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Meeres Stille, D215a

First line:
Tiefe Stille herrscht im Wasser
First version ; first published in 1952
author of text

The famous setting of this text (D216) was written on 21 June. It would be easy to mistake the version heard here, written the day before, as merely a preliminary sketch for that masterpiece. Without a very definite memory of the song, many a listener might even be seduced into thinking it is the same piece; although it starts a third higher and more or less stays there, it shares the key, movement and much of the accompaniment of the well-known version. It is, however, very different in a number of details, and is a masterpiece in its own right. As John Reed has pointed out, in lines three and four of the poem there is a greater feeling of chromatically engendered fear and anxiety, appropriate to depict a potentially dangerous, even fatal, emergency at sea. The version here is actually three bars longer, with two bars of interlude and one of postlude absent in D216. After having written such a beautiful and arresting song, it is a wonder that Schubert felt the need to improve on it the next day. That he did so is the greatest possible indication of an intense self-criticism not usually ascribed to him. He mercilessly pruned every superfluous note (including the interlude and postlude), every inessential movement of the vocal line, reducing the element of fear, perhaps, but adding to the inexorable majesty of the stillness of the scene. The first version is perfection, the second perfection of a different kind. The only possible improvement (and a highly important one) is the utter inevitability of the vocal line which rises and falls with the smallest effort and the greatest effectiveness; it is this refining of the already ultimately refined which confers immortality on a song.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1989


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