This song is a product of that extraordinarily productive day, 25 August 1815. It is also one of the most ingenious of all Schubert’s many songs of working-class folk. The carpenter tells us that his work is at the bottom of everything; it supports us in our cradles and encloses in our coffins. His craft, in all its simplicity and lack of pretension, is all about the basics, and what could be more fundamental to the work of the musician than the bass line in the most simple of keys, C major? Accordingly, Schubert sets this anonymous text in such a way that the singer is the bottom line; the voice furnishes the foundation of the whole song in the same way that the carpenter provides a solid floor for his customers. Of course this bass line is also the tune, and rather a good one at that. For much of the song the pianist only uses his right hand; this extremely simple one-handed staccato accompaniment in combination with the voice in somewhat lugubrious mood provides an extraordinarily apt sound-picture of knocking-on-wood as the carpenter hammers home his simple philosophy. There is nothing terribly lyrical here (apart from a rocking motion at the end of the first verse, mirrored in the postlude, to signify the gentle movement of the cradle) for this workman takes after his material: he is wooden. But Schubert displays a truly dramatic skill in presenting a man who is also good at his work and proud of his skill of a different kind, a man who underpins our society, just as he claims. The preference shown for cash payment in the last verse would make the protagonist an honorary member of any musicians’ union. In listening to him you can see what it is that Wagner admired about Hans Sachs and the old-fashioned world of the German guilds. As ever, Schubert (like Shakespeare) is on the side of the simple man.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994