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Hymne II, D660

First line:
Wenn ich ihn nur habe
May 1819; first published by Gotthard in 1872 as No 38 of Vierzig Lieder
author of text
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The three hymns of Novalis (not including the song titled Nachthymne) are almost embarrassingly naive in terms of musical means. Both Hymne I and the Nachthymne are through-composed, but for some of the most profound words the composer ever set he chose the most simple musical formula – the strophic song. Perhaps when he came to set Novalis Schubert identified with Beethoven and his Sechs Lieder von Gellert (1803). The rigours of these words produced psalm-like settings of great economy and power, bare on the printed page but packing an enormous rhetorical punch. Like Novalis, Gellert was Protestant, and Beethoven was aware of the Protestant tradition of church music, including C P E Bach’s settings of such writers as Gellert and Carl Friedrich Cramer. It follows that Schubert was also, in his turn, aware of what had gone before.

It cannot be claimed that the Novalis hymns rival the Beethoven settings of Gellert. The words of Novalis are infinitely more demanding and subtle, and Schubert is not able to exploit the grandiose harmonic simplicity which makes Beethoven’s confident way with Gellert especially memorable. And yet it seems that these hymns (and this one in particular) had their adherents in the Schubert circle. Refuting Kreissle von Hellborn’s low opinion of the Novalis hymns, no less a Schubertian than Josef von Spaun tells us that Hofsekretär Josef Gross, who was a most gifted musician, valued this song as ‘the most beautiful of all the songs which Schubert ever wrote’. Spaun also tells us that the singer Vogl placed an extraordinarily high value on the Novalis songs. It is difficult enough for modern-day performers to think themselves into the conventions of strophic song; regaining contact with the pious world of eighteenth-century church Lieder is an almost impossible task for the average concert singer of today. Some of these Novalis poems made their way into contemporary evangelistic church songbooks (with music other than by Schubert of course) with the difficult strophes simply left out. The third strophe of this song shows the influence on Novalis of his teacher Abraham Gottlob Werner and that learned man’s theory of ‘Neptunismus’, the concept of a gigantic ocean (‘Urmeer’) which dates from the time of the Creation. This produces water and geological metaphors which are combined with eschatological imagery of the last hours on earth. The fourth verse, in which Novalis veers towards Roman Catholic imagery (as is often the case), stems from the poet’s years in Jena and a visit to Dresden where he viewed the Sistine Madonna of Raphael. Naturally, neither of these verses found their way into the contemporary hymn books.

The most exceptional thing about the music is that half of each strophe is in the original key of B flat minor, a tonality used by Schubert seldom, but usually associated (as in Gretchens Bitte, Der 13. Psalm and Ihr Bild) with deep and contemplative devotion. The second half reverts to B flat major where all the conditional clauses and ‘ifs’ of the earlier lines melt into the certainties of redemption. The melody, accompanied by discreet chords, is in the hymn-tune style with a succession of tuneful sequences. The conviction with which the words are sung makes a great difference to the song’s effect. The postlude is attractive without being especially profound, but that is perhaps to judge it unfairly in comparison to a religious song like Litanei composed in a less esoteric and more openly emotional mood.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1997


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