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Liebhaber in allen Gestalten, D558

First line:
Ich wollt’ ich wär’ ein Fisch
May 1817; first published in 1885 in volume 7 of the Peters Edition
author of text

This 'catalogue of disguises' (as Capell calls it) is one of the more famous of Schubert's comic songs, and a favourite encore of many a soprano. Both peasants and princes have long (and even recently) wished to be reincarnated into something which would bring them closer to the intimate charms of their beloveds; the idea goes back to the myth of Proteus and the Ovidian concept of metamorphosis. It is typical of Goethe that he should effortlessly marry classical learning with the style of a cheeky and earthy folksong. However masculine these words might be, it is unusual to hear this song sung by a man. It has become a part of the soprano repertoire (Elisabeth Schumann and Irmgard Seefried sang it often) to the extent that Fischer-Dieskau chose not to include it in his giant Schubert project of the 1970s. “I can't get enough of you,” the poem seems to say, “and I will go to any lengths to get more”; the music fairly bubbles and twinkles with goodwill and happiness and turns the somewhat predatory nature of the words into something harmlessly gentle. Perhaps male singers are embarrassed by a whimsical coquetry in the turn of musical phrase which suggests femininity. Staccato notes in the left hand and flirtatious interplay between voice and piano (the echoing phrases at the end of each strophe) add to an impression of a teasing game of hide and seek. There are nine verses printed in the Gesamtausgabe (only three in Peters) which gives the singer a wide range of incarnations from which to choose. No self-respecting German-speaking woman would now sing Goethe's second verse ('Ich wollt' ich wär ein Pferd', 'I wish I were a horse'), but English-speaking singers can innocently sing the verse unaware that these days 'Pferd' is deprecating slang for an ugly woman. Languages, like lovers' shapes, change all the time, it is true, but this is one metamorphosis which Goethe would not have understood.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994


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