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Sehnsucht, D879

First line:
Die Scheibe friert, der Wind ist rauh
March 1826; published in November 1828 as Op 105 No 4
author of text

On first hearing, this exciting song seems to be related to Erstarrung from Winterreise; one could perhaps almost hear in it a sketch for that later work. John Reed calls it the first of Schubert's Winterreise songs. Reed also finds the song ominous and sombre, finding in its opening bars a quotation of the composer's 'death motif' in D minor. I think it is rather too easy to exaggerate the work's link with the last great cycle (if there is one) and thereby see in it a dark and disturbing work. Like Der Wanderer an den Mond by the same poet, Sehnsucht begins in the minor key true enough, but the major passages (and the song ends in the major) suggest, like the other Seidl songs on this disc, a problem solved or at least eased, a chink of light in the darkness, a healing of the soul.

Only a non-pianist would equate the fast triplet accompaniment of this song with that of Erstarrung. The effect is similar, but the technical challenge is very different. The first note of each triplet ingeniously changes to chime with the vocal line and alter the harmony, but the second and third notes of the Sehnsucht figure comprise a rising octave rather than the falling octave more usually demanded (in Erstarrung for example) and which most experienced pianists can play as naturally as an Alberti bass. Schubert obviously prides himself on giving each of his songs a unique accompaniment; in Sehnsucht this reversal of the expected (a brain teaser to be compared to patting one's head and rubbing the stomach simultaneously) is a trick the composer plays but once on song accompanists. This gives Sehnsucht a slightly different feel from the many other songs accompanied by fast triplets. The chief glory of the work, however, is the strength of the roving bass line, a jagged and icy staccato at the outset to offset the legato effect of the rushing wind depicted by the right hand. It seems obvious that Schubert composed this and the vocal line well before coming up with accompanying details. The change at Verse 2 ('mir fehlt mein Lieb') into the submediant at the mention of his distant love is similar to the change into F major (also the submediant) at 'Wo find ich eine Blüte' in Erstarrung. It is memory of another song in Winterreise which is prompted by Verse 3 however: the beautiful way that the music melts into D major from D minor recalls that most magical of moments in Gute Nacht where the same two keys change places in the singer's mind. It seems that Schubert was especially touched by the tenderness of the phrase 'mein schöner Stern, mein Augenstern', a poetic image which had also earlier inspired Friedrich Rückert—and subsequently Schumann with his Mein schöner Stern in 1849. Simple as it may sound, the little piano interlude after this (just before 'Du weisst, dich lieb') is a masterpiece of subtlety and pianistic trickiness, as are similar inner-voiced passages for the piano after the voice pauses briefly for breath. We return to the minor for the tears which take us into Verse 4, and then, although this is no way a strophic song, details are changed all the time in order to set the words with greater naturalness, we modulate once more to the major. A second glance shows us that we have reached D major this time via F major (rather than directly from D minor) which seems to make the caressing tone of the end even more special. Suddenly we realise that the song is not only about love but about the nature of creativity and the writer's block that stands in the way of poets and composers who, engulfed by 'Sehnsucht', fruitlessly attempt to rediscover their muse. But it seems that the winter storm is not entirely an ill wind—the pain of separation has enabled a song to come into being. Whatever the dreadful odds 'I feel I can still sing' says the poet—that at least. These words placed into Schubert's own mouth via this Lied seem poignantly apt and touching in regard to the lonely personal circumstances in which he wrote a great deal of his work. As Whitman was later to write:

I think there is no unreturned love, the pay is certain one way or another,
(I loved a certain person ardently and my love was not return'd,
Yet out of that I have written these songs).

Johann Gabriel Seidl was one of the most gifted, and certainly the most ambitious and successful, of Schubert's poet friends and colleagues. Unlike the touchy and unstable Johann Mayrhofer who was certainly more original, Seidl was able to pick his way through the various Viennese social and literary minefields which lay between every aspiring artist and acceptance and success in the capital city. Seven years younger than the composer (and in actual fact an exact contemporary of Eduard Mörike whose works, if Schubert had lived, might have opened up a new vista in his Lieder composition), Seidl had been a published poet in almanacs under various pseudonyms (such as 'Siegl' or 'Meta Communis') from the age of sixteen. By the time the Lieder der Nacht were published in 1826 he was already an old hand and astonishingly productive. At this stage he was also somewhat derivative as Im Freien shows—a poem that could not have been written without the inspiration of Goethe and of the great man's An den Mond in particular. It might well have been the publication of the Lieder der Nacht that first brought Seidl to Schubert's attention. From that early collection the composer immediately chose six poems, four of which are on this disc. Schubert was to return to Seidl in 1828 for his Vier Refrain Lieder and of course the immortal Die Taubenpost which was to be published as part of Schwanengesang.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1992


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/4040CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 15 – Margaret Price
CDJ33015Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Track 15 on CDJ33015 [2'28] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 3 on CDS44201/40 CD32 [2'28] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)

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