Schubert is like Autolycus in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale
of whom it was said; 'He hath songs for man, or woman, of all sizes; no milliner can so fit his customers with gloves.' The words by de la Motte Fouqué are from that writer's famous novella Undine
(1811), the tale of a water-sprite who in the manner of Hans Christian Andersen's little mermaid falls in love with a mortal, the knight Huldbrand. She marries him and thereby acquires a soul, but Huldbrand soon falls in love with the beautiful Bertalda who is thought to be the daughter of a duke. This little ballad is sung by Undine in the book's eleventh chapter; the tale of desperate parents who have lost their child leads up to Undine's somewhat malicious revelation that her rival Bertalda's parents are in fact a poor fisher couple. Bertalda, who has long thought herself to be of noble birth, is horrified to be claimed by them.
Schubert succeeds in making this folksong-like music have the character of spell or incantation. It is somehow much more memorable than a tune of this simplicity deserves to be. There is no doubt that the composer would have read De la Motte Fouqué's short work from cover to cover, and that he would also have been aware of the supernatural, almost Lorelei character of the singer of these words. Perhaps he was drawn to them also because of the many sad experiences of infant mortality in his father's household. We have to imagine the emotional crises in the cramped family circle between the death and burial of the young composer's various brothers and sisters; visits to the graveyard must have been a regular occurrence.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993