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Schubert was always drawn to night pictures, and some of his greatest nocturnes were already behind him. We might be tempted to associate the composer's younger years with somewhat melodramatic evocations of dark mystery and foreboding (as in the Ossian setting Die Nacht for example, and Der Geistertanz) and his later years with more spiritual evening pictures (such as Im Freien, Nachthelle); but both genres of night-piece co-exist throughout his oeuvre. He was capable of writing lucid and transparent tributes to moonlight from early on, and some of the most beautiful (Die Sommernacht, Die frühen Gräber, An den Mond and Klage an den Mond) are songs from his teenage years. Der Wanderer is slightly later, but from its mood and texture it belongs to their number; it stands on the threshold between Schubert's youth and maturity.
The word 'deutlich' (`clearly') in the poem's opening phrase governs the mood of the work which is gently luminous throughout. The key is in D major like Der Pilgrim and the much later Der Kreuzzug, a clear sign that the composer felt that this traveller was on an important spiritual journey. Harmonic ambivalence sets in right at the beginning: the second crotchet in the accompaniment is a G sharp which makes the ear believe that the song is really in A major; when the vocal line begins it seems to be in the subdominant rather than the tonic. We never quite recover from this deliberate disorientating effect which lends a gentle plagal ambience to much of the song, as if it was floating unanchored in heavenly space. The use of the flattened sixth on 'schweren Tage', 'jeder Klage' and at the end on 'alleine' adds a twist of world-weariness and other-worldliness to what appears, at first glance, to be simple music. The moon is both inspiration and companion, a guiding light in the dark world. This is symbolised by the doubling of the voice and bass line, extensive even by Schubert's standards, and a technique he used when he wanted to underline the import of the words. The moon's aphoristic advice in inverted commas ('Folge treu dem alten Gleise') is given emphasis in this way, but the doubling serves also as a steadying guide-rail, enabling the singer to 'follow faithfully the old track'. At 'Fort zu andern sollst du wechseln' he progresses up a chromatic scale (more or less) and then picks his way down the stave in graduated steps of descending fourths; on these journeys through the wilds he is still gently shadowed and supported by the piano's left hand.
After the haunting cadence of 'jeder Klage' we are ushered into the second verse, for Schubert has somehow turned the poet's lines of irregular length, seemingly composer-unfriendly, into a flowing strophic song. We are almost unaware of the difficulties of the poem's shape, so smoothly and inevitably does one part progress to the next. The vocal line of the second part of the song is more or less the same as the first, but the accompaniment is another matter. Now it is the right hand which shadows the vocal line (under 'Ebb' und hohe Flut, tief im Mut, wandr' ich so im Dunkeln weiter') as if the guiding light were clearer still, streaming over the wanderer's right shoulder rather than his left. This doubling continues for only three bars. At 'Steige mutig, singe heiter' the voice, suddenly independent, finds itself undoubled for the first time, although not unaccompanied. The dotted-rhythm chords accompanying 'singe heiter' briefly establish a new concerted tone of resolve between voice and piano. 'Alles reine seh' ich mild im Widerscheine' ends with one of the most touching of Schubertian cadences, a crucial difference from the corresponding passage in the first verse. For a moment we can imagine the composer himself singing these words, transfigured, as his friends described, by a glimpse of beauty beyond the comprehension of lesser mortals like ourselves. An inner voice in the accompaniment doubles the last phrase, emblematic of the inner understanding which changes the blurred and confusing into something lucid and clear. A hushed cadence with plagal—and thus almost religious—overtones, ends one of the few songs in Schubert's canon which rank as both a personal and an artistic credo. (Some others are An die Musik, Trost im Liede, and Des Sängers Habe.)
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996
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