This beautiful little melody seems the most quintessential, the most fragile, the most heartfelt Schubert, and yet on paper it is hardly more than an oscillation between tonic and dominant. Richard Strauss borrowed it to quote in Ariadne auf Naxos
, and who can blame him; when Schubert's music is on this plane it has an inevitability and economy which every single composer since must have envied. Apart from the fact that the composer thought that Claudius was the poet, although it now seems that he was not, there is one perplexing factor. This is the mystery of the middle verse, which is either a Romantic-poetic way of describing a cradle as a sweet grave (peaceful and comfortable), or something which actüally relates to a child's death. John Reed believes that Schubert was thinking mainly of the first verse when he wrote his music: 'The shadow of the grave, which obtrudes here as in so many early Romantic pieces on this subject, finds no place in Schubert's music'. Infant mortality was an everyday occurrence at this time; indeed only a few months after the supposed date of this song's composition (for it is not dated in the composer's hand, only entered as November 1816 in the Witticzek-Spaun collection), the composer's little half brother Theodor Kajetan Anton, only a few months old, died. Is it possible that this song dates from a short time later and is related to this family bereavement? If not, it is still hauntingly prophetic. I hear in this song not the comfortable baby-sitting of happy parenthood, but music of the greatest consolation and tenderness, a feeling of almost holy gratitude for life, however short. And then there is his use of the major key: a heart-breaking braveness and lack of self-pity combined with that unobtrusive melancholy that only Schubert can handle poignantly and unmawkishly.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1990