Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 15 – Margaret Price
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It takes a little detective work on the poem to piece together what is happening. The walls surrounding the poet are cool (Verse 1) which suggests that they are also thick, perhaps very old. Schubert also tells us as much by a dense accompaniment, solid walls of quavers with chords which look like evenly-placed bricks, and there is a modal twist to the harmony which implies an old order. The third line of the poem tells us that the walls are high enough to tower above the narrator, and that they are made of a stone which reflects the moonlight. The scale of this puts one in mind of a castle rather than a private home. Is this a prison of some kind perhaps? Schubert's music implies that the walls contain the poet as much as they shelter him. The song is in F major but we are not allowed to experience the full span of the octave; the top note of the opening phrase is an E flat which flattens and imprisons the scale, as it were, and stops it from going out into the outside world. The music which starts in F major is thus deflected into the subdominant. This gives the music a plagal feel which suggests religious reflection.
It is surely clear by now that our poet is speaking from a monastery. Once this is seen, the rest of the poem makes sense. The narrator had arrived at the cloister some years before in a state of profound spiritual crisis (Verse 2). Converted by a 'new light', he has found peace in 'this sacred life,' and above all in the fellowship of his religious community (Verse 4). He has embraced the contemplative life where silent joy ('stille Freud', Verse 5) in something so natural and beautiful as the moonlight has replaced his silent anguish. The walls of the monastery have born witness to his development and growth. The final verse is perhaps deliberately ambiguous. Does he refer to the cell windows of his fellow monks who are his companions in contemplation and prayer, or is he perhaps thinking of his family and friends far away who, in turn, are thinking of him and also offering up their prayers? Although not profoundly religious, Schubert had experienced happy music-making in the monasteries of St Florian and Kremsmnster in the previous year (July 1825) during his holiday with the singer Johann Michael Vogl. Perhaps he had observed that many people led a happy life there in a safe community of friendship and prayer. There must also have been moments when the composer also wished to withdraw from the world and concentrate on the inner life, which for him meant undisturbed composition.
There are many marvellous touches in the music. After 'wenn droben Vollmond ist' there is a piano interlude of rare beauty with chords spaced in such a manner as to suggest transparent light. The simple change at the beginning of Verse 2 between F major and F minor—the happy present and unhappy past—is beautifully engineered, and this leads naturally into a middle section in D flat in which the poet describes how he first saw the light. It is no coincidence that these bars at the start of Verse 3 ('Jetzt brach ein ander Licht heran') recall the writing for Der blinde Knabe. There is a bell-like sonority in many of the accompaniment's chords throughout the piece, but the triumphant peal at 'Lebensheiligtum' is a splendour of campanology with large bells sounding the longer quavers, and smaller ones within the chord tinkling in semiquavers. Verse 4 begins in A flat, and it is here that one realises that this work is related to Die junge Nonne, both in subject matter and in its fervour. The triumphant inner feeling that nothing now can take away the poet's faith is remarkably caught by the progression of a line of E flats ('in tiefster Seele') which suddenly lifts on to E naturals; the darkness of A flat major is thereby replaced and banished by the blazing conviction of A major. The quieter musings of Verse 5 lead us ingeniously back into F major, and the final verse is a gentle recapitulation of the opening music, this time with a vocal line which is ornamented here and there. The very last line is repeated with flowing semiquavers supported by airy chords high in the treble—the soul, in imagination at least, is free to fly into the heavens, surrounded by love and cherished at last. Like all the other songs of this Seidl group, the idea of healing and reconciliation is at the forefront of the poet's mind and the composer's musical language.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1992