This hypnotic song is from the very height of Schubert's maturity. What could be uncomfortably mawkish and sentimental because of the words (the poet Seidl, a great admirer of Goethe, was a member of the circle and a young man of 22) is translated into great art by the sheer force of the composer's musical personality which binds word and tone into a single circular wreath, end and beginning woven into one. Like Auf dem Wasser zu singen
the piece is partially an impromptu, for the pianist is entru sted with the central idea behind the work, the little finger of his right hand pricking out the sound of the small bell rung in Austrian parishes when one of the faithful is dying, and the sufferer's fellows are called out to pray for him. The ingenious accompaniment would be perfectly complete without this little bell, but its inclusion en dehors
in almost every bar, the idea of an inverted pedal sounding above the main texture of the work, is the illustrative spur which set the composer's brain ringing. Thoughts of mortality are clothed in slightly different music over five verses. This is no strophic song, for it has too many subtle differences in each verse to be considered even of modified strophic form. The one abiding and uniting thought is of death and the compassion of the onlooker; everything is a variation on that. The singer paints a picture of such a gentle and beautiful world that it appears all the more poignant that someone, somewhere, is passing away to the sound of this bell and its surrounding Schubertian resonances. A haunting modulation to the mediant (for this was always one of Schubert's favourite haunts) is the response to the welcoming words at the end of the seond verse ('wann 'Herein' erschallt'); it is as if the composer stands on harmonic tiptoe to glimpse what is on offer. As we have seen in the introduction the composer might well have considered himself a 'böse Sohne', but he sets the third verse
without irony, and the fourth verse (which is surely the worst as poetry) without embarrassment. (There is, after, all a painting by Kupelwieser which seems to show that the composer was fond of animals; a dog named Drago sits happily under his piano.) The fifth verse is nearest the music of the opening and is perhaps the one the composer himself liked best; it hymns the pleasures of the present, and the incalculable blessings of friendship. The year this song was written, 1826, was a high point in the history of the Schubertiads, the splendid gatherings which gave Schubert the love and nourishment denied him in the area of one-to-one relationships. The Schubertiads gave him the chance to show and hear his music; they were a sounding board for the great task he had set himself in his remaining years. In this context, the last verse of Das Zügenglöcklein
seems a hymn of gratitude.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991