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Die Sternennächte, D670

First line:
In monderhellten Nächten
October 1819; first published in 1862
author of text

The argument of the poem is simple enough: our problems recede when we see them in a larger perspective. But Mayrhofer in his curious way predicts space travel and the bird's eye view of the astronauts when he imagines how beautiful and twinkingly friendly our planet must seem from another faraway star. There is also in the poet's tone of voice a note of earnest humility (Einstein calls it 'spiritual fervour') and a stumbling after the larger truths of life which the composer seems to have caught perfectly. In this song we can hear the introspective pessimism of Mayrhofer certainly, but we can also hear what a dear fellow he was (obviously dear to Schubert too) and how he struggled to make the most of the sad set of cards that had been dealt him in life – we gain something of the same insight during a fine performance of Nachtviolen. The song is half hymn of gratitude and half plaint and it is in this twilight world of merged feelings that both poet and composer are master.

In musical terms everything seems unearthly perfection in this song, from the disposition of the chords (another example of a great deal of music in the aerial treble clef) to the placing of the exquisite single trill in the piano part before the entry of the voice. Once the vocal line has begun it seems suspended on a thread of silver, a balancing act on a moonbeam. For the second verse (the composer creates an ABA form from the poet's two verses) the music comes down to earth as the music reflects the poet's mortal concerns. The passage beginning 'Auf ihnen bluten Herzen' is heartrendingly chromatic, the better to contrast with the happy diatonic scale ('sie aber strahlen heiter') which describes the ever hopeful and cheery stars who do not allow accidental meteors to enter their orbit. The reprise is set up with heart-stopping simplicity and once more we tread on moonbeams. The postlude 'So werden Sterne/Durch die Ferne' is a superb piece of poetic shorthand in a language (and poet) often given to prolixity. The brevity of its understatement, the humble acceptance of the miracles of nature which it implies – these things make it among the most moving of codas in all Schubert. Even the final bar of piano writing seems unbearably eloquent and full of meaning.

This is one of the great Mayrhofer songs, although it is curiously neglected in performance – perhaps because of its difficulty. In the original key of D flat (as recorded here) as opposed to the B flat of the first edition (and thus Peters), the whole is bathed in a type of seraphic moonlight which emanates from a special and separate jewel box in the Schubertian's treasure trove. It is as if we are hearing, in that gentle 6/8 pulse, the music of the spheres.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/4040CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 19 – Felicity Lott


Track 11 on CDJ33019 [2'57]
Track 8 on CDS44201/40 CD22 [2'57] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)

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