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Jägers Abendlied, D368

First line:
Im Felde schleich’ ich, still und wild
Second setting. Early 1816 (?); published by Cappi & Diabelli in 1821 as Op 3 No 4
author of text

Schubert's return to this poem shows that he was not satisfied with his first setting, and it is easy to see why. In inventing an ornate, Italianate melody something of the character of the hunter, who is after all German and a figure of some strength, had been lost. In describing the floating image of the beloved, the hunter became weak and shapeless, too much of a drifting Lothario. Even if this described Goethe at this emotional crossroad in his life, Schubert takes the word 'Jäger' at face value (pace Capell's interpretation of him as a poacher) and in the second version invents a musical context for him which makes us believe that he is a man of the people and a worker. There is thus in the vocal line of the second version a certain nobility and simplicity. Italianate floridity has given way to something more stolid. The accompaniment is placed in exactly the same part of the keyboard as that for at least three other great songs: Nacht und Träume and Wandrers Nachtlied II in which the softly resonating lower notes of the piano suggest dreamy contemplation, and in a completely different way Das Wandern, the opening song of Die schöne Müllerin, where the bass clef in both hands serves to earth the protagonist and to furnish him with a naive and good-hearted masculinity. A vocal line of greater simplicity now allows the composer to add the sort of crucial detail in the accompaniment which was lacking in the first version. The sliding sixths of the opening five bars were no doubt inspired by the slinking imagery of 'schleich' ich, still', but they also serve to depict someone wary and watchful, cautious but not without heart and longing; the mournful chromatic ascent somehow suggests tenderness in a bear of a man. As so often happens, Schubert has invented a figuration which sets out to illustrate something physical but which then remains as a powerful emblem for the emotions, like the whirring of Gretchen's spinning-wheel. The lift of a semitone in the vocal line at 'da schwebt so licht dein liebes Bild' takes us into the inner world of the hunter's imagination. It is all the more touching that a simple man of this kind, transported by the raptures of love and suddenly eloquent, should break into a slightly more ornate vocal style at 'dein süßes Bild mir vor'. The ghost of the first version hovers over this passage.

Schubert was sufficiently proud of this setting to place it right at the beginning of the Lieder album sent to Goethe in 1816 – and this despite the fact he had the temerity to leave out the third of the poet's four verses. One has a vision of Goethe opening the volume at the first page, seeing this immediately, and turning his back on Schubert forever without even bothering to consult his friend Zelter on how good or bad the music was. After all, the poet had very strong ideas about how the poem should be read. In 1814 he wrote: 'The first and third verses have to be recited energetically with some fire, while the second and fourth must be gentle, because here a new emotion has appeared.' In setting the poem in his own inimitable way, Schubert nevertheless wrote a masterpiece.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1995


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