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Im Abendrot, D799

First line:
O wie schön ist deine Welt
Early 1825; first published in December 1832 as part of volume 20 of the Nachlass
author of text

When Vogl sang this song at a Schubertiad at the home of Josef von Spaun in January 1827 it is little wonder that the assembled company insisted on hearing it again. Here is the very essence of Schubertian greatness in his maturity: the ability to write a song with seemingly little effort, a song which looks so simple on paper that it reminds one of a hymn (which indeed it is); a song which seems to remain fixed around a single tonal pivotal point, and yet contains the world in a grain of sand or a ray of evening sunlight. Although it is a song of joy, it moves us to tears; it reminds us of the fragility of all beauty and of our own mortality—we love sunsets as Schubert and Lappe did; the beauties of nature will remain as a part of human experience, but composer and poet are gone, and we will follow soon. The ache of this leave-taking is also in the music. Im Abendrot is an intimate song, but it is also a vast proclamation of 'faith' (a loose enough word to embrace the beliefs of most of mankind) contained in a small manuscript which is, according to Mandyczewski, 'extraordinarily neat and most lovingly written'. Above all it is a song which only Schubert, in all the long history of Western music, could have written. It bears his imprint, if not quite from the opening chords, then from the second bar of the introduction: three E flats, the top notes of what we have taken to be strummed tonic chords, reveal themselves as the beginning of a glorious melody which unfolds, in alla breve tempo, over the four bars of the introduction. At the beginning of the second bar there is the first of a number of Schubertian revelations. Any composer can move from A flat major to an E flat7, but who else would have done this at the same time as keeping the low Aflat exactly where it is, resounding as a tonic pedal point beneath the dominant harmony? It is such a tiny detail, but it makes a world of difference. The turn which follows that chord uses a decorative commonplace to establish an aura of wonder and devotion. The third bar moves into the second inversion of the subdominant: two melting cadences, each followed by tiny moments of silence, fall to the tonic in awe-struck worship. So prodigal is Schubert with his inventions that we hear this inspired phrase only this once. How right John Reed is to say that Schubert has an 'ability to give to the most familiar chord sequences a new inflection and an altogether new expressive power'.

Even in the composer's lifetime his tendency to modulation was known and discussed by the critics. It was often seen (or heard) as a weakness and distraction, and he was reproved for it in the press on more than one occasion. The world has since learned to glory in the composer's discursive escapades, and there is no one like Schubert for leading us gently astray into hidden pathways of unexpected harmonic delight. But this song, in company with a handful of other masterpieces (Meeres Stille and Wandrers Nachtlied come to mind), reminds us that Schubert at his greatest depends neither on 'heavenly length' (Schumann's phrase) nor diversity of harmony to leave his imprint on the soul. Richard Capell was right when he wrote that 'to stare at the page... is to find nothing explaining how such beauty came to be. Music is here felt to be not so much a medium of expression as something more intimate, the very emotion itself miraculously manifested'. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is also eloquent in his belief in the song as the product of a pantheistic, rather than a strictly Christian, impulse: 'The religious spirit underlying the music is that of a child's nature, whose gods are the stars, the mountains, the seasons and the flowers.' The song passes as imperceptibly as the sunset it describes, and like a sunset it changes at the same time as seeming to stand still (the movement of the inner voices of the chords is masterful). This somehow discourages our curiosity to analyse what is happening; the music, like the moment of evening radiance, seems stationary and unending in its beauty. And then, just as suddenly, it is gone. This seems a metaphor for life itself which we imagine will last for ever but which is as precious as those few moments when the sun hangs in the sky before slipping gently over the horizon.

To write a song about a sunset is literally to seize the day—carpe diem as Horace said in his first Ode—and to make a moment of fleeting beauty live for ever. Schubert's instinctive ability to write music of this kind (to call it cunning seems unfair) takes more than craftsmanship and calculation. Nevertheless, it is cleverly shaped and very well planned. The whole of the poet's first verse is mirrored in a huge musical arc, moving between the tonic key and variously decorated versions of the dominant, with pedal points on both. The simplicity of the grand design, essentially built on two harmonies, gives the picture its amplitude and its space. But minimalism is not enough; the complexity of the details—the way those two basic harmonies are given new life by subtle modifications—adds depth and humanity. The second verse is introduced by a shortened version of the prelude that has begun the song. Because we have been lulled into a mood of quiet contemplation, the harmonic changes in the next four bars, all unfolding within the time frame of the next twenty seconds, seem cosmic. The song's equilibrium is suddenly disturbed by the question 'Könnt' ich klagen, könnt' ich zagen?' ('Could I complain? Could I be apprehensive?'). The shadow of doubt looms for a moment only. After the restlessness of 'Irre sein an dir und mir?' ('Could I lose faith in you and in myself?') a small interlude in the piano climbs tenuously towards the light of clarification. With the word 'Nein' all doubt is stilled, as reassuring as a parent's hand on the arm of a frightened child. We revert to the world of security and beauty, sustained by these wonderful pedal points which are, in turn, supported by the sustaining pedal which, unusually for Schubert, is a specific requirement in the score. There is however one more surprise in store. Schubert reserves this for the moment when the poet tells us that heaven is something that he bears within his own heart. At this point ('Deinen Himmel schon allhier') we move briefly into D flat major, that most personal and heartfelt of Schubert's harmonic realms, the subdominant. It is this moment that was prefigured in the introduction. Thus in the midst of the narrator's humility before the wonders of God and nature, he allows himself a brief moment of self-revelation. After this we return to the familiarity of the great hymn. We have not yet spoken of the beauty of the vocal line itself, hovering around the mediant, wafting on the horizon, and refusing to sink to the tonic. Even if we finally reach Aflat major on 'schlürft noch Licht', the repeat of 'Licht', the final note of the song, returns to a C which seems to vibrate endlessly into the ether. In fact it is the piano which is given the last word, and that extraordinary seventh chord, the slowly uncoiling turn, and the final mezzo staccato triplets, are even more haunting than when we heard them first. Tomorrow is another day, and tomorrow the sun will set again, perhaps without us; it is this realization which adds a typically Schubetian bitter-sweet note of pain to what is otherwise a hymn in praise of nature.

Karl Lappe was born in Wusterhausen, near Wolgast in Pomerania. He was both a schoolmaster and a farmer. His literary career, if so it may be called, is typical of nineteenth-century Germany where poets often achieved a regional celebrity (Lappe's Gedichte were published in 1801 and 1811, and finally his complete works in 1836) without being taking seriously by the literati in the important cities. Deutsch pronounces him 'unimportant', but he provided the texts of two of Schubert's most beloved songs (the other is Der Einsame D800) and his poem Nord oder Süd! achieved national celebrity through the setting of K. Klage. Beethoven also set this lyric as a song in 1817 under the title So oder So (WoO148) and the same poem was used by Schumann for his choral setting Op59 No1. Lappe's debt to the pantheistic poetry of Goethe is obvious in Im Abendrot, but he was also influenced by his teacher Kosegarten. His simplicity of approach, and his homely naturalness, were obviously valued more highly by Schubert than the more high-flown products of some of Lappe's more celebrated contemporaries.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1998


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