This is a justly celebrated song, famous not only for its melody, but also for its accompaniment and introduction: the undulating triplets which remind us so potently of Beethoven's 'Moonlight' Sonata, and the wonderfully inexorable melodic line deep in the left hand, moving simply to the submediant and back, but somehow the whole transparently aglow with the most tender romantic inspiration. It shares its tonality, time signature and triplet accompaniment with Bellini's great hymn to the moon, 'Casta Diva' from Norma
, written sixteen years later. It is interesting that the song has an introduction only in the printed version which leaves us to suppose that in true nineteenth-century fashion the composer had improvised (perhaps different) introductions for informal performances. Schubert's partiality, like Wolf after him, for a chain of modulations in thirds bears full fruit at the apposite moment for the distant realms of 'Phantasien und Traumgestalten'. The middle section, firmly anchored in the present and in the relative major, has a light staccato which adds touches of glinting sunlight, antithesis to the moon's legato, to the leaves of the beech and lime trees. Under too hearty a pair of hands this section can sound rather too jaunty for the good of the whole, and the performers have to be careful. The change undoubtedly cleans the ear's palate for a magical return to the atmospheric music of the opening. This device is used in a number of Schubert songs, including Erlafsee
, and slow movements of piano pieces and chamber music: we greet the return of a dreamy or nostalgic theme even more delightedly, when the intervening music has taken us uncompromisingly into the present. This is the first, and possibly the greatest, of the twenty-three Hölty settings, all of which date from 1815 and 1816.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1989