Surely all the work that Schubert did on gruesome Gothic ballads in his youth finds its final and most refined expression in this song, a subtle and understated apotheosis of the horror genre, which manages to be more chilling in its insistence on the colours of the half-light. The key is A minor, but the rhythmic impetus is that of two of Schubert's celebrated B minor works, the 'Unfinished' Symphony and the first Suleika
song. The spirit of Beethoven, brandishing the rhythm of the fate motif from the C minor Symphony, animates the pianist's left hand. The atmosphere of Verse 1 is heavy and oppressively hushed. The narrator places the two protagonists, the queen and her dwarf, on the open sea at twilight. The interlude immediately after the word 'Zwerge' requires the pianist's right hand to sidle awkwardly across the keyboard, the left hand supplying misshapen accents. The description of the queen (2) is as pure as the heavens, her address to the stars (3) turns the musical tension's screw up to C minor; she is passively fatalistic, transfixed by astrological predictions of her doom. The dwarf's three verses (4 - 6) slump back into B minor and are governed by a grotesquely hobbling motif—obsequious, shifty, merciless—in the pianist's left hand. This is eerily prophetic of Wagner and this dwarf is surely the grandfather of Alberich. Schubert's favourite change from A minor to A major is used to very special effect at the beginning of 7. All the romantic longing of its familiar usage is turned on its head as surely as the roles of master and servant have been reversed in the scenario. Although the queen weeps and pleads, the composer looks deeper into her deranged mind: a kind of masochistic joy, sickly sweet in the major key, seeps into the music's fabric. Her plight is self-inflicted; she is a lost soul caught up with the dwarf in a perverted game, with fatal consequences. The murder is accomplished in the middle of her last speech (8); there is a sudden high leap of strangled terror in the voice part on the words 'sie sagt's', and the silk chord is pulled tight. Everything stops save a tremolando on a single note; life drains out of the music. The dwarf looks balefully at the body, and the fate motif of diminished fourths in the bass shows the stars' prophesies to have been fulfilled. A terrifying restatement of the dwarf's grotesque motif, this time in strident octaves, the loudest music in the piece, shows him still in the grip of a violent, festering passion. Is he villain or victim? Was Peter Grimes a murderer? The two misfits share a fate which brings both their eponymous works full circle: they sink their own boats, leaving behind the same empty seascapes with which their respective dramas have begun. Der Zwerg
compresses operatic form into a few concentrated pages; it is a distillation of genius.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1989