Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 15 – Margaret Price
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Kosegarten's reputation, later to suffer a great decline, was at its height in the period in which Schubert set his work, and there is no doubt that the young composer was taken with his poetry. In July 1815, working from an edition of the poems dating from 1802, Schubert had written a number of strophic songs to Kosegarten texts, work which seemed to alternate quite happily with the setting of rather more distinguished poems by Goethe. This was followed by a veritable field day (19 October 1815) when an astonishing procession of no less than seven Kosegarten songs (all strophic) were composed. The completed An die untergehende Sonne dates from almost two years later (although its first 21 bars were sketched in 1816) and it is the last of the Kosegarten songs. It is also the only durchkomponiert setting of this poet, and arguably the finest. It is obvious that Schubert was fascinated by the rondo form suggested by the look of the printed poem on the page: three lines of invocation (the musical refrain in E flat) followed by a longer passage (an arioso in A flat in slow 3/8 time), a repeat of the refrain, another passage of a completely different character (a much quicker arioso, also in A flat but modulating via C flat to B major for the song of nightingales) and back to E flat for the closing invocation—thus ABACA. It was just this type of old-fashioned poetic formula which, although it appealed to Schubert for his musical purposes, was criticised in Kosegarten's work by Goethe, Schiller and Schlegel, among others. Schubert abandons the poem (there is a good deal more of it than we see here) when Kosegarten departs from the formal discipline of this scheme and alters the refrain. The young composer was already a fearless editor of the ramblings of certain poets, taking from them only what was necessary for his music. He was perhaps more indulgent with writers whom he knew personally. In 1823 he did not flinch from making a much longer musical rondo of his friend Schober's Viola, although that poem seems to have been written hand in glove with the composer, and with a rondo plan firmly in mind from the start.
The opening piano ritornello sinks inexorably in stages for five stately bars; each cadence wilts in a mood of dignified withdrawal and retreat. It is true that we touch on the chord of E flat in root position in the second bar, but the secret of this introduction is that from the very first chord (a first inversion which shows us the sun lowering on the horizon in mid-descent) we are pulled ever downwards towards the inevitable moment when the voice enters, as predictably as the turning of the world itself, on the tonic chord of E flat. The vocal refrain, modelled in the main on the melody of the introduction, then unfolds in magisterial fashion. We are quite happy to hear it three times in the course of the work; indeed, such repetition seems to take on a quasi religious significance, as if something so weighty as the setting of the sun needs to be celebrated by solemn incantation. It requires from the singer a long-breathed line with a planetary spin in the sound. This is not a song for a small voice; in order to do it justice we have to believe that the singer has the stature to be something of a prophet or seer. The requisite vocal radiance has no doubt been lacking from the performances heard by those who consign this work to the darkness of oblivion. The longer episodes are also extremely difficult to bring off; the first of these is in statuesque triple time which, despite the change of metre, retains the poise and gravity of the introduction. The main characteristic of this section is that we hear almost all of the phrases twice; once again this suggests the solemnity of spell or incantation. A small piano postlude has imitative phrases between the hands (and again grouped as a pair) as if scored for small wind band. The second of the two longer ariosi is much faster and serves as an admirable contrast as the heart lifts with the beauties of twilight. This is music of gentle rejoicing, the fleet accompaniment catching the feeling of playful winds and soothing water cooling the heat of Helios's completed journey. It is in this section that we glimpse the Schubert of four years later, and the first Suleika song which is the apotheosis of his music of the rustling breeze.
There is something deliberately old-fashioned about this music. In settings of poets like Klopstock and Hölty we are seldom in doubt that Schubert is fully aware that he is dealing with a poets of the old school. The same applies to the Kosegarten settings, for although the poet was younger than Goethe in years, he was not really an innovative spirit, and his work looked back to the past. To the extent that Schubert's songs often include a touch of a portrait of their poets as the composer perceives them, this song has about it a learned classical poise. It mirrors Kosegarten's manner (he was a celebrated scholar, particularly good with the classics and British literature) by teaming his words with a musical style that goes back to Gluck—particularly in the first arioso.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1992