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The poem is perhaps more typical of Justinus Kerner than most on this disc. The anthropomorphic image of a talking tree is typical of the poet’s mystical regard for nature. The busy sawmill is a sign of the relentless progress of the Industrial Revolution which is impervious to the beauties and truths of nature. The wanderer in the middle of his rural idyll is surprised and uncomfortable to be confronted in this way; but he is part of the society which has made it increasingly necessary to employ mass production of this kind, and he must realise that this destruction is happening in his name. Quite apart from the intimations of his own mortality (the four planks will make Kerner’s coffin), the fir tree might also have reminded him that paper for the poet’s future books would also be squeezed from every fibre of its being. The traveller has to take responsibility for the destruction of the beauties which he casually takes for granted on his travels. Other Kerner settings, including some in Schumann’s Op 35 (eg. the penultimate song in the cycle Wer machte dich so krank?) demonstrate that this poet was one of the first who worried about man’s dangerous impact on his environment. This modern sentiment seems prophetic of the ‘green’ parties that are a powerful force today – in German politics, if nowhere else.
The prancing left-hand accompaniment with off-beat quaver chords in the right, does its best to suggest the grinding of the saw-mill, but it seems far too genial for this sinister purpose, and not quite dissonant enough, even by the harmonic standards of the time. The music appropriate to a mill is traditionally moto perpetuo (as here, and in Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin) but this cheeky dance allows the narrator too little time to ponder, the tree too little time to grieve. As in the previous song the musical shape is allowed to dominate the text. The words are mirrored sensitively enough, but with this poem we somehow long for more of a frisson when the tree begins to speak – after all, the scene is worthy of Tolkien’s The Two Towers. Nevertheless, young Clara is here more than capable of creating a measure of mood and atmosphere to rival that of the young Robert. Song composition is no easy thing, but this little ballad is actually more successful as a piece of music than Schumann’s almost contemporary Kerner setting (An Anna II).
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2003
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