Judging by the number of contemporary copies of this haunting little song it seems to have been a great favourite in the composer's own lifetime—and little wonder. It has a power and emotional scope which are quite disproportionate to its length and musical means. The song was included in the collection of Lieder which the composer made for Therese Grob who was said to have been the beloved of his youth. The tune is, in John Reed's words, 'characteristically poised between sorrow and hope.' Simple though it seems to be, there are all sorts of little harmonic expressive touches which show the hand of a master; for example, the momentary intrusion of a C sharp into the accompaniment (in the second full bar of the piece, under the word 'Land') shows a passing twinge of fear and pain which is gently resolved in the soul's otherwise smooth passage to the realms of peace. Schubert normally conceives a tune which is the unique property of a certain poem, but this melody is one of the rare exceptions: he used it again, with certain alterations, in 1826 for the final version of Mignon's Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
D877 No 4. This poem from Goethe's Wilhelm Meister
had tantalised him for a number of years and it seems that he never felt he had mastered it until the melody of Ins stille Land
re-insinuated itself into his mind. This alone is sufficient proof against the preposterous notion that the composer was capable of forgetting his music the day after having composed it. It is easy to see how this plaintive song which bemoans, and at the same time accepts, the dictates of fate, should have seemed appropriate for the character of Mignon whose own lament about the suffering of longing is tempered by calm and resignation. Schubert's fair copy (dated April 1816) is in A minor (the key of the Mignon song of course) but here we perform it in the G minor of the first draft, which has no introduction.
In some of the later versions of the song (which vary not at all in essential musical substance) a tonic minor chord is thrummed or rolled by way of Vorspiel; in one of these alternative manuscripts the subdominant chord makes a passing appearance. This casual variety hints that in this type of Lied, where the accompaniment lacks a strong enough motival character for Schubert to take the trouble to incorporate a written-out introduction, an opening was improvised on the spot. It was presumably this custom which made the publisher Diabelli so bold as to write a woefully banal introduction for the first edition which was re-printed by Peters. He who attempts to compose ersatz Schubert does so at his peril. It is hard enough to compose an ending to a Schubert fragment without taking it upon oneself to begin a work; try as he might the pasticheur always strikes a false note.
It is obvious that Schubert has conceived his tune for the first verse of the poem with its majority of end-stopped lines. There is only one moment, between the fifth and sixth lines, where the sense of the words carries through from 'Hand' to 'hinüber'. The second verse (and to a lesser extent the third) bristles with enjambments, however, and in order to make sense of the meaning the performer has to work out completely different phrasing and breathing at the same time as preserving the original melodic flow.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1992