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Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, D705

First line:
Des Menschen Seele
December 1820; fragment first published in 1897 in the Gesamtausgabe; completed by Eugene Asti in 1994
author of text

This remarkable setting has long stood as a tantalisingly incomplete fragment in the supplement of the old Gesamtausgabe. The state in which Schubert has left the manuscript provides a fascinating glimpse at his way of working, and here we can sense the heat of inspiration under great pressure, which is not to say that because the composer is in a hurry, the music needs to be. Although most of the autograph is sketchy in every sense, it is interesting that Schubert lays down the basis of his thoughts with great precision. He starts with being very exact about the piano part, a marvellous inspiration of semiquavers in each hand, two octaves apart and in unison, and he takes the trouble to write out the first section to establish that this type of figuration is to be the template for the whole piece. The key is C sharp minor; the accompaniment flows evenly and mysteriously for four bars (it is clear that this is no mere miller-boy's stream, but rather the broad River of Life) until two portentous minim chords set up the entry of the men's voices. Instead of the hectic water music which doomed Mahomets Gesang from the start, we have a mood of the greatest contemplative tranquillity. The piano's semiquavers betoken the movement of water, but the singers who murmur their vocal line of pianissimo minims and semibreves over this undulating texture speak for the dignity and nobility of the soul. The modulation into C sharp major at 'gleicht dem Wasser' seems to affirm, with quiet inward rejoicing, the immortality assured by these words.The interlude which now gently leads us upwards from the depths to the headier regions of 'vom Himmel kommt es' is the composer's own.

It is here (at the beginning of bar 16 and the words 'vom Himmel kommt es') that Schubert abandons the piano staves, and Eugene Asti takes over responsibility for the accompaniment. He does so with great imagination, yet with the tact of the true Schubertian who prefers simplicity to the over- ambitious pastiche which invariably strikes a false note. Schubert has left us the choral parts intact (although it is not always clear what he intends in terms of word underlay) so he leaves at least a skeleton of the work's basic harmony. Nevertheless it takes someone with Asti's skill as both accompanist and composer to devise a piano part which is convincing in reflecting the varying moods of water (as dictated by the words) but which also follows Schubert's signposts, hastily erected, concerning pianistic layout. Asti is not afraid to move high in the piano register when light, glistening textures are required, nor to abandon semiquavers altogether when the strength of 'Ragen Klippen dem Sturz' entgegen' calls for a Beethovenian Fifth Symphony motif (three upbeat quavers and hammered first beat of the bar), dramatic runs and stirring chords of longer note-value. The bass line of the accompaniment does not slavishly follow the choral bass line (which would have been a temptingly safe option) but achieves a convincing, and at times delightful, independence. Among the numerous felicitous details there is a particularly effective bass trill before the last 'Schäumt er unmutig' which reminds us how Schubert used this device in the first movement of the B flat major Piano Sonata, D960.

Extremely lovely is Schubert's move to a contemplative D flat major at the end of this setting ('Im flachen Bette schleicht er'). Here Asti follows Schubert's hints for a pedal D flat in the piano's left hand and the dactylic rhythm which gradually emerges in the accompaniment to this section, and which is the governing feature of the postlude, imparts an appropriate radiance (cf Die Sterrne) to the image of the stars mirrored in the surface of the lake. The composer's vocal line ends here despite the fact that there are two verses of poetry left. Asti decided not to attempt a completely new composition of these final eight lines. He has nevertheless made a new masterpiece accessible to choral singers. Because the voice part left to us is fully sketched, together with crucial clues concerning the harmonic direction of the interludes, this setting of Gesang der geiser über den Wassern may be more confidently performed as a piece of genuine Schubert than any other completion of a major vocal fragment.

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 27 on CDJ33024 [7'50] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 17 on CDS44201/40 CD23 [7'50] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

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