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Nachthelle, D892

First line:
Die Nacht ist heiter und ist rein
September 1826; published posthumously by Diabelli in 1839 as Op 134
author of text

In Seidl's Lieder der Nacht (1826) this poem occupies a modest place; it consists of three verses which give little clue of the grand setting that Schubert had in store for it. The last line for the poem (as printed) is 'Ich halt es länger nicht' ('I cannot bear it any longer') which the composer has changed (almost certainly with the poet's permission and collaboration) to the grander and more poetic 'Die letzte Schranke bricht'. In Seidl's poem the narrator is indoors gazing through a window; after a while he cannot resist the temptation to drink in the beauties of the night sky. With 'Ich halt es länger nicht' we feel him abruptly throw down his papers, take up his hat and coat, and leave the room, outward bound. And there the poem ends. From the very beginning of Schubert's setting, however, we find ourselves outdoors and under the vast cupola of the heavens; a vista of this grandeur cannot be framed by a pane of glass in a dormer window. Semiquavers pulsate gently in the treble register (they occur in Beethoven's 1820 song Abendlied unterm gestirnten Himmel at the phrase 'wo der Sternenrichter thront') and they continue to do so throughout Nachthelle, signifying the same electrical energy of planets in motion which Schubert conveyed in his Leitner setting Die Sterne; the starlight at the end of Totengräbers Heimweh also comes to mind. A continual figuration of this kind underlines that the night sky is an all-embracing presence, and that we are unable to disturb the stars in their courses. These luminous chords, mezzo staccato but bathed in pedal, flood the song in muted, silvery light; the open fifths in the left hand prick out the emergence of individual stars which blink at us as we survey the vast sweep of the heavens.

The solo vocal line ('damnably high' was the somewhat rueful verdict of the composer's friend Ferdinand Walcher) is a creation of great beauty and considerable technical difficulty for the tenor. Ludwig Tietze, who gave the first performance in January 1827, must have had the sort of facility at the top of his range which encouraged the composer to write like this. The chorus echoes the opening solo line at a respectful distance – somewhat lower in the stave. This process whereby the tightrope-walking of the lead tenor is repeated (in modified form) by the other singers continues throughout the first verse, indeed throughout the song. The concept of the houses themselves being moved to amazement by the night sky is particularly well illustrated by the choral echo of 'Die Häuser schau'n verwundert drein': the chromaticism of a C7 chord slips into a second inversion of E minor with a touch of humour as the composer himself smiles at the image. (Astonished houses are no problem if you are working on speaking graves at the same time – cf. the contemporary Grab und Mond.) The phrase 'Steh'n übersilbert ganz' is echoed twice to bring the verse to an end.

The second verse is perhaps the most heroic of the piece – this is real outdoor music for healthy males – for once, the choral echoes strive to match the tessitura of the solo phrases. The chorus begins to dovetail with the solo line; the tenor must now undertake valiant stratospheric excursions which are supported by his colleagues underneath him (at passages like the first 'ganz ohne Leid und Groll' for example).

The climax of the work is at 'es muss hinaus, die letzte Schranke bricht', the last section of Seidl's poem and only the middle of the song as far as Schubert is concerned. Here soloist and chorus, impatient to break out of everything that constricts them, find themselves almost in unison, although the choral singers are spared the high B flats which are the lot of the soloist.

A magical shift to C major sends us back to the beginning of the poem for a modified recapitulation. From now on we hear only the words of the first strophe, but with many elaborations and repetitions. The words 'Steh'n übersilbert ganz' are now set a notch higher, and touch B flat as they turn the corner of the phrase. In the final section we hear Schubert amusing himself with ravishing variations and elaborations of his original ideas. It is like watching a young god at play, rearranging the constellations for pure pleasure, and shifting them back again just as easily. This leisurely sport is a feature of a number of the Seidl settings. The piece ends simply, with a layered effect: the basses sing 'Die Nacht ist heiter und ist rein' in open fifths as do the choral tenors a bar later. In the middle of this luxuriant Milky Way of sound the soloist sings the same words on the third of the chord, a stronger ray of light than his fellows. Once again, and for the last time, he has to brave the heights for a final B flat. The composer tells him to sing this for two beats fewer than the chorus's final note. This is to clear the air for the piano's tiny postlude where open fifths in the left hand lead to the depths of the stave, the huge span of the heavens once again illustrated by the distance between the pianist's hands.

The work is one of the composer's greatest choral pieces. It paints Seidl's words in a manner both magisterial and tender, and far beyond the expectations of the poet who was no doubt even more astonished at this nocturnal miracle than the houses in his poem. This mastery is typical of the songs of 1826 in that it confirms that Schubert has moved into a new and effortless command of his medium; he can now fill a canvas of this size with both ease and grace, and with the sort of power given only to the immortals.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1996


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