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Section 1: The piano's opening introduction is powerful and dramatic, a slow build-up like a bank of clouds obscuring the light, and obfuscating the harmony. Three strong octaves in the left hand announce the key of A minor, but we stride inexorably into B minor and then C sharp minor via right hand suspensions, for suspense is the intention. The vocal recitative is heavy with a premonition of doom. The piano's raindrop music uses a figure that Schubert may have remembered from the development section of the first movement of Mozart's A major Piano Concerto (K488). The battle of the spirits is reflected by a type of piano figuration that we will hear again in Rastlose Liebe written a few months later.
Sections 2,3,4: This is recitative of a high quality, initially more effective and spine-chilling because it is without pianistic support. Although the lines beginning 'Und über die Heide' are now in E flat, they are underpinned by the same harmonic sequence that opened the ballad. If we had not guessed from her name that Minona was supposed to be a Scottish (or rather Celtic) heroine in the Ossianic mould, the invocation to someone called Edgar would confirm our suspicions. The use of simple B flat harmony over a stretch of piano writing is most effective: the flute solo of the right hand suggests a touch of desolate (and potentially deranged) grief. This together with the name of the hero makes these two bars a ghostly pre-echo of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor a full twenty years before that work was written. It shows that a feeling for the deserted moor and the ancestral hall of Scotland was very much in the European air and ear. A not very serious attempt to illustrate the movement of arrows and snorting dogs is followed by a magical cantilena in B flat which again suggests the world of Italian bel canto (Schubert's debt to Salieri in this regard is seldom sufficiently acknowledged). We return to the key of A minor at last on the words 'Wohl minnen die Toten uns nimmer'. The tune sung by the soprano here is repeated Leitmotif-like at the very end of the piece by the piano. It seems to me to be Schubert's way of showing that he regards this phrase, and its meaning, as the heart of the work. He had already known bereavement in his life with the death of his mother. One should also not forget that Schubert was experiencing a great deal of trouble from his father at this time. Minona defies the terrible vengeance of her father to love whom she pleases, even if it can only be in death.
Sections 5,6,7: This recitative has some wonderful touches; the unexpected modulation on 'Was frommt es?' and the nobility and sadness of the dying fall of the harmony on 'zum Bette von Erde gemacht'. The piano interlude in B minor (marked 'Klagend') is among the most beautiful in all the ballads. It is the dog's music—whining, troubled, panting, and gentle despite its size. The Kupelwieser drawing of the Schubertiad, with the dog Drago sitting comfortably under Schubert's piano, shows that the composer was comfortable with canines. From time to time he depicted animals in music but nowhere more cleverly than here; it is after all simpler to depict a fish in water than a dog pawing at a door with mezzo staccato half-sharpened claws. The composer somehow manages to find the right fretful, imploring harmonies, going around in circles, appropriate for bad news in a dumb language.
Sections 8,9: As Minona follows the dog on her last tragic journey it is the spirit of Mozart which hovers over the music. The words 'es leuchtet so düster' seem to come straight from the'Recordare' quartet of the Requiem, and it is very significant that both Bertrand's text and the timeless Latin are about being summoned in judgement. Verse 9 has rather a more obvious chain of modulations—or rather, in this impossibly high tessitura, a chain-saw. One is reminded of the ballads of Schubert's earlier years which are sometimes unsingable in their vocal demands. The word 'Dräuschwur' (vow of vengeance) produces an instrumental flourish (brass?) worthy of the young Verdi.
Sections 10,11: The unlikely progression of the story from here on has moments of banality, it is true, but there are also sublime things. The silver harps of the spirits have a mystical breadth and majesty that recall (and prophesy) the confidence of Lohengrin, or even Das Rheingold. The simplicity and eloquence of the final bars of piano writing have already been mentioned. In the close of the work, like the opening of Der Liedler written the month before, the influence of Mozart's Rondo in A minor (K511) is very apparent.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1989