the death of his
mother who died in 1818. As he possessed the manuscript, there seems little reason to doubt this assertion. The presence of the son (Streinsberg) at the graveside is written into the poem and perhaps Schubert customized the poem accordingly. However the literary style seems just a little high-flown (Philomele!) to be composer-grown and it is probably more likely that another aspiring literary friend contributed the words. In any event, the composer had been through the pain of bereavement himself, and the song is no less remarkable (on the contrary) if it was written in empathy for a friend's loss.
The melodic line is very reminiscent of that of the Hölty setting Winterlied17 from 1816, a melodic idea summoned up by Schubert less because of the weather conditions at the funeral than by the coldness of death and the grave where nothing grows - 'Keine Blumen blühn'. The solemnity and pain of the famous last setting of Mignon's Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt also comes to mind. Underneath 'bleich und stumm' we have the same two quavers followed by a rest to describe paleness and silence as were used in Erlafsee to illustrate the still depths of the lake. Father and son stand at the graveside united in their grief by parallel sixths. A note of resentment against fate is heard at the recitative-like outburst of 'Schnell, schnell mit ihr verschwand'. The transformation into B major just before the angel's call is a typically Schubertian touch perhaps, but even by his own exalted standards, the little consolatory postlude, so simple yet so expressive, is ravishingly beautiful.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994