The song is very much a 'hit' and it is easier to salute Schubert's skill than to analyse how he puts on a single sheet of paper such depth of emotion. As is usual with this composer the answer lies in the poetry, for he has taken his clue from the shape given to him by Jacobi. The poet's six-line strophe becomes the carefully plotted ground plan: the music for the first line of poetry and the last (including the piano postlude) are the two elegiac pillars between which the musical edifice is built. Within these noble demarcation lines, lines 2 to 5 of the verse allow a pang of anguish into the proceedings (the music moves into the relative minor, the note values are shorter, the mood more troubled by chromatic harmony) so that the cleverly prepared return to E flat major via a cadence in the dominant appears as an old friend, a blessing and a consolation. As Capell says, this is expressive of 'grief consoled and yet still near weeping.' Throughout most of the song the piano is gently supportive, the resonance of the bass line a source of unobtrusive strength, but the concluding three solo bars are in that special class occupied by only the greatest of Schubert's postludes. The valedictory commentary, in part made up of a new musical idea, seems to amplify the meaning of the music beyond what the words themselves are capable of saying; its rising sequences, phrases which seem to turn the gaze of the suppliant gently heavenward, depict and provide a measure of musical consolation which lies beyond the power of speech. There are nine verses in the original poem, but most performers find that the song makes its greatest impact with the performance of only three.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993