English-speaking people sometimes find it difficult to tune into the inevitable connection between heavy drinking and the pondering of mortality which lies at the dark heart of this kind of Teutonic conviviality. It seems altogether natural in a German drinking song of this kind to see the affirmation of brotherhood and the sharing of a cup of wine as a prelude to ‘crossing the bar’ (rather than having it close at eleven in the English manner). At least there is nothing lachrymose or sentimental about this setting which has a energy derived from the rolling left-hand basses which simulate the rumbling of drums. It has something of the same grim triumphant mood as Die Trommel gerühret, Klärchen’s song from Beethoven’s music for Goethe’s Egmont. The music is marked ‘Schnell und feurig’ and the speed and fiery nature of this little chorus betokens great bravado until the end of the strophe and the final high A. There a hint of panic and terror in this note because of its tessitura; after all, it is just as unlikely that a regiment will be full of heroes as it is that a chorus will be overflowing with Pavarottis. No doubt Schubert designed this ending to propel the singers headlong into battle, but musicians are not often the best warriors.
The poem is the second last in Körner’s collection Leyer und Schwert. It was written to fit an extant tune with words by Karl Gottlob Cramer (1758–1817). This Kriegslied beginning ‘Feinde rings um!’ achieved the status of folksong (it was later set by the Bohemian composer Franz Gläser who was Schubert’s contemporary in Vienna) but Körner must have known and sung a much earlier version.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994