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Nachtgesang, D314

First line:
Tiefe Feier
first published in 1887
author of text

There could be no better illustration than this of how deeply Zumsteeg influenced Schubert, and how completely Schubert surpassed him. Zumsteeg’s Nachtgesang (a rather beautiful song) appears in the first volume of the Kleine Balladen und Lieder, a volume which was almost certainly owned (or borrowed) by the younger composer. The symptoms of a Schubert homage/revision are all there: Schubert’s song is in the same key as Zumsteeg’s (E flat), and the rhythmic notation of the first bar is the same (dotted minim plus crotchet). Thus on the printed page the songs do not appear dissimilar, except that the Zumsteeg seems longer and written for an all-purpose voice in the middle of the range, and the tessitura of Schubert’s song suggests the bass voice at a glance. Closer examination reveals that Schubert’s song is completely strophic whereas Zumsteeg has made a curious compromise: the vocal line of the three verses is identical, but he has varied the accompanimental underlay of each strophe with changes of harmony so that the tune is same, yet not the same. The charge levelled against Schubert by his contemporaries that he made his music unnecessarily complicated in comparison to the ‘purity’ and regard for literature of his musical forbears, is scotched at a stroke. Far from writing something more complex than his older mentor, Schubert has actually simplified Zumsteeg’s approach! He has written a real strophic song, rather than the half-breed favoured by the older composer on this occasion.

Schubert’s superiority lies not only in the simplicity of the accompaniment; he had a gift for melody and memorable turn of phrase with which the older man could not compete. Whereas Zumsteeg’s setting benefits from the changes in harmony from strophe to strophe, Schubert’s evokes an entire world of nocturnal majesty which seems to make the musical repeats as inevitable as the turning of the globe. The first half of the song has that marvellous combination of stillness and enormity of scale which is a Schubertian speciality; one is reminded that the composer had written both versions of Meeres stille four months earlier; the opening of Wehmuth, a much later song, also comes to mind. At ‘Braune Schleier hüllen Wald und Feld’ the melody lifts like a pervasive mist into A flat major only to turn around on itself and slip, secretive and veiled, in response to the words, into G minor. The middle section of the song (from ‘Trüb’ und matt und müde’) drags its feet in appropriately tortuous chromaticism for two bars before the ‘namenloser Friede’ of night smooths the harmony back into nocturnal diatonicism. All in all this is a remarkable achievement; as Capell writes, ‘the Schubert of Wanderers Nachtlied is announced’.

from notes by Graham Johnson 1994


Track 16 on CDJ33020 [2'47] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 5 on CDS44201/40 CD11 [2'47] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)

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