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Ever since Gretchen am Spinnrade Schubert's ability to empathise with women, to depict the female condition, has been a source of wonder and delight. Unlike some other great composers he does not patronise women; time after time he invests their music, be it for Mignon or Ellen, Suleika or Delphine, with the greatest sense of human reality - his music for women is seldom placed within the inverted commas of staged femininity. Nevertheless Schubert is a nineteenth-century composer, and his women are sometimes charmingly delicate. In the short-breathed phrases of this music, its descending sequences seeming to wilt like a flower on a stem, we sense the maiden's appearance, slight of stature and build, exquisite of feature. The alternation of triplet semiquavers and quaver duplets gives a rather shy feel to the music. As she searches for an explanation to her woes (she is somewhat surprised that she is giving voice to them at all) the music carefully descends the stave in ladylike steps. The change to the tonic minor at 'Um zu lindern meine Klagen' comes in on tiptoe and is extremely reticent; the music only momentarily darkens with a change of colour, like thoughts troubled by a passing cloud of doubt.
The girl's inability to express exactly what disturbs her is perfectly caught by the music for 'Will ich's sagen, so entschwebt es' where the two phrases are set in opposition, the first aspiring in its upward inflection, the second evaporating before our ears as the music falls away. The middle section suddenly finds its musical tongue as it were. An outbreak of passionate chromaticism lets us hear the girl absorbed in her dreams of being musical; Schubert has here imagined her stronger and more eloquent, and for seven bars he has lent her an ability to give voice to her passionate nature. The courtship games played by man and maid are swept aside by a rising tide of liberated feeling as she finds the means to tell him the truth. This section is crowned by the triumphant forte setting of 'in jenen Tönen lebt es', but after this there is nowhere else to go, and the phrase resonates in the void of unfulfilled hopes. We return to the reality of the tonic via an interlude which consists of two bars of the dotted rhythm figure which has accompanied the maiden's plaint. (On its own it sounds like a skipped heartbeat, or a tiny shudder of apprehension.) Two further bars are taken up by a broad cadence in dotted crotchets, eloquent in its length and simplicity (cf. a similar cadence before the last strophe of Der Schiffer D694, as dreams cede to reality). Mention of the nightingale in the final section reminds us that another 3/8 setting, Claudius's An die Nachtigall, shares certain musical similarities with Das Mädchen: both songs are single-paged prayers, tiny and intimate, touching in their modesty, bejewelled by Schubert's ability to give to the weak an unexpectedly powerful musical voice.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996
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