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Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, D484

First line:
Des Menschen Seele
September 1816; fragment, first published in 1895 in the Gesamtausgabe; completed by Reinhard van Hoorickx
author of text

This is one of Goethe's most celebrated lyrics. Although some of the literary experts have denounced its philosophical tone as rather facile, Schubert and other composers (Loewe and Reutter among them) have found it irresistibly moving. The poem dates from 9 October 1779 during a holiday in which the poet explored western Switzerland; it commemorates his visit to the impressive falls on the Staubach and the Riesenbach where the water plunges down the rock-face from a great height, giving the impression of a shimmering, transparent veil. The lyric has a number of similarities with Mahomets Gesang, not least in the water imagery which was always attractive to Schubert. Like Mahomets Gesang it was originally cast as a dialogue, in this case between the spirits of the title. Goethe chose to place the two poems next to each other in the last edition of his works which he himself edited. The poem, which likens the human soul to water endlessly moving between heaven and earth, tumbling and tossed on the way, was sent to Charlotte von Stein, the poet's beloved, who was apparently not much impressed. Countless readers since, however, have been on Goethe's wavelength, and found clear and deep resonances in these noble free-verse rhythms.

Schubert attempted this lyric four times. He completed two settings – an unaccompanied chorus for TTBB (D538, the second setting) and the third setting (D714) for eight male voices accompanied by violas, cellos and double basses. This is a beautiful and unusual piece which receives an occasional performance despite the fact that it calls for a mixture of forces which is impractical in concert-giving terms. The other two settings were left as fragments by the composer, and both have been completed with considerable skill by different people.

This setting for solo bass was almost certainly complete at some stage, and the opening and closing pages have simply been lost. John Reed postulates that the autograph was broken up during the composition of one of the later versions. Possibly the composer needed to have some reference to the words as he tended to borrow books of lyrics (and return them) rather than have them readily available on the shelves of his own library. This setting poses a problem rare in Schubertian studies, for this is a substantial and important fragment which starts in the middle of the poem and peters out just before the end; it is an altogether easier task to conclude a song that has the composer's own music at the beginning!

Nothing less than a re-composition of the opening section can make the surviving inner section accessible to a listening public. Reinhard Van Hoorickx's completion ranks as perhaps his most successful major reconstruction of a fragment. He has taken his inspiration for the opening music from the last four bars of Schubert's surviving music ('Seele des Menschens, wie gleichst du dem Was …') These noble bars provide the clue as to how to set the first words. Prompted by the significant direction 'Wie oben' ('As above') Hoorickx justifiably assumes that 'Seele des Menschens' is a recapitulation of the music which opened the piece. Accordingly the first section of the poem (the first seven lines) is set to a majestic 'Langsam' in A minor. The melody, supported by spread chords reminiscent of the mood of Meeresstille, is lifted from the last section of the piece and elaborated.

The second section 'Strömt von der hohen' moves into G major; the time signature is 3/8 with a demisemiquaver accompaniment to depict the clouds of spray. All this is dictated by how the surviving fragment begins, and it is to Hoorickx's great credit that there is no discernible bump when Schubert's own music emerges in mid-stream at 'dann zur Tiefe nieder'. It must be said, however, that when Schubert himself takes over, the accompaniment descends with great daring and effect into the lower regions of the piano to paint the words effectively.

The next section, in E minor and marked 'Geschwind', begins with four bars of energetic interlude before the words 'Ragen Klippen dem Sturz' entgegen'; it contains some of the most extraordinary vocal writing in all Schubert. To comply with the words, the voice plunges and leaps 'step by step into the abyss'. Only a bass could do justice to this. The time signature changes to 4/4, and the music storms through a number of sequences (rattling semiquavers in the right hand) with leaps of up to a ninth (always doubled in stentorian manner by the pianist's left hand) in the vocal line. This section prefigures the grandiose vocal leaps of Freiwilliges Versinken. On the word 'Abgrund' the voice is asked to touch low E, the same note which concludes the notoriously difficult song Grenzen der Menscheit. In a manner similar to the ending of the previous section, the piano is taken through all of its registers and ends on a deep rumble in the bass clef.

When the river moves into flat country, so does the music, in 6/8 now and in a serenely flowing C major. Hoorickx has noted that the gentle little melody of 'Im flachen Bette schleichet er' is reminiscent of the opening of the Kyrie of the composer's first Mass (in F, D105). Whether this is a conscious quotation or not is open to question, but this is gentle water music in lilting Schubertian manner. What is exceptional is the wide range expected of the singer who is asked to sing a high G at 'lieblicher Buhler', and a G, two octaves lower, at 'Wind mischt von Grund'. This demanding change of tessitura renders the piece almost unperformable by most singers. And thus we find ourselves back in the A minor of the opening for four bars of genuine Schubert which breaks off just as the music modulates to C major. In eight bars of completion Hoorickx has allowed himself to add a tiny postlude in which he places a Neapolitan A flat semibreve chord followed by one in a conclusive C major. This seems to be a homage to the opening of the String Quintet of over a decade later.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1995


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/40Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 24
CDJ33024Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Track 26 on CDJ33024 [4'44] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 9 on CDS44201/40 CD16 [4'44] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

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