Whether the poem should be read as an allegory for something deeper than a flower enthusiast's observations is a moot point. Fischer-Dieskau seems to know more of the songs's background than the other commentators for he states unequivocally that Nachtviolen 'sorrowfully recalls' the friendship between composer and poet. It is not clear whether Fischer-Dieskau means by this that the poem itself was written as a type of hymn to the troubled friendship of the two men (if this were so it would fuel the argument that Schubert and Mayrhofer shared a relationship – 'a sacred union' – of the utmost intimacy) or whether Schubert was paying tribute to the past simply by setting a poem of this type eighteen months or so after he had left Mayrhofer's room as a lodger. Is the shy and modest composer perhaps cast as the violet, gazing solemnly and with foreboding ('ahnend' which Schubert changes to 'schweigend' – silently) into the unfriendly outside world? Mayrhofer the classicist would have known that the Greeks had chosen the violet as Aphrodite's flower; perhaps he would also have known that the ancients used it as a cure for headaches, melancholia and insomnia – complaints to which the highly-strung poet was surely no stranger. It may have been that the poet's young lodger had provided the affection and friendship which had eased complaints like these. The music which Schubert provides for the text is a herbal balm, a rescue remedy to soothe and heal wounds of the heart.
A glance at Mayrhofer's original shows how at home Schubert was in amending his friend's verses to his purposes. He creates three regular four line strophes by suppressing three of the poem's original lines. One of these refers rather grandly to the poet in the third person; by changing 'sein' to 'mein' in the last verse Schubert cleverly eradicates this rather stilted device and makes the lyric infinitely more personal. Mayrhofer's original has the violet gazing into the mild summer air; although it is true that certain cultivated violets bloom late in the season, wild violets bloom early in the spring and Schubert changes 'Sommerluft' to 'Frühlingsluft' accordingly. Is this a sign that his botanical knowledge was superior to that of the poet?
The accompaniment is remarkable for its airy tessitura: there is almost no music for the bass clef in the pianist's left hand which only strays into this region at the end of the song. Purity, innocence and vulnerability are allowed to flourish in a blameless region of childlike rapture. The diminished sevenths which occur twice in the ritornello are harmonic surprises and piquancies to evoke the surprise of a ravishing smell. We hear this even more eloquently in another song from 1822 which evokes the wonders of fragrance; in Dass sie hier gewesen the east wind bears scent of flower and female to the enraptured poet. The celebrated introduction to that song – a chain of diminished sevenths – is prefigured in Nachtviolen by touches of the same harmonies. The song is more or less in ABA form but one of its greatest glories is in the third verse and the modification of the recapitulation. The vocal line changes to make a most eloquent coda; but it is the interplay of voice and piano which is most telling here – a variation of surpassing loveliness which seems a tonal analogue for the idea of the blossoming of a friendship where obbligato tendrils of counter-melody signify togetherness and cooperation. The bell-like chiming of similar thoughts in the heights of both voice and piano is not unlike the last verse of Brahms's Wir wandelten where the same idea of unspoken unanimity of thought is expressed. But in this togetherness there is also a gradual but inexorable drifting apart, something which had long since happened in the friendship between poet and composer. At this point the pianist is pulled briefly into the bass clef while the flowering vocal line holds its ground. It is possible that these deeper accompanying resonances represent a strengthening of the 'heilige Verbindung', but the diverging paths of voice and piano could also signify, as Gerald Moore wrote, 'a leave-taking made with affectionate reluctance'.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993