This is one of two graveside songs of Claudius from 1816; the other is Bei dem Grab meines Vaters
, D496. Schubert might have thought of them as a pair as they are both in E flat, according to John Reed the tonality (whether major or minor) of awe and devotion. Both of these songs are about a depth of emotion which transcends romantic love. The one song of course describes Claudius's visit to the grave of his father, but the title of Am Grabe Anselmo's
does not, in itself, help us with the poem's background. The commentator's have got themselves into trouble over this. Capell writes: 'A certain sweetness in the music and a slenderness depict an adolescent mourner whose life is probably not in peril, however sharp the momentary pain.' This grasps entirely the wrong end of the literary stick. In actual fact Claudius was a bereaved father; his son Anselmo has died. Far from being an adolescent emotion, the poet's pain is that of an adult, and deep. The composer too was all too familiar with infant mortality in his own family. The slenderness and youthfulness which Capell rightly hears in the music depicts the victim, not the bereaved. Because death in childhood was such a familiar and everyday thing (there were many childhood diseases from which no-one was safe before the age of ten) it is true that the tone of the poem and the music eschews surprise and drama; this is not a partner passionately mourning his beloved. But the numbed shock and the sense of loss of a wasted little life are beautifully conveyed by both poet and composer. The poem itself is phlegmatic in its brevity but full of emotion. Some time later Claudius wrote a poem entitled Anselmuccio
in which he dreams of having another son whom he imagines will be a healthy blue-eyed blonde lad. There is only one thing wrong with him: the poet does not yet have him. In writing the closing lines of Anselmuccio Claudius refers back to the opening line of Am Grabe Anselmo's
Nur eines fehlt dir, lieber Knabe!
Eins nur: Dass ich dich noch nicht habe.
The scale of the song, written in the tripartite form of a Mozart aria, is deliberately small and indeed about smallness. There is no doubt that Schubert was aware of the background of the poem. The very name Anselmo is set with the shy decoration of four semiquavers at the end of the word, and this betokens exquisite parental tenderness. In the accompaniment, mezzo staccato quavers, or quavers played between the hands and separated by rests, add to the feeling of helplessness and littleness. The setting of 'Seht, wie liebten wir uns beide' in the relative major could not possibly be about sexual love, so utterly innocent is it, and so gentle; the repeat of the words occasion a leap upwards like a stifled sob with darker harmonies to underscore the sudden twinge of pain. Under the words 'und so lang ich bin' the measured quavers of the piano part break down into a figure already familiar as a mourning motif in songs like the An den Mond: a quaver in the left hand followed by three sighing semiquavers in the right. The third section is an exact repeat of the first (as befits its classical form) but the three-bar postlude adds something new and touchingly eloquent: staccato notes in the left hand and a melting tune in the right are played as gently as those same hands might attend to a sick child, stroking a feverish brow in heartbreaking vigil.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993