Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 18 – Peter Schreier
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There are seven strophes in the poem, and as Schubert uses two of the poet's verses to make one of his, we have three-and-a-half musical verses. Thus, apart from the fact that the song's ending surprises us by seeming to come sooner than we expect, the form is an extremely simple strophic one. Indeed, if we compare it to that of two other nocturnes of a few years earlier, Die junge Nonne and Schwestergruss, Schubert's approach seems to be minimalist. In the course of such intricate durchkomponiert settings the narrators undergo a mystical experience which fundamentally changes their lives, and we can hear as much in the music. The poem of Um Mitternacht might have suggested a similar scope for development—initial loneliness, the disembodied and almost supernatural appearance of the beloved, her comforting words, the clearing of the heavens and transfigured bliss on a starlit night. But Schubert's decision to keep the song uneventfully strophic comes from a closely attentive and utterly intuitive reading of the real Ernst Schulze behind the text. The composer has decided that the poem is nothing to do with a real beloved, rather is it to do with Schulze's fantasy of someone he can summon with the help of poetry's magic lamp, as if he was Aladdin stranded on a desert island, or locked up in a cell. Of course he is locked up, but in a state of mind which he (along with an untold number of similar sufferers) calls 'undying love'. Because nothing really happens in the poem, we hear no real change in his condition from first to last.
On the other hand the poetry is of undoubted beauty and it is a hallmark of Schulze's gift that despite the narcissism and the narrow parameters of his inner world the verse has the power to summon some of Schubert's most wonderful ideas. The opening of this song is no exception. A falling sequence (in 2/4) of accented second beats and weak first beats evokes 'heavy sighing … depression and descent' (Youens). The repetition of six mezzo-staccato quavers on a single chord is a time-honoured use of a motif denoting stars (Eric Sams on Lied in Grove VI). For Susan Youens on the other hand, this is prophetic of Winterreise where the motif is seminal to Gute Nacht and Der Wegweiser. So rich and multi-faceted is Schubert's motivic language that we can all hear different things, or rather more than one thing in any one idea. For example, I detect the whole first verse of the poem in the music of this introduction. Although the composer says 'no voice' and 'no footstep' he illustrates these things nevertheless; the falling sequence seems to me to be pleadingly vocal, the staccato chords perfect footsteps (cf the left hand chords of the walking moon in An den Mond in einer Herbstnacht) and the repeated chords and cadential flourish when repeated in a higher register seems perfect for the bright starry eyes of heaven.
This is celestial music of the spheres, a stately dance to the music of timelessness, an impression that deepens as strophe follows strophe. It is a slower, more courtly version of that cosmic moto perpetuo Die Sterne; the poet's troubles are played out against a background of stars which continue their round dance regardless of his woes. The voice's eloquent leap of a ninth on 'hellen Äuglein' (and then echoed in the piano) is distressingly touching. It is also disarming, for the vocal line has the innocence of madness, or of childhood—and the dignity. With this observation another song in B flat written earlier in 1825 comes to mind. In Der blinde Knabe there is an air of pathetic and naive sweetness which much resembles the tone and happy self-delusion of Um Mitternacht. The blind boy, also trapped in darkness, is locked in his own world; he does not want to see the light because he can use his fantasy and imagination to see anything he pleases in his mind's eye. He is king of his own world; any woman is as beautiful as he chooses to imagine her. In the same way Schulze summons Adelheid the cruel to his side and sees and hears her as Adelheid the compassionate. Schubert, who had eyes in the back of his head when it came to sizing people up, has perfectly understood that at the witching hour of night and dreams, blindness is something that can afflict madmen and poets.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993