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The poem, as Goethe set it out, is in three strophes – two octaves on either side of a quatrain. For the purposes of this commentary it has been divided into five verses which correspond to Schubert's musical treatment of the poem. The vocal line of the first verse is a marvel and the epitome of outdoor music; we can hear great breaths of fresh air taken in to sustain the tenacious arpeggios which sweep up and down across the stave and which follow the poet's confident and grateful gaze; he is king of all he surveys. Johannes Brahms must have been influenced by this mood (also perhaps by the key of E major of this song's first version which he could have known in manuscript) for his song with the same title to a text by Simrock. The second verse brings a slight change of weather in the accompaniment. This is triggered by the words 'Die Welle wieget unsern Kahn', reminiscent of 'auf den wiegenden Wellen' in Auf dem Wasser zu singen. The songs were written some six years apart and yet the response to the image of cradling water is somewhat similar: here the interplay between the left-hand quavers and the syncopated right-hand figure produces a pulsation of semiquavers as the winds rise and the water of the lake become more choppy. This motif is cleverly adapted to reflect the grandeur of the cloud-capped mountains. A short piano interlude leads us away from the natural wonders and into the poet's mind. The composer inserts an eloquent full bar's rest here before we go deeper into Goethe's unconscious in the third verse. On 'Aug', mein Aug, was sinkst du nieder' we find ourselves in the relative minor with pairs of left hand quavers simulating the pounding heartbeats that accompany the involuntary return of a sweet and painful memories. The mind weaves golden dreams in the dominant key of B flat, and what could be more perfect to depict this than a canon between vocal line and piano where strands of wistful melody, separated by the distance of a bar, stretch out to each other and overlap at the edges? These musings are peremptorily banished as voice and piano, reined in from their separate wanderings, return to their common purpose – the celebration of the here-and-now. The phrase 'Hier auch lieb und Leben ist' is heard twice – harmonised for the first time to end in G minor as if to suggest just a shadow of regret, and the second time, with much greater conviction, making up its mind in B flat major. This repetition, and the slight hesitation of resolve it implies, is a superb example of a composer adding an extra layer of meaning to words which appear only once on the printed page.
We are now led back to the opening key of E flat and the final section is a miracle – nature opening up to the gaze of the poet who is now free of care; it is a moto perpetuo, related of course to the sublime stars a-dancing music in 2/4 of Die Sterne (Leitner). In this section are united all the thematic strands of this recital: stars, water, wind and the ripening fruit on the shore. The interplay of the voice and the alto line of the accompaniment in thirds at 'Morgenwind umflügelt', (cheeky syncopations in soprano and tenor lines emphasising the playfulness) summons up a mischievous putto and the most insinuating zephyr at his command. This, Goethe's final verse, is set only once. Schubert returns to the penultimate strophe for his peroration and waves and stars have seldom had such a wealth of loving musical detail lavished upon them. The final 'Welle' rises and breaks on the higher shores of the stave, and the final word 'Sterne' is set as a long note followed by a figuration – a four note phrase in the manner of a turn – that almost seems to represent the flourish of a signature. In fact that is exactly what it is. It was Maurice Brown who pointed out that in many of the songs the composer uses a “little fioriture to illustrate his poet's reference to natural objects”. As Schubert bids farewell to the stars of this song, he imprints them with this affectionate parting caress. The postlude is simple but is somehow suffused with satisfaction and gratitude. It is interesting to compare this song with Carl Loewe's not inconsiderable (but very different) setting of 1836.
The story of Goethe's passion for Mariannne von Willemer is a late chapter in a long life governed by an extraordinary succession of amative influences: Annette Schönkopf (Leipzig), Friederike Brion (Sesenheim), Charlotte Buff (Wetzlar), Lili Schönemann (Frankfurt), Charlotte von Stein, Corona Schröter and Christiane Vulpius (all three in Weimar, and the latter eventually his wife). In terms of significant new female friends in his life, only the painful and embarrassing episode of Ulrike von Levetzow in Marienbad postdates that of the Willemer liaison (if a relationship may be termed thus when its consummation was highly unlikely.) The meeting with Marianne coincided with the poet's visit to the Rhineland in 1814 and his interest in the poetry of the Persian poet Hafiz (c1325-c1390) whose work had been recently translated by the Austrian Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall (1774-1856). Marianne Jung (as she still when the poet first met her) was of uncertain origin; dark of complexion and attractive she had come to Frankfurt in a theatrical troupe at the age of 14; Goethe's character Mignon comes as powerfully to our minds as it must have to the poet's when he heard the story of Marianne's early life. Two years later (1800) she was taken under the wing of the Frankfurt banker J J Willemer who educated her with his own children. The meeting with Goethe took place when Willemer and Marianne (aged 30 by this time) visited Goethe in Wiesbaden, a few weeks before their marriage – the banker's third. The poet was strongly attracted to her, and she to him; Goethe visited the couple at their summer home once before their marriage and again a fortnight afterwards. Almost a year later (August 1815) he returned to see the Willemers, and they spent three days with him in Heidelberg in the September of that year. A correspondence had been initiated in which Marianne was dubbed 'Suleika' and was wooed by her distinguished new friend in the guise of the venerable 'Hatem'. Thus although Goethe and Marianne were in personal contact from time to time during only a fourteen month period (and we are not certain whether her husband was an effective chaperone) their main communication was literary. The correspondence between them lasted to the end of Goethe's life and masked a fact of which no-one was aware until after the poet's death: Marianne von Willemer had so fully entered unto the spirit of Goethe's oriental game that she herself had written highly skilful replies (as 'Suleika') to the 'Hatem' poems. These were taken into the collection published in 1819 by Goethe (under the title of West Östlicher Divan) as if he himself had penned them. Of the two Suleika poems set to music by Schubert (Schumann and Wolf set others) the first was written on the way to see Goethe in Heidelberg in September 1815 (thus the 'hohe Mauern' are the walls of that old and picturesque city), and the second on the way back. It is true that the poet changed a few details in Marianne's poems (not always for the better) but he must have regarded this unacknowledged collaboration as the greatest literary compliment (discrete perhaps because of both her marriage and his) he was able to pay to a fellow artist. Marianne herself seems also to have been proud of their joint deception; the truth was revealed only after Goethe's death – too late for Schubert himself to be aware whose words he was really setting.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1993
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