What a delicious challenge it must have been to take up the words ‘Das Wasser rauscht, das Wasser schwoll’ and depict them in musical terms! Such stormy water imagery would have encouraged any young composer to show off his mastery of ‘Sturm und Drang’ effects at the piano. That is also the case with Schumann of course, but for him surely the pertinent lines were ‘Sie sang zu ihm, sie sprach zu ihm’ (She sang to him, she spoke to him) where the all-important ‘she’ was a singer, his beloved Agnes Carus. It was her singing, and the fact that she sang Schubert, which attracted him; he fell under her spell as surely as the fisherman succumbs to the Lorelei. It was partially her influence that pulled him away from a decent occupation (the law, as cold as a fish) and into the depths of new musical responses.
It is difficult to be certain about who were the young composer’s models in this song – Loewe’s ballads perhaps, some of which were already well known. The ceaseless pianistic activity in the first of Weber’s Leyer and Schwerdt songs (1815) also comes to mind. Some of the songs of Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861), a composer Schumann met in the company of Agnes Carus), were also characterised by over-busy accompaniments which were meant to sound dramatic, swamped the vocal line, and eventually appeared merely mechanical. The piano writing in Schumann’s Der Fischer is mostly completely unpianistic, every chord a tremolando judder. To modern ears this gives the music an air of the silent film melodrama.
The appearance of the accompaniment on the printed page suggests a sketch for an orchestration with scrubbing string lines including sul ponticello passages for the other-wordly pronouncements of the water nymph. The vocal line is effective and inventive, even if it is very tiring in terms of its tessitura. Madame Carus (if this setting was destined for her attentions) must have had a robust dramatic soprano voice, and a great deal of energy. The division between lower voice and higher in this performance (Christopher Maltman and Mark Padmore) makes clearer the characterisation between the narrator and his nemesis. The most interesting music is given to the Lorelei figure, and here Schumann is surely more daring than any of his contemporaries in his willingness to throw all discretion to the winds in terms of word accentuation. The phrase ‘so wohlig auf dem Grund’ (so contented in the depths) is heard three times in a long sequence of leaping sixths which are juxtaposed as in an operatic mad scene; the words ‘wohlig’, ‘auf’ and ‘Grund’ take it in turns to land on the first beat of the bar. The accompaniment moves through a circle of keys while the vocal line oscillates in a crab-like manner in its yodelling descent down the stave. In this grotesque passage the wicked fairy is only thinly disguised as the good. If the song is more pantomime number than lied, the composer seems to be having fun, and he must have been aware that he was composing something which could not be taken entirely seriously. When he chose, this dreaming young man was capable of throwing himself with relish into the depiction of the diabolical. (Dressed up as a ghost, he used to delight in frightening the young Wieck children in his early years in Leipzig.) It is a side of Schumann that we hear far less in his songs than in the piano music of the 1830s.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2003