The textual history of this Lied is an exceptionally confusing one. Schubert composed the song in 1819-1820. He returned to it in 1828 and transposed it from his fisherman's key of D major to the more contemplative B flat major for lower voice. Schlechta had rewritten his poem by then and the composer obligingly allowed the words to be adjusted post facto. After Schubert's death the poet revised his ditty yet again. Thus different versions of the words for various publications have been grafted onto the same music. We follow the Neue Schubert Ausgabe
(not Peters Edition) by reverting to the original text which inspired the composer in the first place. This is reflective music in every sense and is a mirror not only of the fisherman and his beloved, but of Schubert's growing skills as a songwriter in the optimistic and experimental period of 1819-1820. Watery depths are depicted from the very beginning of the accompaniment and they are also the depths of the fisherman's longing, and his uncertainty—when on earth will she come? In the introduction his own reflection looks back up at him and the pianist seems to be peeling petals from the stalks of the right hand chords—'she loves me ... she loves me not'. With the unusual (for him) direction of 'zögernd' the composer actually asks for this hesitant and lingering approach. When the voice enters on tiptoe, quaver rests break up the line, one of Schubert's favourite means to suggest the suspense of romantic assignations. Yearning cadences on 'so lange Zeit' and 'sie ist noch weit' show how time and distance stretch the fisherman's patience. (The music of these phrases only makes sense with the original words, and not those of Schlechta's alterations). In the meantime he looks at himself in the water and from time to time his reflection is momentarily broken up by a ripple of passing notes in the vocal line,& a darting movement of a fish or a tiny eddy. The arrival of the girl is announced in tripping feminine triplets and he sees her reflection.
This is the musical turning point of the song; but he himself does not turn around to greet her for by now he is more hooked on fantasy than reality. The recapitulation has an otherworldly quality, for this is the music of someone transfixed. Throughout this section the piano's right hand, supported by triplets deep in the bass, sings a counter melody as if a Lorelei were luring the fisherman to the depths. Although he manages to remain bodily on dry land the postlude follows his dreams into a world of underwater calm, her reflection lying beguilingly beneath the surface. Only the haunting final bars of Der Müller und der Bach in Die schöne Mullerin can compare with this music in evoking the dangerous power of water to drown sorrows and care in oblivion.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1988