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Sometimes, in order to perform a piece imaginatively, artists invent a scenario about what is happening in the poem, a story that cannot be proved one way or the other (Lotte Lehmann was particularly expert in this regard). A possible explanation for the background to this song is the poet's return visit to a home town which has become somewhat idealised by time and distance (in such a way do many of us imagine our banal beginnings and background to be more wonderful than would an impartial observer). The poet is in the company of a friend from elsewhere, for is it not, after all, perfectly normal to want to share our home town and the haunts of our childhood with new friends and lovers? It has been a long time since he has visited this place, but nothing has changed. Everything is as it was. Because the travellers have arrived at night, no-one in the village as yet knows of the return of the native. It is a perfect opportunity to stand above the town which nestles in a valley and point out all the landmarks which have become cocooned in a golden glow of memory. Schubert has written the vocal line and accompaniment in such an intimate way as to suggest that all the questions along the lines of 'Do you see this or that?' are not merely rhetorical but are addressed to someone specific at the poet's elbow. So overwhelming is the sense of sharing in this music, so intimate and heartfelt the communication, that love seems to flow in all directions—love for the Heimat and its beauty in the moonlight, love between the narrator and the objects of his affections, and thus love between voice and piano.
The accompaniment reflects not only 'the moon-flecked river ripples and the glistening willow leaves' (Capell) but also 'an abundant fullness of heart' (Einstein). The piano writing swells and surges at certain moments, and at others is as sensitive to the tiniest inflection of ever-changing mood as a silver bromide photographic plate. Look for example at how after words like 'Sternenpracht' (Verse 1) and 'wie der Schall' (Verse 8) the piano echoes the notes of the vocal line—B flat, E flat and back to B flat—in close imitation and shy diminution; how the siren song floating through the air after the last line of Verse 3 ('locket durch die Luft') suddenly becomes even more alluring by abandoning (only for three beats) octaves in favour of euphonious sixths; how in one of the comparatively rare visual puns in Schubert's Lieder, the friend's roof (Verse 5) is painted on the page by a succession of repeated F's, as tightly and evenly packed as black thatch (the only passage when the piano stays on one note for any length of time) underneath which is sheltered a bass line which seems to have been written for somnolent horns (the only time the left hand moves in quavers rather than semiquavers) whose music rises and falls as gently as a sleeping man's breath. It is quite extraordinary how at the beginnings of Verses 4, 5 and 6 (each beginning with the narrator's finger pointing at something new in a different direction) the composer uses changes of harmony to vary camera shot and angle as we zoom in on a new detail in the panorama. The final verse as it returns to the home key of E flat seems to gather up the energy of the preceding seven verses ('Drum auch winkt's'—'That is why and how I've been drawn back here'). At the very end, the sounds of true love (those beguiling sixths make a final appearance) seem to make the poet re-focus his gaze from the distance and turn to someone much nearer, the only ornamentation in the vocal line being a tender turn at the last moment. He seems to realise that this picture of nature has become even more beautiful and meaningful because of the tender empathy he has found by his side.
The incessant flow of semiquavers in this accompaniment puts us in mind of Der Winterabend, and of course both pieces are about memory and nostalgia; both tug at the heart-strings by suggesting that in order to reach the state of contentment and comfortable accommodation with life that pours out of this music there must have been much learning, and some tears, along the way. As in Der Wanderer an den Mond there is a strong suggestion of healing, of rediscovering a truth, or a set of values, that has been obscured by greed and ambition, or perhaps the stress of life in the city. If one were to imagine both Der Wanderer an den Mond and Im Freien linked to the story of the same traveller, a passage from Dickens's Great Expectations comes to mind, when Pip, chastened by life's misfortunes, returns at last to his childhood home:
'I thought all that countryside more beautiful and peaceful by far than I had ever known it to be yet. Many pleasant pictures of the life that I would lead there, and the change for the better that would come over my character … beguiled my way. They awakened a tender emotion in me; for my heart was softened by my return, and such a change had come to pass, that I felt like one who was toiling home barefoot from distant travel, and whose wanderings had lasted many years.'
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1992
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