The black humour of this song is all the more remarkable because the three other settings of Matthisson's poem emphasise quite different things. Schubert's first two (incomplete) attempts (the fragments D15 and 15A from about 1812, Volume 12) are programme music at its most obviously ghoulish, and most influenced by Beethoven. The piano plays a major role in these pieces. At the other extreme, the beautiful unaccompanied quartet for men's voices (D494, 1816) abandons this exaggeration for ghosts of a friendlier, more genial persuasion. These wistful male chorus wraiths are nothing like the diabolically chuckling, white-sheeted spirits of D116, full of glee and pride in the terror that they cause. The influence here seems to be Mozart who had always haunted Schubert, and whose C minor Fantasia, K475, provides the outline of the opening phrase. The song was written only three days before Gretchen am Spinnrade
and it is a sign of the composer's blossoming maturity that he declines the temptation to give us what had been an obvious solution two years earlier: twelve chords for the strokes of midnight. Instead he maps out the shape of the whole with haunting skill—a graveyard wingding where the bell does not interrupt the ball. A spirited dance movement is suggested by 'sausenden Reihn' and the galumphing unisons between voice and piano suggest unholy conspiracy between at least two ghouls of the same mind (a good definition, this, of the singer/accompanist partnership.) The recitatives show the well-learned lesson of Haydn's Die Schöpfung
: musical zoological illustrations precede
the words tnphat describe them. Wingeing suspensions in the accompaniment suggest the nearest thing a piano can produce to an uncanny canine howl (before 'Was winseln die Hunde') and ravens fly past, their feathers rubbing up the shuddering narrator the wrong way, first in one direction, then the other, and suggesting rather more of a goose. It is then back to the ghosts for their inevitable reprise (theirs is the longest running musical at the Abbey) and a timely exit before dawn. In comparison to the horror ballads Schubert had earlier been pleased to interpret literally, this song marks a new stage in his development: we hear a type of urbanity in the bud, a man of the world's doubt that such things as ghosts really exist.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991