Schumann would have appreciated the ironies of this poem, including the idea of heroic deeds undertaken unwittingly. The phenomenon of being terrified in retrospect is worthy of Jean Paul. The hypochondriac in him would wish to be reminded that death comes at unusual times, seldom in the ways one fears; also that courage and determination go hand in hand with foolhardiness, and little can be accomplished if one weighs up every danger in advance.
Unfortunately the poem is un-manageable as the composer chose to set it – ‘Sehr langsam’ (Very slow). He makes the same mistake as in Die nächtliche Heerschau: the poem is too long to allow him the luxury of using so few words in such an extended musical space. The composer who would have managed such a ballad was Carl Loewe (that composer’s single Schwab setting, Kaiser Heinrichs Waffenweihe, is a marvel). As far as Schumann is concerned, the loss of momentum in the story-telling is fatal, and it is not helped by the poem being cast in portentous couplets. At the thundering pace of Schubert’s Erlkönig, it might have worked differently.
Ballad style for Schumann meant music that was slow, as if spoken by a great actor (cf Die Löwenbraut, Blondels Lied, and Die rote Hanne on this disc). Added to this, he specifies a bass voice which adds the problem of a lugubrious tessitura. We are scarcely aware that the song opens with a night ride; this is a frozen horse in slow-motion. The piano doubles the voice, the eerily anonymous landscape cast in the open whiteness of C major. Dogged determination is also clearly conveyed: the rider is not to be deterred from his mission, and he will get to that boat by nightfall, come what may. The shivering motifs in the piano interludes are effective, but rather heavyhanded. We can only assume that Schumann intended to tighten the tension later. At ‘Der Weg wird eben, die Bahn wird glatt’ the flat expanses stretching out before the rider are cleverly conveyed by a vocal line fixed on G for no less than eight bars. (It is only revealed much later in the poem – not set by Schumann – that this huge open space is the frozen lake.) In terms of mood setting it is an effective beginning. But there is simply too much remaining text for Schumann to contemplate the journey. Lacking the foolhardiness of his heroic victim, he turns back. The ice remains uncracked, and so does the musical problem.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 2003