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Der Schäfer und der Reiter, D517

First line:
Ein Schäfer sass im Grünen
April 1817; published in December 1822 as Op 13 No 1
author of text

The contrast between town and country, low and high birth, pastoral and military, is a favourite folksong theme. The pace of life is different for those who tread outdoor paths and those who walk the corridors of power. Accordingly Schubert uses what is more or less a ballad style with a mood and a speed for the shepherd's music, and an utterly contrasting one for the plaint of the passing knight. Benjamin Britten does something rather similar in his French folksong setting Le roi s'en va-t'en chasse where the beautiful shepherdess Nanon, despite the hectoring of hunting triplets ands horn calls, refuses to become the king's darling. She replies to his propositions in a slower tempo as if she has come from quite another world, as indeed she has.

The pianist opens the song and we find ourselves in the Arcadia of sensuous embrace (a languid left hand) and cooing doves (a trilling right). There is an ornate fussiness about the accompaniment which suggests rococo prettiness and ornamentation. The composer has taken some trouble to make this scene almost a textbook (or picture-book) illustration of the pastoral life; indeed it is so much set within a gilt frame that it seems a musical equivalent of a painting by Boucher or a Fragonard, the subject matter frivolous perhaps, but its tone as a work of art serious. The scoring of the song (if it were to be transferred to wind instruments) would call out for Damon's flute to trill and swoon. The key is E major, the key of a number of songs in the canon which depict the pastoral idyll; these include Elysium, Erntelied and Blumenlied. It is perhaps no accident that Hugo Wolf was also to cast his shepherdess in four sharps for Die Spröde, and that the accompaniment of that song should also employ light, airy semiquavers to provide a filigree of feminine delicacy.

The picture-book approach continues for the entry of the knight (the last two lines of Verse 2) who canters up in what might be termed 6/8 triplets for children (compare the truly menacing 'adult' triplets of Erlkönig and An Schwager Kronos for example). This is the type of music for rocking-horse which Schumann conjures in his Aus alten Märchen winkt es, the penultimate song from Dichterliebe, which refers to fairy tales of the type conjured by de la Motte Fouqué. The music for the cavalier's entry (in E minor) seems to have something in common with that for Der Flug der Zeit, as if the rider, pressed for time, were being propelled through life by forces outside his control. It is the shepherd who invites the intruder to tarry but Schubert cleverly makes him sing, if not exactly in the rider's musical style, at least within the faster section which introduces him. This allows for the contrast of a return to the pastoral music (Verse 4) this time in G major, as the shepherd continues to expound the virtues of country life. As this hedonistic mood reasserts itself we can only wonder that the rider, so driven in every other way, has the patience to hear words extended into languid melismas. After this, there is no formal option but for the rest of the song (three more verses) to be given over to the rider and his rather earnest music. This is impeccable style for this type of ballad, but we somehow long to hear a reprise of the music of the shepherd who has presumably been silenced by the horror of what he hears of city life. The poem does not allow for such a recapitulation however, and the work ends on a serious, even gloomy note. Alas, we are unable to take the cavalier's plight to heart; his capitulation to Mammon has been rendered less tragic by his proximity to the shepherd's chocolate box and the delectable things it contains. This is another one of those musical experiments which almost work, and which seem characteristic of 1817.

This song was published in 1822 as part of the composer's Op 13 which was dedicated to Schubert's best and most faithful friend, Josef von Spaun. Other songs were Lob der Tränen and Mayrhofer's Der Alpenjäger.

This is the last of four settings that Schubert made of this poet; others were the three Don Gayseros songs and Lied.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994


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