If it is true, as John Reed believes, that there was something of a crisis in the love affair (or non-love affair) between Schubert and Therese Grob sometime in May 1816, there could be no stronger musical evidence than the sweet tone of this exquisite song, underscored by the gentlest sadness, yet without a trace of self-pity. On first hearing it seems to be happy, but repeated hearings and subtle interpretative insight reveal a type of bravery and a regret, the renunciation of a dream with a gallant smile; the sighs of the beautiful little postlude hardly seem to betoken the happiness of possession and assured consummation. This music is the stuff of daydreams and fantasy, the music of someone who idealises the very type of relationship that he knows he cannot have. The most touching verse in this setting is the third (the composer uses two of the poet's strophes to make each musical verse) which speaks of how dead everything seems to be without the beloved. As so often is the case with this composer, lilting music in the major key does not necessarily paint unalloyed happiness. This setting has of course been overshadowed, somewhat unjustly, by Brahms's Op 71 No 5, a sumptuous and introspective song for the lower voice in the key of C major. Is it not true that Brahms too was drawn to this poem less in celebration of a relationship than in gentle mourning for the lack of one? Bars 13 to16 of the Schubert (on the words 'Wo mir Blumen roth und blau ihre Hände lasen') provides a perhaps unconscious echo of Haydn's Emperor's Hymn. Traces of this national anthem can be found in the Matthisson Lebenslied
, in the Schiller setting Der Flüchtling
, and most noticeably in the piano postlude of the Pichler Lied
'Ferne von der grossen Stadt' which is another work from 1816. The main theme of Mendelssohn's E flat String Quartet Op 12 is also markedly influenced by the same fragment of the Haydn hymn which appears in the Schubert song. Incidentally, Mendelssohn's setting of this Hölty text is also very charming without plumbing the emotional depths of the Brahms. Neither of the later settings, it seems to me, has the seemingly effortless multi-faceted profundity of the Schubert which is one of those songs which can be taken as lightheartedly, or as much to heart, as the quality of any interpretation, or the subjective state of mind of any listener, allows.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993