These wonderful fourteen bars repeated five times in the hypnotic fashion of an incantation or a mantra, would be far better known (and they should be) were it not for the fact that the song has been banished to the sixth volume of the Peters Edition (somehow more obscure than the seventh, which is acknowledged to be full of treasures.) The addition of a horribly trite and thoroughly unauthentic prelude and postlude (provided for the first edition by Diabelli), the excision of two of the five marvellous verses, and the transposition of the song from its rapt A flat major original, down to the more ordinary key of G (easier to sing perhaps, and thus to sell) have compounded the song's ill fortunes. One turns to Zelter's pretty setting, or to Reichardt's (who originally set the Italian folksong which was translated by Goethe to produce this lyric) for a sign of their influence on Schubert, but in vain; this music has the winged feet which belong to neither of the older men. The ending of each verse, using the third of the scale as a question mark, is emblematic of the mastery of this song in which the simplest harmonic and melodic means are unashamedly employed to new effect. It is the forerunner of that other sublime nocturne Wanderers Nachtlied II
from ten years later, a work which has the advantage of epigrammatic brevity. All of Goethe's verses need to be sung in Nachtgesang
; they make a huge arch, starting at the pillow of the dreamer, and returning there after wandering through the nocturnal universe, the third line of each verse becoming the first line of the next. This is a test of technical endurance for the singer, for the song lies in a demanding tessitura, 'high and glorious above the earthly throng'. In the second half of each verse, Schubert learns how effective it is to allow the voice to float free in the starry treble, while the piano slumbers, confined to the five-line grid of the bass stave. In that greatest of nocturnes, Nacht und Träume
, Schubert was once again to place the huge span of a night sky between the song's two protagonists.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991