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The prelude of the opening bars seems to grope for the light. The four-note arpeggio figure is repeated and laid out in such a way that even the rhythm is uncertain; the ear can easily be tricked into believing that the first semiquaver is a weak upbeat rather than a strong downbeat—an effect of deliberate disorientation, a tonal analogue for blindness via the workings of the ear. After two beats we hear the other feature of the introduction which pervades the whole song—two quavers played 'mezzo staccato' in the bass. This rectifies the rhythmical trompe l'oreille of the first two beats as it pulls their wayward ramblings into line; entirely appropriately these hollow knocking sounds suggest the tapping of the blind boy's stick which helps him to get his bearings.
The vocal line opens somewhat tentatively, the tune punctuated by rests as if the singer is searching for words—in fact he is searching for the definition of a word. When he names this concept, known to him only by the name 'Licht' we leap out of the dark from the F of 'ist's' to the E flat above supported by a poignant dominant seventh; the elusive word glows with a halo of mystery like a distant and unknown star. Throughout the song, when the tapping is absent, the voice clings to the tenor line in the pianist's left hand at the interval of a tenth. This suggests physical contact with another surface, and that the boy is carefully feeling his way through the music as if guided by a hand rail. For the second verse we modulate into the dominant; the sun's music consists of a line of deliberately monotonous C's (for the boy, the sun neither rises nor sets) and in the third verse on the phrase 'Tag und Nacht' the traditional musical analogues for light and darkness are reversed with night sung on a note both higher and longer than that for day. The shrinking appoggiature sequence at 'ich weiss nicht wann, noch wie' (Verse 2) and at the similar passage at 'und trag es mit Geduld' (Verse 4) somehow suggest that the singer is small of stature or frail, perhaps even that he has a limp. It is the music of the third verse, however, which lifts the song on to a different plane. The double-dotted rhythms of 'so glücklich' and 'so reich' show a glimmer of defiance from someone who is king of his own world. The echo in the major key 'ein armer blinder Knab' is one such tenderness and compassion that it seems that it is no longer being sung by the protagonist who, in any case, does not understand how 'poor' he is. Rather has the composer quietly stepped into the picture to give the boy his own embrace and blessing.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1992
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