Although Schubert almost certainly set this poem as early as 1817, it was published later in Beiträge zur Bildung für Jünglinge
, a type of Boys' Own Paper edited by Mayrhofer. This boatman is a role-model for the young of brave, manly behaviour in which Biedermeier morals comfortably meet Victorian values. The heroes of the English boys' paper would probably have suited the mood of rising German nationalism in Schubert's time. Wyndham Lewis described them thus: 'Tough conquering Nordics ... crammed with experience and philosophy... blundering through trackless forests and lethal swamps foiling villains of Latin origin'. Illustrations depicted these gallants in heroic profile, resolute, good looking, in control of life's tempests - in short all the things which this poet and this composer were not, but perhaps would have liked to be. Mayrhofer's passionate espousal of the ideals of Greek antiquity provides another clue to his desired self-image. He casts himself in this poem as a hero worthy of the Sacred Band. The wish-fulfilment fantasy of this picture perhaps robs us of the complete engagement we feel when a poem allows Schubert to create more vulnerable characters. But there is no doubt that this is a splendid piece of bravura, a good 'sing' composed, as Einstein says, 'in a single stroke'. In Der Strom
, from the same year, the poet's life is compared with the water's erratic meanderings; in Der Schiffer
the water, powerfully though it rages, is powerless to alter the boatman's course. Man is on the way to taming nature. The harmonic clashes on 'ich peitsche die Wellen' (and equivalent places) are particularly fine and there is yet another new piano figuration for water music, this time a wild force held on a tight leash by human willpower. Schubert responds magnificently to this set-piece challenge, and yet it must be said that the greatest Mayrhofer songs develop and change in their course, something which is denied to this single-minded tableau. If these words have a hollow ring to them it is because Mayrhofer's battle against the elements (or more particularly, the elements in society which he despised) was a Walter Mitty fantasy: however much he tried on the costume, Mayrhofer was no intrepid boatman. He never quite dared to stand openly against the prejudice and narrow mindedness of his times, and was even forced to work at a later date for the most authoritarian of employers, the Imperial Censor's office. The frustrations of Mayrhofer, the tender revolutionary, seem obvious to us now but these resentments lay hidden from most of his contemporaries, festering in his troubled mind. Writing subversive poetry like this (acceptable to the censor who of course wrongly assumed the boatman upheld traditional values) was a means of escape and release.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1988