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Der Jüngling am Bache, D638

First line:
An der Quelle sass der Knabe
Third setting. April 1819; published in 1827 as Op 84 (later changed to 87) No 3
author of text

This poem was written in 1804 and published in Taschenbuch für Damen auf das Jahr 1805. It is a late product of Schiller's poetic art at a time when he was all too sadly aware that he did not have long to live. The narrative 'I' of the poem (after the first four lines have set the scene) shows a touching desire on his part to re-experience the freshness, and even the unsettling pain, of youth. In this, at least, there is the joy of being alive. The young man's melancholy at the return of spring is reminiscent of what Schiller wrote to Goethe about his own feelings — that this time of year brought forth in him "ein unruhiges und gegenstandsloses Sehnen" — an unsettled and groundless longing. The French poet Verlaine was also to write of a "deuil sans raison." This ambivalence of feeling, the duality of happiness in sadness and sadness in happiness, is a Schubertian hallmark. One may even term it his speciality; in the musical expression of such subtle shades of emotional colour he has no equal. A song like the Collin setting Wehmut with a line like 'es wird mir dann so wohl und weh' (Volume 5) is a perfect illustration (the spring song Im Frühling is another) of a smile through the tears, or the tears behind the smile. It is perhaps because Der Jüngling am Bache offered this type of challenge, found often enough in the romantic poets but rare for Schiller, that Schubert attempted to set the lyric three times, in 1812, 1815 and finally 1819.

The first version (D30, Volume 1) is a beautiful song of Mozartian grace; it is actually Schubert's first real song (as opposed to bailad) and a stunning achievement for a fifteen-year-old. Despite an effectively dramatic passage at 'wecken in dem tiefen Busen mir den schweren Kummer nur' there is perhaps too open a smile here fully to reflect Schiller's words. Nevertheless John Reed is not alone in preferring this version to the later attempts. The second version (D192, Volume 7) applies the minor tonality to a melody that is still based on the first version. It might be argued that this 'improvement' simply loses the freshness of the original inspiration without offering anything new in its place, apart from a somewhat darker mood.

This third version (a completely new setting) is Schubert's final attempt at solving the problem, and even this did not come easily. There were two attempts, the first of which (in D minor) has an accompaniment that changes character halfway through and introduces joyous sextuplets to enliven the accompaniment's texture. The composer then obviously decided that integration and unity (traditionally the highest ideals for a successful strophic song) were disturbed by this, and he chose to continue a moderate flow of semiquavers through each strophe. The resuit is the art that conceals art. This setting is tinged with just enough melancholy to reflect the poet's sadness, but has enough energy (a richly melismatic vocal line for example) to suggest the freshness of youth. The introduction is gently plaintive without aspiring to tragedy; dotted rhythms in the left hand, muted timpani, add an air of what might be termed gentle turbulence. With its chain of lovely long melodies it is little wonder that at one time this song was popular enough for Friedländer to include it in the second volume of the Peters Edition. Particularly haunting is the modulation at 'treiben in der Wellen Tanz' and the passage at the end of each strophe which paves the way for the return of the tonic.

There are times when Schubert can appear to be as obsessively concerned with serving his poet as Hugo Wolf was to be; in his treatment of this poem he shows himself to have a well-developed literary conscience. In regard to this lyric Einstein rightly praises the composer's "artistic sense of responsibility."

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/4040CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price) — CD temporarily out of stock
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 16 – Thomas Allen


Track 12 on CDJ33016 [4'22]
Track 19 on CDS44201/40 CD21 [4'22] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price) — CD temporarily out of stock

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