This is one of Goethe's harper settings from Wilhelm Meister
. The composer had already made two attempts to set from that novel, Mignon's Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
, and her Kennst du das Land
. This poem comes from Chapter 13 of the second book of the novel where the eponymous hero visits the harper (an enigmatic figure who has introduced himself with the ballad Der Sänger
and who later proves to be so guilt-ridden by having committed incest that he resorts to pyromania) in the hope that the old man's music will cheer him up. Wilhelm is direded to a lodging house in a remote corner of town, and climbs up to a garret from whence come 'heart-moving, mournful tones, accompanied by a sad and dreary singing'. Wilhelm overhears a song ('Wer nie sein Brot mit Thränen ass') and enters the room. He asks the old man to continue, and this is the song that he then sings. Goethe gives a number of clues as to how he imagines the harper's various songs 'the few stanzas… sometimes chanted, sometimes in recitative, were repeated more than once… the old man looked upon his strings, and after touching them softly, by way of prelude, he commenced and sang'. In Schubert's later setting of the poem from 1816 (Op 12, D478) he provides, true to Goethe, a quietly strummed, and most beautifui, introduction. The lack of it in the first version might suggest that the composer did not yet know the entire novel, but found this famous Iyric, out of its context, in an early edition of Goethe's poems. The key is A minor, with a middle section in F major; these characteristics at least were conserved in the final setting. But this song lacks the wayward, even unhinged passion engendered by Schubert obeying the poet's direction that the harper's lament should waver between aria and recitative. It has a saner, gentler melancholy and a time signature of 6/8 (the accompanimental flow is possible harp music) which reminds us of the last setting of Mignon's Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt
(D877/4) also in A minor but which has a searing intensity of which Schubert was more capable in 1826. However, this piece, written towards the end of 1815, shows the direction in which the composer was surely moving. He had written many huge ballads, and many slight and charming miniatures; he was now learning how to distil the drama of the ballad form into tiny Iyrics. It was here that Goethe was to continue to be his most important collaborator.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1990