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Erlafsee, D586

First line:
Mir ist so wohl, so weh’
September 1817; first published in February 1818 in a supplement, and then in May 1822 as Op 8 No 3
author of text

Much has always been made of Mayrhofer's influence on Schubert, and the poet's role in shaping the composer's literary and artistic tastes. But when it came to setting poetry Schubert was always of a highly independent cast of mind. He resisted numerous suggestions that he should put various poems to music, and on occasion (this song is one) he selected only the bits of the poem which suited him. He was so often selective that we must believe that when Schubert did undertake the setting of a long and seemingly intractable poem (Mayrhofer's Uraniens Flucht comes to mind) he actually wanted to do it – each note (and word) was meant. There are thirty-six lines to this poem and Schubert chooses to set only fourteen (verses 1 and 3), repeating the first two lines to make an ABCA structure where A and B together make up the first section and C is a contrasting movement at a faster tempo. There is another Mayrhofer setting, Schubert's first (Am See), which begins with a lake-side description and grows into extended musings on a historical episode; here the composer seems to have determined not to write another such ballad. He prunes the poem (more mercilessly than he seems to have cut his operatic libretti) in order to make an aria.

The Erlaf is a tributary of the Danube in Lower Austria, and Lake Erlaf is situated on the northern border of Steiermark. Mayrhofer's poem uses this locale for a highly fanciful appearance of a fairy-like image 'from the land of the shepherds.' This 'Wunderfrau' is momentarily upset by the mini-storm at 'Frische Winde' (the second of the two verses set by Schubert) but the poet comforts her. Mayrhofer's last verse seems to have been influenced by Goethe's Der Musensohn (it ends with a similar rhetorical question) which suggests that this visitation is perhaps the poet's muse and inspiration. This part of the poem was all rather too obscure to encourage musical setting and, in any case, mention of a sawmill on the Erlaf river at the end of the fifth verse grates on the idyllic watery mood of the whole. What Schubert liked best about the poem (apart from the contrast of 'wohl' and `weh' which was at the heart of his musical response to so much poetry) seems to have been the architectural possibilities of contrasting a cantilena for the glassy surface of the lake with a cabaletta with a puff of wind behind it. The tune is enchanting with its drop of octaves and sixths (the same interval which helps give the vocal line of An die Musik its expressive power) which here suggests languid and pensive relaxation at the side of the lake. The differences between 'wohl' and 'weh' ('happy' and 'sad') are not emphasised in the harmony the first time round; for the last repeat of the words Schubert allows himself to flatten the D on 'so weh' in order to paint sadness. The accompaniment glides underneath the tune like currents of meandering thought. At 'Heilig Schweigen in Fichtenzweigen' the majesty of the pine trees prompts a noble and decorative melody, and the accompaniment at 'regungslos' (two quavers followed by a rest) is a familiar analogue for stillness or suspense. At 'nur die Wolken Schatten fliehn' the flitting clouds, and the dark mirror of the lake which reflects them, are represented by a dialogue in quasi-canon between voice and piano. On the words 'dunkeln Spiegel' the semiquavers of singer and pianist move in mirror-image contrary motion. The melismas of this song, as well as the accompaniment in triplets, imply the Italian style throughout. This characteristic is even more pronounced in the middle section (marked 'Geschwinder', faster) in which the composer seems to have been so delighted to find this congenial tune that he repeats words at will in order to keep the melody going. This repetition does not make a great deal of sense on 'das Gewässer', but it is especially appropriate on 'flimmert blässer' where falling sequences serve well to paint the sun's waning powers. The last time these words occur they set up a haunting modulation back into F major for the recapitulation of 'Mir ist so wohl und weh.' It is entirely to do with Schubert's cutting of the poem that mention of the paling sun should lead so naturally back into the musings on the ups and downs of life that Lake Erlaf has inspired. The tiny two-bar postlude with its highly ornamented cadence carries through into the accompaniment the bel canto characteristics found in the vocal line.

This song has the distinction of being the first by Schubert to be printed, albeit only as a supplement to an almanac. The red-letter day for the composer was the 6 February 1818, and the book was Franz Sartori's Mahlerisches Taschenbuch (Pictorial Pocket-Book). The music was accompanied by a copper engraving of the Erlafsee.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994


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