Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 2 – Stephen Varcoe
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Schubert's second thoughts (D111 - as published in the Neue Schubert Ausgabe and recorded here) are superior in many details, above all in use of silence at dramatic points and in greater use of contrasting dynamics. Schubert also discards old-fashioned mannerisms and compresses passages into recitative which hang fire as long-winded arioso in the first version. Schiller's twenty-seven-verse epic, perhaps based on an early version of the Beowulf saga, was written in the year of the composer's birth.
Verses 1, 2: The king strides centre stage in imperious recitative; the falling piano interjections, followed by a motif which mirrors the music in the opposite direction, outline his idea of a game with a human retriever.
Verses 3, 4: The narrator takes over. We see/hear the king's milling entourage and their astonishment as he hurls the cup into the abyss. His challenge is met by a bar of cowed silence (an inspired amendment of earlier ideas), then follows the tentative music of the frightened entourage. The hero emerges supported by clean, naive chords. The chromatically rising interlude suggests the court's disbelief and astonishment.
Verses 5-7: The horror of the challenge is grimly outlined in the sort of music which served the cause of melodrama (including silent film accompaniment) for more than a century afterwards. The seething C minor whirlpool music at the beginning of 6 is a major structural force in the song. As the waters momentarily subside the music thins out and the yawning rift is revealed as an empty chord of cavernous wide-open semibreves in C flat major.
Verses 8, 9: Recitative hurries the story along. As the youth takes the plunge an unexpected diminished chord in the treble register screams on behalf of the frightened women. This is followed by waiting and suspense; demisemiquavers hover menacingly around the same few bass notes.
Verses 10-12: The chorus rates the hero's chance at nought. (In D77 Schubert had made this scene lyrical with arioso to little dramatic effect.) The waters begin to surge up again in a gradual chromatic spiral and this leads to a recapitulation of the music of 6.
Verse 13: The appearance of a white hand and then, bit by bit, the rest of the diver, is supremely dramatic. Schumann must have known this passage, for the writing on the wall by a disembodied hand in Belsazar (in a section also beginning 'Und sieh') is depicted in similar ascending chromaticism. Then comes the music of triumph ('Und er ists!') as the crowd greets the returning hero.
Verse 14: or the young man this is a holy moment. The harmonies breathe deep and long with him in gratitude for life. This music is forte in D77, but here its hushed radiance provides a moment of respite in the ballad's hurly-burly.
Verses 15, 16: Recitative leads the youth to the king's feet and to a sight of the beautiful princess. Unlike D77 where the exhausted boy somehow manages an unlikely formal aria, free recitative here propels the story forward.
Verses 17- 20: As his story-telling warms up, so does the music. This is the heart of the work. As he describes the goblet on the coral reef, it hangs precariously on the vocal line; it is as if too much movement from the performers will dislodge it. The ominous music of the monsters of the deep waiting for him below slithers in oily passage-work; no mercurial semiquavers here, only massive caterpillar shapes on the page, two bars long. This music of sinuous menace culminates in a vision of the hammer-headed shark whose presence is painted by hammer blows in the left hand of the piano part.
Verses 21, 22: He hangs on for dear life (no tremolando in Schubert is more pregnant with fear). The youth's solitude is depicted in hushed music reverberating in the void. Time stands still in a blur of Adagio semiquavers anchored by the tolling notes of the bass. It is the calm before the storm. The catharsis of one more terrifying verse (the most agitated vocal line in the piece) is needed for the youth to describe how he was delivered back to mankind, borne on the crest of a wave. The court receives the tale in stunned silence (as indeed they might!). The restraint of this section is particularly superior to the grandiloquent passage of D77.
Verses 23, 24: The youth's descriptions have been fatally fascinating. The king wants more information about the depths, and the game is changed to double or nothing. The princess tugs at the sleeve of the tyrant with music of telling sweetness, begging for mercy on the youth's behalf. The intimate pleading of Wolfs Nun lass uns Frieden schliessen comes to mind.
Verse 25: The music of 2 returns. The last line of the king's recitative gave Schubert great trouble. In earlier versions he makes the king sing his final words tenderly. Here a brutal modulation gives them a contemptuous irony. Suddenly we can see that paternal jealousy has played a part in his cruelty.
Verse 26: Inflamed by the girl's beauty and her swoon, the youth throws himself again into the abyss. The massive piano interlude (Prestissimo) recalls Gruppe aus dem Tartarus in its diabolical energy. As if this masculine music is not exceptional enough Schubert then writes a feminine counterpart - an exceptionally beautiful wordless vignette of the princess's grief. It is surely this tearful passage that Einstein had in mind when he described the harmonic resources of Der Taucher as far in advance of Schubert's time: 'there is nothing like them until we reach the Wagner of Tristan and The Ring'
Verse 27: The seething music of 6 and 12 now reappears transposed into the D minor of Schubert's dangerous journeys that end in death. The inevitable outcome is described, accompanied by water music which is now the background to a requiem postlude. Again immeasurably superior to D77, this elegy has an oboe-like tune floating above the semiquavers like a wreath thrown on a watery grave.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1988