This song has the distinction of being the first complete Matthisson setting. After the failures of the two attempts at Der Geistertanz
, Schubert evidently decided to eschew Zumsteeg's manner and invent something new for the Matthisson poems. In Die Schatten
he attempts to build a bridge between what he has learned in his composition exercises in Italian for Salieri, and the world of contemporary German poetry. The perfection of Gretchen am Spinnrade
was not achieved without practice; Die Schatten
is one of the first steps toward the cultivation of the hybrid that we have come to accept as typically Schubertian—the old German declamation from the rigid North is infused with the warm blood of the South. Here is a tune with curves and shapes and fioriture; a flexible vocal line is supported by strong basses, and a sensuous flow. Like Der Vatermörder
the vocal line lies perilously high—the composer had not yet enough experience of voices to write considerately for them. (It is little wonder that there is another copy of the song in the Witticzek-Spaun collection in the more accessible key of F major; here we perform it, as Schubert first imagined it, in A major.) The fifteen-year-old composer also makes life difficult for himself by choosing as a text an occasional poem for the death of the poet's friend Charles Bonnet (1720-1793); he was a distinguished botanist and good friend to Matthisson, but a French surname set to music seems the wrong sort of surprise in the context of a Lied. Schubert was later to discover Goethe and choose poems which had universal human significance, however occasional their origin. The unusual vocabulary (Hieroglyphs!—presumably topical because the Rosetta Stone had been discovered by Napoleon's troops as recently as 1799) and the Sapphic metre, tricky to render into musical phrases of equal length, gave the composer further problems. All in all Die Schatten
is a strange song which nevertheless has something lyrical and ethereal about it due to the unearthly tessitura, some beautiful modulations which are beginning to be Schubert's trademark and the shape of the phrases which unfold asymmetrically. The latter characteristic, the result of turning poetry into prose, makes the song sound improvised and invented on the spot. The flowing quavers in the right hand accompaniment, as they support and propel the vocal line, are on the point of sounding genuinely Schubertian. There is a faster and louder middle section for verse 3, and a wistful ending in which the words 'Himmlische Sehnsucht' have a passion and dying fall worthy of Italian bel canto.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991