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Die erste Liebe, D182

first published in 1842 in volume 35 of the Nachlass
author of text

The Styrian poet Fellinger provides Schubert with a similar challenge to that posed by Kosegarten in Geist der Liebe: the advent of love is depicted as a holy experience. Fellinger’s beloved, it seems, has a similar effect on him as a visitation from the Queen of Heaven. This was not an uncommon reaction among young Roman Catholic artists of the period (including Schubert himself). Although there is no doubt that Kosegarten is the better poet, and that Fellinger’s conflation of sacred and profane is somewhat kitsch, Schubert seems to have grasped the nettle to greater effect in setting the latter’s verses in exalted mood. Die erste Liebe, through-composed and of daring intensity, is one of the truly remarkable achievements of 1815, a real tenor song which, among other things, shows the composer’s increasing awareness of how to write effectively for the voice. This is not to deny that it is extremely difficult. The vocal line sits in a most demanding tessitura and seems to climb ever higher from vertiginous beginnings. It is little wonder that Diabelli chose to publish it in B flat (rather than C) in the Nachlass, and that a contemporary copy exists a third lower, in the key of A flat. The song is performed here in the original key of C major.

The whole of the first verse exists in a world of enchantment, an impression reinforced by the height of the tessitura (the ‘unbekannten Geisterlande’ soars up to an A) and the almost total absence of a tonic chord in the root position to earth the fluttering soul. (Note the triplets in the piano when this image is first broached at ‘die Seele gaukelt’). The second verse arrives as if it embodies a solution to the soul’s wanderings: a grandiose fanfare motif in the piano (we are in the presence of a goddess after all) is then taken up by the voice as if in canon (Berlioz used the same interval and rhythm for his ‘Reviens, reviens’ in Absence from Les nuits d’été). Here at last there is a root position C major chord in the left hand: it is as if the first verse has been mere introduction – no more than arioso – and that the real song could only begin with the dawning of the intimation of beauty and the tonal certainty of this motif. As if to remind us that such beauty is an immortal constant, this dotted rhythm pervades the accompaniment of the second verse, no doubt inspired by the word ‘Lichtgewande’. Just as Schubert often obsessively repeats certain motifs in his accompaniments associated with the workings of nature, and the shining of stars in particular, the repetition of octave E’s high in the accompaniment here signifies a quality of light, and vestal garments a-shimmer. The verse ends with a flowing triplet accompaniment to illustrate the days flowing by in songs of love. The third verse inhabits the vocal stratosphere, underpinned by those pulsating triplets which composers from Schubert to Wolf have taken to be a musical analogue for religious (or erotic) devotion and awe. As Einstein points out, the climax of the song at the end is ‘passionately exuberant’; it has a maturity and mastery which belies the youth of its creator. Schumann would not have considered these final bars (the repetition of ‘sie ist Meine!’) as old-fashioned; indeed, the final cadence and the postlude of triplets, murmuring their adoration in dying falls worthy of a fully-fledged composer of the romantic age, are strongly prophetic of the end of Schumann’s duet Er und sie. There the words ‘einen/eine’ seem to echo in the piano postlude as if still reverberating in the mind after the singing has finished. Die erste Liebe closes with similar pianistic musings on the words ‘die Meine!’.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1994


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Track 11 on CDJ33020 [2'57] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 5 on CDS44201/40 CD6 [2'57] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

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