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Schubert chooses the key of D major – his tonality of pilgrimage and quest – and the music begins with a chorale both simple and inimitable. When this composer glimpses heavenly things his Muse begins to dance in dactylic rhythm, and so it is here. A crotchet followed by two quavers (long–short–short) seems a simple enough rhythmic device, but in Schubert’s hands it betokens ‘letting go’ – something outside the control of the singer: the turning of the world, the twinkling of the stars, the gliding footfall of death. Here it is a combination of all those things, and it is interesting that in terms of tonality and pace Nachthymne could follow on from a performance of Der Tod und das Mädchen as if it were a sequel to the trials of the dying maiden. Where else, except perhaps in the spiritual songs from the Spanisches Liederbuch of Hugo Wolf, could we find such an expression of the sweetness of religious (and sexual) masochism as in the first four lines? And who else but Schubert is able to space a chord between the hands with such daring (under ‘Hinüber wall’ ich’) that an accented passing-note in the vocal line falls a semitone towards its resolution as in a wide, starry firmament of piano resonance? (With lesser composers as our guides, we would not so much as leave the drawing-room.) The music is not fast (there are no running semiquavers in sight) and yet we float unanchored in a void as we wait impatiently for release (those exquisite dominant sevenths before the repeat of ‘Hinüber wall’ ich’ usher us into a vast anteroom of the heavens). At ‘Noch wenig Zeiten’ the singer says he will only have to wait a little longer; but the astonishing harmonic dislocation of ‘So bin ich los’ – the B minor harmony stretching upwards to include an unlikely G sharp – is emblematic of stretching outward towards release. The repetition of ‘Und liege trunken Der Lieb’ im Schoss’ in a rising sequence, as if drunk on heavenly ambrosia, is both touching and erotic. This section closes with a repeat of the opening chorale (reminiscent of Brahms’s ‘St Antony’ theme in its andante, both stately and other-worldly) where the voice seems to be accompanied by wind and brass. The graveside equali, music which is the inspiration for Das Wirthaus from Winterreise, another dactylic hymn, also come to mind.
The words ‘Unendliches Leben Wogt mächtig in mir’ usher in a middle section which is among the finest extended transitional passages in all the Schubert songs. It has the visceral power of ‘Es schwindelt mir, es brennt mein Eingeweide’ in Goethe’s 1826 Mignon setting Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt. Novalis’s words are not dissimilar, except that the shocking wave of feeling experienced by Mignon is the result of human pain; here the injection of energy is nothing less than the transfiguration that follows death, where the dead are also the quick. Imagine a sci-fi film where someone encountering a race of beings from another planet is unexpectedly filled with their energy and light; we see the metamorphosis happen in two stages accompanied by marvels of cinematic magic – the second absorption of supernatural light more intensely glowing and other-worldly than the first. So it is with Schubert the film composer before his time: special effects include a left-hand tremolo falling in chromatic stages as if the very foundations of our world had melted away, and a repeat of the ‘Unendliches Leben’ phrase in a powerful and louder sequence. And then once we have crossed the barrier into a new state of being we are free to float upwards into the starry realms of B flat. (The music for the choral Nachthelle (1826) was conceived at the same time as the phrase ‘Ich schaue von oben Herunter nach dir’.) There can be few more graceful and magisterial sweeps up and down the stave than this remarkable arc of divine observation, as if the singer has suddenly been given the means to fly. The bar of interlude, B flat major semiquavers in the right hand and disturbing F sharps deep in the bass, ushers in a repeat of those words, this time in B major. It is probably at this point, as the right-hand chords rise a semitone from B flat to B major, bringing glimpses of ever vaster celestial horizons, that the listener who has scoffed at Novalis and Schubert’s gullible enthusiasm, admits that he is in the presence of ineffable mysteries. A remarkable cello-like solo in the piano’s left hand sustains this sense of cosmic exploration. As this phrase falls and rises, the music exactly mirrors the poet’s yearning to be reunited with his beloved. There is now a masterful ritardando, not only in terms of tempo but in intensity, and once again Schubert uses sequence and repetition to accomplish it. When faced with the problem of depicting the gradual fading of radiance, it is amazing how effortlessly he finds the means to do it. One thinks back to a similar passage in Cronnan as the wraith Vinvela vanishes before the eyes of Shilric. The repeat of ‘An jenem Hügel Verlischt dein Glanz’ distances itself with the drop of a semitone; the image of the beloved (Novalis’s Sophie of course) seems to lose focus before our very ears, as if Eurydice fades before the eyes of Orpheus. Images of lengthening shadows and the cooling wreath of evening are perfectly caught by a long succession of falling bass minims which sink into the balm of E major on ‘kühlenden Kranz’. A three-bar postlude of gently pulsating semiquavers continues this idea of healing and acceptance.
The next passage is marked ‘Geschwinder’ (‘quicker’). This is a short and impassioned plea – the longing for death felt by Novalis when he wished to rejoin his beloved Sophie. A note of urgency is struck by the syncopated semiquaver figure in the piano on each appearance of ‘Gewaltig mich an’. The languishing setting of ‘Dass ich entschlummern Und lieben kann’, half sensuous and half impatient, is particularly affecting. A short interlude of exploratory quavers roams around the keyboard as if testing tonality and harmony for the right means of expression. This is music which searches in the dark for the key to the final gateway leading to the heavenly state.
The final section of this song is an utter marvel. The accompaniment changes to triplets in flowing sixths (a masterstroke this change of rhythm, because it implies release from the bodily state). Mozart had used these successions of sixths (in quavers) in his brooding on life after death in Abendempfindung, and Schubert was to use the same figuration in Der Lindenbaum, a song about life before and after the death of love. These triplets, glistening up and down the keyboard, gently accompany the voice as it sings a melody based on the euphony of common chords. This music is some of the most ethereal and rarefied that Schubert ever wrote; the words talk of flowing blood, of balsam and ether, of implied sexual communion, and the music’s consistency is liquid enough to encompass all these images. This is music for an altered state. The text of course makes this clear, but Schubert’s response is an astonishing match for Novalis. The poet speaks of ‘rejuvenating death’, of living by day and dying by night in the sacred fire. We are either in the world of nonsense or partaking in mysteries as old as Eleusis where Novalis seeks his Sophie with as much determination as Ceres begs Jupiter for the return of Proserpina. It is because of Schubert’s music, however, that there is never any doubt that we are caught up in something profoundly mysterious and moving. The final vocal line (‘Ich fühle des Todes Verjüngende Flut’) vanishes into the stratosphere (or more accurately the top of the stave) and de-materializes before our eyes, the postlude following suit as it climbs higher and higher up the keyboard. The soul is on its way.
At least three of the four earlier hymns seem to have been composed within a definite ascetic framework of simple church performance, either imagined or actual. The composer has here allowed himself to respond to Novalis without any pre-conceived notions about what musical form is appropriate for the setting. Instead he has allowed himself to listen to the words and permitted them to work their magic on him. There are few more powerful instances in the whole canon of a poet inspiring Schubert to enter musical realms to which he alone held the key. The resulting music must have surprised the composer as much as it continues to surprise us. If we adore only the sensuous Schubert of Nachthymne we would have to admit that half of the Novalis settings do not display Schubert’s full powers of response to the poet.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997
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