In the summer of 1825 Schubert, on holiday in the mountain town of Steyr, wrote a letter home to his parents in which he regretted his brother Ferdinand's tendency to hypochondria and fear of death: 'If only he could once see these heavenly mountains and lakes, the sight of which threatens to crush or engulf us, he would not be so attached to puny human life, nor regard it as otherwise than good fortune to be consigned to the earth with its indescribable power to create new life.' Although Franz Schubert was at last feeling free of the syphilis that had laid him low in 1823, Ferdinand's fears were all too familiar to him, and the composer's vehemence on this occasion is a transparent indication of his own struggles in previous years. This joyous holiday in Upper Austria was a time of remission rather than cure but, for all that, he was a changed man. From that nightmare period of shame, fear of death and suicidal depression, he had somehow emerged unscathed, strong enough for his music to flow, as it would until the end of his life, with ever richer and more profound meaning. The homily in his letter home sums up the content of Stolberg's poem—and little wonder, for the song dates from 1823 when it was the cathartic power of creation, and writing music to accompany perhaps these very words, which had helped the composer to face the realities of life and death. There is no picturesque suggestion in the poem; but instead of apt illustrative musical effects there is a wonderfully mellow through-composed feeling, as if the piece was a sonata movement for viola, one of the most motherly of instruments, and one, particularly in the field of obbligato instruments with the voice, which reminds us of Brahms. (It is Capell who points out that the piece has a Brahmsian look on the page.) There is a suggestion of the slow swing of a huge cradle, particularly in the rocking movement of the introduction. The protective haven woven by the intertwining embrace of voice and piano in thirds and sixths (one might add Mahler to the list of composers prophesied in this song) makes us forget, and perhaps even accept, that in burying ourselves in the lap of Mother Earth, we bid life farewell. Connoisseurs of Schubert's piano works will recognise in the accompaniment underneath the section beginning 'Es scheint der mond, es f„llt der Thau', a strong reminiscence of the Andante of the A major Sonata, Op 120 (D664).
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1989