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The opening four notes in the piano seem to ask a question (cf the opening of Mendelssohn's Frage, op 9 no 1), 'Is it true?' The fifth note we hear, the twinge of a dissonant E flat in the alto line, leads us to expect the worst; a diminished seventh directs the gaze of the enquirer heavenward, and the voice enters on a high G in what momentarily sounds like a new fugal entry on a higher pitch. We hear the same three-quaver falling figure that has been introduced by the piano, but the voice caps it in terms of intensity and painful involvement. Fischer-Dieskau writes that this setting 'was to determine the style of musical declamation for a century' and it is true that the prosody is extraordinarily refined—the way that 'wirklich' falls on a strong and long beat adds to the astounded sense of loss. The classical poise of this first line conjures up the ghost of Gluck's Orpheus both in terms of Goethe's words and Schubert's musical response; the composer later allows himself repetitions of some of the lines in the manner of an operatic aria. The poem's first verse encompasses modulations from the home key of G major, to G minor (the second line), B flat and then to F major for the end of the verse. The second verse (marked 'etwas langsamer') is frozen in F minor until its fourth line in which the larks take the music into A flat major. In modified strophic songs of this nature Verse 3 would be a repeat of Verse 1, but taking his cue from Goethe's punctuation at the end of the second verse, Schubert annexes half of Verse 3 as part of the tormented middle section which at 'so dringet ängstlich hin' becomes faster ('Geschwinder') and more agitated. This takes us back to F minor and then C major so that the recapitulation of the first musical idea in G major occurs only in the third line of the last verse. Operatic repetitions of the few remaining words (note the seemingly improvised power of 'alle, alle meine Lieder') build up into a substantial third section—a plea of powerful eloquence. Before the closing cadence in the vocal line, there is an unaccompanied bar for the voice ('O komm Geliebte' for the last time) in which Schubert audaciously pays tribute to the tradition of operatic cadenza in the middle of a song of the highest seriousness. The postlude repeats the prelude; the singer's pleas have fallen on deaf ears (that tragic E flat impinges again in the piano) and the final two bars of postlude bring the story to a resigned and crestfallen close. Goethe probably wrote this poem for Charlotte von Stein on his return from Italy in 1788.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993
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