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Der Knabe, D692

First line:
Wenn ich nur ein Vöglein wäre
March 1820; first published by J P Gotthard in 1872 as No 22 of Vierzig Lieder
author of text

The original key of this song is A major, the same key in which the birds have sung their chirpy melodies in Die Vögel. If the composer thought of birds in this tonality it is perhaps natural that this song should also be in A major, for it is as much about the birds as about the budding little Icarus who gives the song its title. Perhaps if Friedrich von Schlegel had been as much of a Shakespearean as his brother he might have written a poem about a boy who was less of an aspiring high-flyer, someone with 'shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school'.

Despite the fact that the songs share a tonality and a lively tempo (they are perhaps the jolliest of the Abendröte settings) they are very different. The birds merrily cruise the heavens in 3/8 time, but the boy is grounded in 2/4. We hear his impatience throughout: the vocal line aspires unsuccessfully heavenward on 'Wenn ich nur ein', only to fall earthward on 'Vöglein wäre'. The mezzo staccato accompaniment paws the earth like a greyhound on a leash. The phrase 'Alle Vögel weit besiegen' inspires an outbreak of the thirds and sixths of hunting music which Schubert takes to be emblematic of male competitiveness. The jaunty little interlude which ends this section (before 'Wenn ich so ein Vogel bin') suggests an imagination running riot with images of tilting at rivals, like a junior Don Quixote; it is battle-music of sorts, but one where the weapons are wooden swords.

Until now we have heard an unusually limited harmonic vocabulary - the alternation between tonic and dominant. Indeed, the introduction is nothing more than a four-bar elaboration of an arpeggio in the tonic key, with a crescendo to forte as the boy grows high and mighty in his thoughts. This implies a one-track mind, a youngster who can think of only one thing. It is something of a relief then to enter the subdominant at 'Wenn ich so ein Vogel bin' where thoughts of cherry-picking adventures are linked to thoughts of the boy's mother. After much schoolboy bravado the music adopts a new tone of intimacy and tenderness. It is the tessitura of this passage, plus its soft dynamic marking, which suggests, in the original key, a light soprano voice rather than a tenor; on the other hand there is something very male about this song - one imagines it sung by a bit of a ragamuffin, Richmal Crompton's William perhaps, with his heart in the right place. The next passage (in B minor, the relative minor of the subdominant key of D, beginning 'Ist sie bös in ihrem Sinn') reinforces this boyish slant. In this music we hear the ability of mother's little man, whether bird or human, to charm his way out of trouble in a way impossible for his sisters; since time immemorial, boy children have got round their mothers with techniques later employed in the seductions of adult life. The sprung accompaniment, the second beat phrased away in a winsomely yearning drop of an octave, suggests both wheedling and cheek, the mother's softening anger (forgiveness is neither instantaneous nor too easily won) depicted by the change of harmony under the elongated setting of 'bald besiegen'. This little fantasy soon yields to thoughts of birds as we return to the middle section's first idea, namely bouncing quavers in the subdominant. Here the high tessitura is especially suited to idea of 'Dass die Lüfte laut erklingen'. We then return to B minor, but for a much shortened section encompassing the words 'Wär' ich über jene Hügel'. This phrase in the subjunctive, with a touching little piano echo after 'Hügel' evocative of a sad sigh, ushers in a recapitulation of the boy's fantasy.

With a lesser composer we might have had a perky repeat of the same carefree opening lines, but Schubert is too clever for that. His music enables us to hear the boy's words again, this time crestfallen, in the context of reality. The difference between animals and humans, someone said, is that animals do not weep for what might have been; it is the unique capacity of human beings to dream of what they cannot have, and to bemoan a loss. The final strophe of Der Knabe is unique in Schubert in that it replays an already-established melody at half speed (crotchets instead of quavers) as a means of depicting the wistful tones of 'if only'. The fight has gone out of the lad; he no longer has the mad energy required to fly in the heavens. The music slows down and the hunting motifs are no longer abrasive; instead we hear the sad, far-off echoes of human longing, like distant horns in a dark forest. The little interlude that had been indicative of imaginary battles in the opening section is here transformed into the song's postlude, the jauntiness still there somehow, but momentarily deflated. With this sort of rueful smile has many a youngster's dream to play for Manchester United vanished into thin air as his gaze turns toward mine or factory. Within a few bars Schubert has transformed a headstrong boy into a thoughtful young man. Tomorrow's mental excursions 'beyond those hills' will bring new dreams, and new rebuffs. Schlegel's point here is that human beings cannot transcend their given roles in life, and be more than human. Icarus failed to learn this, and we know what happened to him.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996


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