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Der Knabe in der Wiege 'Wiegenlied', D579

First line:
Er schläft so süss, der Mutter Blicke hangen
Autumn 1817; published in 1872
author of text

All the commentators call this piece a lullaby, which on reading the poem it may seem to be. But Schubert is always capable of finding a deeper musical key to a poem than is at first obvious, and in this case the main emotion is one of sheer delight. The marking 'etwas lebhaft', the two in a bar time signature, and the phrasing of the right hand quavers, ending each group of three with a staccato, suggest to me that the song is sung from the parents' point of view, rather than the sleeping child's. In any case the child is already asleep, although he probably wakes up on the words 'Erwachst du Kleiner' at the end of the song. The major clue in determining the mood and speed is to do with singing. Take the phrase 'an ihres lieblings leisem Atemzug' (very appropriately to do with breath!). At a slow lullaby speed there is no singer I know who, in this tessitura, could do this happily (and the song is essentially about happiness) in one breath. Young Ottenwalt was not yet a father when he wrote these words, but his longing to have a wife and family is apparent. In one of the seemingly endless examples of empathy of which Schubert was capable, composer matches poet in his musing day-dream of idealised family life. The rhythm may give us the rock of a cradle once in every bar, but we hear much more: because it is the proud (prospective) father who is painting this picture, we hear his elation and his participation in the new adventure of parenthood which can lure a hard-hearted man into the most indulgent and sentimental of excesses. Above all this is the music of a man proud to have a son, and the sex of the child is suggested by a certain jauntiness in the accompaniment. (How different is the music for the Seidl Wiegenlied which seems to me definitely to be written for a girl-child.) As a foil to the masculine side of the music we hear the father's infinitely tender concern in the smoothness and sweetness of the vocal line. The smile of the parents, the smile of the child, the simplicity of the harmony mirroring one of life's primal pleasures (the key is as basic as C major) all combine to make a song which in lesser hands would have fallen into the trap of Biedermeier tweeness. Of Ottenwalt's ten verses we perform four (two verses of the poem make up one of the song), and it is doubtful if Schubert intended more to be performed. The second version of the song is in A flat, transposed down probably at the earnest request of singers in the Schubert circle, but there is no doubt that the original key conveys better the heady emotion of first-time parenthood.

In October 1817 Anton Ottenwalt wrote a letter from his home town of Linz to his future brother-in-law Josef von Spaun, which includes the lines 'Schubert … has given me great pleasure by having a go at one of my poems. I greatly look forward to hearing the song soon'. Spaun was Schubert's dearest friend, and in marrying into the Spaun family it was inevitable that Ottenwalt should get to know Schubert. He was, according to Deutsch 'sensitive, serious, somewhat awkward and good-hearted'. Outside Vienna, and in the composer's lifetime, Linz was the most important centre of burgeoning Schubert enthusiasm (Graz was to follow suit later). Ottenwalt was at the centre of this unofficial fan club. He was already a published poet, and Schubert seems to have set this text at Spaun's suggestion.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1990


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