This long song was the second flower ballad which Schubert set to the words of his close friend Franz von Schober. He had completed Viola two months before in March 1823, and Vergissmeinnicht is something of a sequel.
There are a number of myths about the naming of the flower (including a French one concerning the drowning Knight Roland) but Schober seems to be creating his own story line here, combining it with the myth of Narcissus.
Verse 1: (Mässig). The song opens in a muted F minor, and in a mood of searching and longing. The vocal line is arioso – half tune and half recitative, a technique which Schubert was to perfect, for example, in the opening section of Der Neugierige in Die schöne Müllerin.
Verse 2: (Etwas langsamer). A motif of dotted crotchet plus two semiquavers in the vocal line of the first verse (on 'Herzen, and later 'Schmerzen' for example) is now employed as the basis for the accompaniment to a gently rocking and rustling movement in A flat. There is a wonderful melisma on 'säuseln ihn' and a sense of gentle wellbeing throughout. We modulate into E major (a favourite destination in many a journey from the key of A flat) via a bridging bar in A flat minor.
Verses 3-7: This E major movement is the most prized in the piece, and some commentators have even suggested that it might be performed as a separate song. It is remarkable how Schubert now seems completely to ignore Schober's verse structure (the composer's musical recapitulations are likely to occur halfway through one of the poet's strophes) in order to make a seamless aria of the greatest beauty. This is definitely the same hand that was soon to create the immortal 'O Bächlein meiner Liebe' aria in Der Neugierige. There is the same effortless suggestion of an Italianate vocal line (utterly singable with the most grateful and charming of vocal flourishes) suffused with the deepest German feeling. The sensual overtones are everywhere apparent in this music as spring the seducer (an urgent motif quickens the pulse in the piano's left hand just before Verse 7) surveys the delicate young flower – a maiden who manages to seem mischievous ('schalkhaft') even as she slumbers. The rapture of his 'wonnetrunken' gaze is aptly caught in a vocal line overflowing with semiquavers. Schober's own reputation in the Schubert circle for 'lascivious' behaviour is scarcely contradicted by the veiled sexual overtones of these verses.
Verses 8-9: (Geschwinder). This is a bridge passage for the swift disappearance of spring; cold winds rush through the music culminating on an anguished chord on 'Scheidekuss'. Most of Verse 9 is built around a tremolo motif in the piano (derived from the idea of 'Blitzstrahl' – a ray of lightning). Linking passages of this sort suggest the beginnings of tunes, but they fail to flower into melody.
Verse 10 to the first line of 13: This B major aria is the transformation music of the piece. Like a nature film speeded up to show the unfolding of a flower's petals, it fairly bristles with the energy of nature. The motif in the piano's left hand seems to be pushing upwards from the depths as if driven by the life force. The short two-bar phrases and the snatched crotchet rests give a feeling of panic, even shame. This flower has been awakened in every sense, and no longer a virgin ('was sie ungekannt verlor'), she cannot expect the support and understanding of her sisters. Indeed the kiss of spring has transformed her into a new and perplexing being. We hear this in an anguished line of recitative at the beginning of Verse 13 ('Ach! sie weiss es selbst nicht') set to pitches rising by semitones as if the flower is trying to stretch ever upward to clasp the key to her inner salvation.
Second line of verse 13 to verse17: (Etwas geschwind). We have here a B minor aria richly reminiscent (particularly in its rhythm) of the 'Unfinished' Symphony, a work from more or less the same period; it is also a sister of Suleika I (also in B minor) and a cousin of both Der Zwerg and Du liebst mich nicht. Only Schubert could get away with using this insistent and unchanging motor rhythm for nearly sixty bars; it preserves the tension and sorrow of the forget-me-not's plight, the better to contrast with the acceptance music of the final section from Verse 18. There are so many fascinating things happening in the inner harmonies that given a good performance the true Schubertian could scarcely agree with the charges of monotony usually levelled against the work. The aptness of the composer's response to the words at Verses 16-17 is particularly impressive; the cooling of burning feet is audible in the change of harmony, the shining of the flower's image in the waves is apparent in the mirroring interplay between vocal line and bass, the playing of moon and stars in the river shines with the colours achieved by the miraculously watery conjunction of voice and piano in these registers. The little piano postlude to this section is not the least felicitous touch.
Verses 18-20: (Langsam). This concluding section is unlike any other in all Schubert. Over an arpeggiated accompaniment that would serve as a background to many an anonymous Italian aria (but in this case evokes 'the gentle, radiant waves') the composer weaves musical spells redolent of healing and self-acceptance. The opening line of Verse 20 ('Und sie fühlt sich ganz genesen') pours balm on the wound with a succession of sixths as harmonic unguent. The final cry from the heart which is both urgent plea and the naming of a flower – the harmonies prophetic of the chromaticism of a later age – is as haunting a six-bar phrase as Schubert ever wrote. One is left with the distinct impression that for the two creators of this work there was a symbolic importance to this text which we will never quite understand. Schober is said to have exerted a powerful influence on Schubert in encouraging him to to sexual openness and experiment. It is hard not to see in this song a parable of someone coming to terms with the forces of sexual awakening; rejected by siblings, the flower has to move far away from home to find acceptance and self-acceptance; in the end the only solution to the pains and betrayals of life lies within, and in declining to blame oneself or others in a frenzy of guilt. Of course such a story could apply to others within the Schubert circle, but at this particular time when the composer was struggling to come to terms with a diagnosis of syphilis, it seems more than likely that both Viola and Vergissmeinnicht contain a hidden personal agenda.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993