Goethe's play Egmont
(completed in 1787) is a stirring tale set in Brussels in the time of the Counter-Reformation. It concerns the eponymous hero's attempts to secure for his beleaguered people a measure of religious toleration from the Spanish, at that time masters of Flanders. Klärchen, a girl of tough and independent spirit, and something of a tomboy, is Egmont's beloved; when he is sentenced to die at the end of the play, she poisons herself, but not before putting up a fight and attempting to stir the people to rebel on Egmont's behalf. This poem has fascinated a number of composers: Reichardt and Beethoven before Schubert, and Franz Liszt (in three settings) after him. The Beethoven version, which goes with Klärchen's other song in Egmont, Die Trommel gerühret
, is a more dramatic affair and was obviously meant to be used on the stage. Unlike the Beethoven and Liszt settings, this little song disdains to repeat words to elongate the musical structure; it is thus over in a flash. But it is nevertheless full of weighty feeling, attempting to depict and paint each of the emotive adjectives by means of diminished sevenths and German sixths. In the second half of the song, Schubert reminds us that he has not forgotten the play's military background. On the word's 'glücklich allein' we hear, in strident triplet fanfare, Klärchen's strength and determination. The postlude seems to be the composer's own more gentle and rueful meditation on the import of the words. There is also just a hint of a muffled drum in the pianist's left hand, a ghostly suggestion of a setting of Die Trommel gerühret
which was never to be.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1989