This song, tiny and gigantic at the same time, is here sung in its original key of B major, something of a 'way-out' tonality that Schubert reserves for matters of great emotional import. Thus although Der Neugierige
from Die schöne Müllerin
is soft and about love, the whole of the young miller's life seems to hang in the balance on the mill-stream's answer, does she love me, yes or no. The unhinged anger of Die böse Farbe
from the same cycle is nearer the mood of An den Tod
, but there are a number of songs (such as Vor meiner Wiege
, Volume 6) where the central idea of the kinder realms beyond the grave are also depicted in B major. The mill-stream is after all both the miller-boy's friend, and the instrument of his death. Pulsating triplets in the accompaniment of An den Tod
propel forward this imperious plea to spare the newly bloomed rose. In a wildly inventive sequence of keys, every harmonic argument and angle at the composer-barrister's disposal is used, as Capell says, 'the appellant … taking to one failing foothold after another'. There is rage and pain in this face-to-face confrontation, but with this judge and jury there is nothing to lose in staking all in a plea for mercy. There is a conciliatory, and purely rhetorical, appeal to 'dear death' at the close, a tone one might employ in summing-up the defence of a lost case; execution is imminent, and the last hope is that it will at least be humane. Two verses of poetry made into one turbulent vocal utterance misrepresent Schubart's poem perhaps, but these two verses alone fit the tone of Schubert's music.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991