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Schlaflied 'Schlummerlied', D527

First line:
Es mahnt der Wald, es ruft der Strom
January 1817; first published in October 1823 as Op 24 No 2, reprinted by Diabelli (and later Peters) as Schlummerlied; an autograph is entitled Abendlied
author of text

This is one of the most enchanting of the Mayrhofer songs, and justly celebrated. The dark side of the poet's muse, given to introspection and depression, pessimism and self-doubt, seems banished for a few magical moments. Nevertheless there is more to this song than meets the ear. Most of the commentators hear it as a lullaby pure and simple, but the music with its octave leaps on 'Es mahnt' and 'Es ruft' exhorts and lures: Nature is cast as a Lorelei, a seductive force, as well as a healing and restful one. As is often the case with the Mayrhofer songs which are contemporary with Schubert's flirtation with the Italian operatic muse, there is a sinuous vocal line with melisma and a trace of decoration which suggests homage to bel canto. Beneath the singer's creamy legato we hear the accompaniment of a pastoral ensemble as the piano's gently detached chords simulate the tonguing of flutes, oboes and bassoons.

Everything in the shape of the opening phrases – a cradling alternation of chords, largely between tonic and dominant, octave leaps in the vocal line in which the singer stands tiptoe in her eyes, as it were – suggests smiling invitation. For the third and fourth lines of the strophe the harmonies become more complex as the boy is welcomed into Flora's embrace; his discoveries are mapped out by a daisy-chain of supporting dominant harmonies (A-B flat-C). The phrase ascends to the pivot of 'von jedem Schmerz' and then melts into a languid fall. As a result we can almost see him approach the marvels of Nature on tiptoe (mezzo staccato triplets in the right hand), tarry in growing fascination, and then give in to their blandishments. The idea of being healed of pain by nature anticipates the poetry of Justinus Kerner set by Schumann in his Op 35. At this point we remember how the aged minstrel in Mayrhofer's Nachtstück is wooed to his final rest by birdsong and the rustling trees. Mayrhofer has a darker side, and interpreters have sometimes wondered whether this 'Bübchen' has also fallen asleep for ever in the arms of Mother Earth.

It seems unlikely that music of this charm could represent an elegy, however disguised by Mayrhofer's layers of ambiguous meaning. But it is possible that the song is a type of miniature Liebestod inspired by Goethe's Ganymed. Mayrhofer's 'liebes Bübchen' (a diminutive which in this context seems suggestive of a shepherd boy or classical cherub) is attracted and enchanted by God-in-Nature in the same way as Ganymede is enveloped by the morning radiance. Schlaflied (composed only a few months before Ganymed) also seems to be a an early morning piece with shimmering colours and dew. In both songs the gentle movement of nature is depicted as a grave dance, alla breve, in which every movement and invitation seems to suggest the workings of a subtle seducer. Flowers and grass play their part in both songs, and Mayrhofer's quail warbles (how beautifully the mezzo staccato writing for the piano's left hand depicts this!) in the place of Goethe's nightingale. 'Die Mutter' (Mother Earth presumably) stands in for Goethe's 'all-liebender Vater'. There is also an echo of another, much later, song. The opening of the third strophe ('Ins frische Gras legt er sich hin') is reminiscent of 'ich ruhe still im hohen grünen Gras' in Brahms's Feldeinsamkeit. In both cases the boy's gaze drifts heavenward up into the clouds above, as if they were transported to another realm, and in both songs the words 'Wolken ziehn' occur. Brahms also casts his song in a spacious and hypnotic F major, a pavane of grave beauty, with chords also marked mezzo staccato. To my ears his setting seems consciously to acknowledge a debt to Schubert.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994


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