This poem must have touched Schubert sorely; he lost his own mother at the age of fifteen. Pains of the past and fears for the future (for with his preoccupation with poems about death in his last years, who can deny certain intimations of mortality in the composer's mind?) here seem to come together. The song has many of the thumbprints of the great songs of the Winterreise
period, (the affinity with Einsamkeit
, also in B minor, is apparent) but Janus-like it looks both backwards and forwards to other works: there is an echo of Der Wanderer
in the first bars of the vocal part, and a striking pre-echo (also in the tonality) of In der Ferne
, a song which significantly has the words 'Mutterhaus hassenden'—'spurning their mother's home'. This leads one to wonder if Schubert saw the sub-text of Vor meiner Wiege
as one of reconciliation between a son and his mother at the end of her life. The first two verses use a retreat into the relative major to summon up the first fleeting pictures from the past. The mimetic nature of babyhood, the child without speech but able to take his every cue from the mother, and love as he is loved, is mirrored in two beautiful two-bar piano interludes, echoes of the vocal line. It is not until the modulation to B major (verses 3 and 4) that we truly pass through the portals of long-buried memory into a magical world of the limitless outpourings of maternal love—such is the prodigality of this infinitely generous melody which occurs at that most intimate moment when the mother suckles her child. Their inseparable bond is reflected in an intertwining of voice and piano (the child's little fingers clutching the breast, the little finger of the pianist's right hand pressing out the melody) which is all erotic innocence. The piano work echoed here is the celebrated G flat major Impromptu (D899, Op 90 No 3) which dates from the same period. The final verse is a recapitulation into the dark realms of B minor, lit by the softer beams of a D major heaven-haven. The repetition of the poem's final line is simple yet panic-stricken with the eerie elongation of the final 'tiefesten'. It is here that the child within the composer cries out in its fear of desertion, its awareness of its own imminent demise.
Schubert set nine poems by the Styrian poet Karl von Leitner. Three of the greatest of these songs appear in this recital. Schubert first came across the poet's work in 1823, and set one of his texts, but it was his friendship in 1827 with the Pachler family in Graz, and Marie Pachler in particular, which prompted him to return to this young Styrian nationalist of whom his new friends were so proud. Marie Pachler (whom Beethoven had found fascinating a decade before) was an excellent pianist. It is possible, but by no means certain, that Schubert met Leitner personally through the Pachlers. Apart from a period in Italy the poet spent most of his long life in Styria, held various university appointments, and was content to be a provincial celebrity and regarded as the Styrian Uhland. His poetry is heartfelt or sentimental depending on one's viewpoint; fortunately Schubert found it charming, and in any case by 1827 he was the master alchemist who could turn all he touched to gold.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1990