Verses 1-4: The song is made up of an ingeniuous chain of related melodies reminiscent of the St Antony Chorale immortalised by Brahms. It is cleverly constructed to incorporate elements of the strophic song, and to suggest thereby homespun simplicity and goodness. But the hand of the composer is ever present to modify and re-direct; what appears at first to be simple is shown to be infinitely subtle. The first section, four verses long, establishes the traveller's good-hearted optimism and his background. The pilgrims' chorale is taken at a measured pace, but it cannot be too slow. The song has probably not found many advocates because it is all too easy to make it elegiac; without a bracing Ímpetus behind it (two, not four in a bar) the music seems interminable and heavy. Verses 1 and 3 are musically identical, and so are verses 2 and 4. There are strong pre-echoes of Leitner's Der Kreuzzug D932, in mood and tonality (D major) rather than in tempo. The song of the monk is contemplative as he watches from his cell as the crusade sets out, but there is little doubt that this pilgrim, like Bunyan's, is a man of action. His is a song of the open road.
Verses 5-6: The second part of the song's three-part structure throws obstacles in the path of pilgrim's progress and performer's peace of mind. Their journey is relentlessly driven ('nimmer nimmer stand ich still') by a hopeless quest for the Golden Gate linking earth and heaven. Verse 5 is relatively simple tonally, but at Verse 6 a complex harmonic terrain makes the going tough. The section beginning 'Berge lagen mir im Wege' brings a dazzling sequence of modulations which happen so quickly that the keyboard is as dangerous a place to be as the mountaineer's slippery rock face. We emerge from the chromatic crevasse with an imposing modulation into a more settled F major — more settled at least from the point of view of harmony, if not movement.
Verses 7-8: Quavers replace crotchets in the accompaniment and announce water music, first a gentle stream, which being a relatively simple natural phenomenon repeats the tune (transposed into F major) of Verses 1 and 3. As the river falls to the great sea (Verse 8), left hand broken octaves plunge to the bottom of the keyboard. The beginning of this verse uses the vocal line we have already heard at the beginning of Verse 5 transposed a minor third higher. In this way Schubert knits the structure, a cat's cradle of ingenuity which weaves contrasting melodic strands together in the manner of a rondo. On closer examination this proves to be nothing of the sort — a mirage. The awful realisation that the journey has all been in vain ('Näher bin ich nicht dem Ziel') stops the traveller in his tracks. He sings the words twice as if he can scarcely believe that all his hopes have been utterly betrayed. (9) The music, now in the key of B, the relative minor of the song's opening D major, is searing in its intensity. The tempo is suddenly Sehr langsam, and the words 'There is never Here' are pronounced as if from on high, a heavy sentence against which there is no appeal. The final 'ist niemals hier' where the third of the scale is sharpened to suggest the major key, is almost triumphant. There is a fierce joy, perhaps even a madness, in facing reality bravely, even recklessly. The final whiplash piano chord (now unequivocally in the minor) closes all exploration with cruel finality. The dotted rhythms of this eloquent page are extremely reminiscent of the final verse of Der Unglückliche (also in D major - B minor) from 1821 (Volume 15).
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993
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