D15, the first version, is in the key of C minor and is in 6/8 time. Both these attributes survived in the final version, D116. The shuddering of the coffin, the 'bretterne Kammer' of the poem, is achieved with two jabbed chords loud enough to shake the piano, itself something of a coffin on wheels. The stroke of midnight is depicted by the bass notes in dotted minims, numbered 1 to 12 on the music, in case we miss the point, although somewhat strangely changing pitch, as if the clock tower itself was invaded by gremlins. Before the words of Verse 5, there is rather a wrenched modulation from E flat to E major. By the time the piano has had a lengthy comment on jesting and flitting, the spirits have become heavy-handedly corporeal and beyond a joke; they are stopped dead in their tracks.
D15A starts off in F minor and in common time. After five bars (marked 'Midnight' as if in stage direction) the music shifts to the dominant, and illustrates 'the howling wind' (another specific stage direction) with a ghostly, but unnervingly loud, echo of the ascending figuration at the opening of the last movement of Beethoven's 'Pathétique' Piano Sonata, Op 13. Fourteen bars of bone-rattling yield to a short section marked 'Solemn Silence'. The twelve strokes of the midnight bell are now left to our imagination for the composer has learned that to illustrate them literally fails to chime with the fleeting nature of the poem. The dance of the spirits, this time in 6/4 and duly labelled 'Tanz', lopes along in a lugubriously humorous manner; the words of verse 2 are repeated with the words 'Und morsches Gebein' left out in order to justify a huge leap of a 13th between the graves ('Gräber') and the whirling dance ('sausenden Reihn') Nowhere in all Schubert is the gap between low and high spirits so graphically mapped on the stave. The whining of the dogs is effectively painted in mournful suspensions (Schubert shows off newly acquired skills by using the tenor clef in the left hand of the piano part here). The piano writing in the last bars is loud but empty: having shot his bolt the composer realises with horror how much more of the poem there is to set, and quits the scene with a puff of pianistic smoke.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991