That such an eloquent hymn to the past should come from the pen of an eighteen-year-old boy, without a past of his own to speak of, is one of the miracles of music. In tempo, tonality and the feeling of precious beauty slipping away, the song is prophetic of Schubert's great hymn at sunset, Im Abendrot
. That is a religious song, but Erster Verlust
goes deeper into secular pain; the repeated Cs common to the opening of both songs are here harmonised in F minor rather than the relative major (and relative security) of A flat. Memories of happier times shine translucently behind the minor tonality, and when the voice ends on a major chord, the ear accepts this in the same way that the heart might clutch at a slender hope. Even this is extinguished when the piano returns crushed to the minor key in five inexorable notes of postlude. It seems churlish to point out that Schubert adds the word 'wer' to the last line of Goethe's poem to give himself the musical shape he wanted. He included Erster Verlust
in the book of sixteen songs he prepared especially to send to the great poet in April 1816. But did Schubert perhaps wonder whether Goethe's failure to reply had something to do with this lèse-majesté?
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1988