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The introduction is both bracing and embracing; it endeavours to paint a whole range of mountains in a single sweeping gesture, and it succeeds not only in aural terms, but also visually—on the page we can see a succession of peaks, and a definite summit. For pianists there is a real sense of danger in the ascent—when we reach a D in the middle of the first bar we descend a third to a B (in the spirit of reculer pour mieux sauter) which is in turn a springboard for the highest note, a jump of a sixth which seems Olympian. Thus we reach the tonic at last in the song's original key of G major. Once we are safely there we look down at the view, and the piano descends in a decrescendo to revisit some of the notes used as footholds on the way up. The whole phrase is caught in a nimbus of pedal which gives a sense of open spaces, and of sound resonating through a valley. The effect is of great effort counterbalanced by a moment of repose, the exhalation of breath after concentration and exertion.
The singer's first phrase echoes this introduction ('Sieht uns der Blick gehoben'). Mention of gravity in the next line ('die Schwere') prompts a vocal line weighed down and pulled back by the piano, each note doggedly doubled. At 'zu besiegen' the voice breaks free from this and forces the melody into the subdominant (C major) where the mountains, according themselves human qualities, now play in their imagination, no longer rooted to the spot; the left-hand accompaniment has horn-call harmonies beneath an inverted pedal, which suggest hunting in vain for a means to break free, the music of the left hand a swirling movement beneath the right hand's constricting blanket of clouds. Man is similarly ambitious; the wise mountains know that his aspirations to be god-like are highly dubious, and this is reflected in the rueful setting of 'Glaubt schon, …' to drooping dotted crotchets. And then the extent of human hubris is illustrated by an extraordinary vocal line - a C major arpeggio which ascends the stave and traverses a twelfth in a matter of seconds ('sei durch die Wolken gedrungen'). This forceful determination triggers the piano into similar action, and Schubert conceals in this dovetailing outburst a cadence which returns us to the tonic. We have met these left-hand ascending octaves before in another 6/8 song, An Schwager Kronos (at 'Weit, hoch, herrlich rings den Blick ins Leben hinein') in a passage which also describes ambitious ascent through life. The right-hand scales, boosted by left-hand dotted rhythms, recall the brilliant energy of Weber's piano writing. Certainly a passage such as this is not often found in Schubert's accompaniments, although another instance of both social-climbing arpeggio and blindly ambitious scale occurs in Die Wetterfahne (from Winterreise) underneath both appearances of the words 'reiche Braut' where the singer comments bitterly on the worldly priorities of the girl's parents who now have a rich bride for a daughter. Although that piano writing is taken to be the flapping of the weather-vane, Schubert's motivic language is always more deeply grounded and many-sided than mere one-off illustration.
The middle section takes its cue from the word 'begründet'—'grounded' or 'rooted'—and this brings the piano once again to double the voice note for note and weigh it down like ropes attached to a hot-air balloon in danger of flying off to dangerous heights. The middle section of the partsong Widerspruch comes to mind where the mountains suddenly induce in the singers a sense of awe rather than exhilaration, a sense of mankind's impotence in comparison to Nature. (This sudden awareness of mortality is illustrated, in that case, by all four vocal parts and both hands of the piano playing the same notes in unison.) At 'Dann strebt in sichern Werken, sein ganzes Tun' the accompaniment blossoms into triplets. This is certainly the most harmonically adventurous passage of the song, and its chromatic restlessness seems linked to the middle section of Der Fluss, another reason to suppose that Die Berge was written at the same time. The activity of man is now shown to be less foolhardy, more connected to hard work in a lower, more modest part of the stave and thus nearer his roots. This passage of the poem has inspired a miniature Grenzen der Menschheit, the music suddenly philosophical in intent, and the triplets here distant relations of Wolf's in his setting of the Goethe poem.
At 'Und baut wie Felsen den Bau der Gedanken' the piano doubles the voice once again, but this time not to contain its boundaries but to widen them. Man has found his vocation as a sculptor of thoughts, and in the interlude after 'den Bau der Gedanken' we hear the philosophical hammer-blows of thesis and antithesis. This is one of those Schubertian middle sections which change the colour of the recapitulation. When this comes, we have exactly the same music for the second verse—perhaps a weakness of the song—but the new words seem to fit the music very well. Man has learned the lesson that the mountains have known since Time Immemorial, and this knowledge brings an energy and daring of its own, quite different from that of the first verse. This is another Schlegel song which has been consistently ignored or undervalued by the commentators.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996
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