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Der Taucher, D111

First line:
Wer wagt es, Rittersmann oder Knapp
Second version. 17 September 1813 – 5 April 1814; published in 1831
author of text

Schubert's experiments with opera in the home are still much misunderstood and undervalued. The miracle of compression and distillation which the composer achieves in his songs of two or three pages was made possible by his apprenticeship in the 'song theatre'—which is to say the enormous ballads of the earlier years of his career. We here see Schubert in his workshop, sleeves rolled up, stage managing every aspect of scene change and lighting. Like the Shakespeare of the early histories he is learning here how to combine the art of storytelling with the creation of believable characters. But perhaps a more modern analogy suits Schubert's talents better, for in composing operas of the imagination he was actually a pioneer of film techniques. Cutting and splicing, crowd scenes, special effects, long shots and zoom lens close-ups, miraculously instantaneous scene changes, all these are to be found in Schubert's ballads. A certain lack of dramatic drive and pacing makes Schubert's real operas failures in the theatre; he gets stuck in scenes from which, in a ballad, he could extricate himself in a trice. So much of his music deals with emotion in close-up and tiny yet telling nuances, that it is little wonder that he found the conventions of opera too clumsy and inhibiting. His unique gift for the making of magic would have responded better to fast-moving film scripts than to wooden libretti which preserve the Unities. Der Taucher (with a bit of Hollywood rewriting and a happy ending) would be a fit subject for an Indiana Jones movie directed by Steven Spielberg. It has everything: a villainous tyrant, a pretty and compassionate princess, whirlpools and sea-monsters, and a young hero whose Superman powers desert him for the finale. If there is a worldwide demand for escapist films of this kind today, it is easy to understand why Schubert's century, less saturated with visual images and push-button spectacle, responded with enthusiasm to pieces like this one, which is literally a cliff-hanger. The story is told as seriously as Spielberg tells his, but one should not forget that such melodrama is meant to be fun. Suspense, and laughter at the suspense, have always gone hand in hand. Schubert worked very hard at writing and rewriting this piece over two years. Diabelli's posthumous first edition took as its basis Schubert's first version (D77) and grafted on the big piano interlude from the second version. This compromise was reprinted in the Peters' Edition and was recorded by Fischer-Dieskau and Moore.

Schubert's second thoughts (D111—as published in the Neue Schubert Ausgabe and recorded here) are superior in many details, above all in use of silence at dramatic points and in greater use of contrasting dynamics. Schubert also discards old-fashioned mannerisms and compresses passages into recitative which hang fire as long-winded arioso in the first version. Schiller's twenty-seven-verse epic, perhaps based on an early version of the Beowulf saga, was written in the year of the composer's birth.

Verses 1, 2: The king strides centre stage in imperious recitative; the falling piano interjections, followed by a motif which mirrors the music in the opposite direction, outline his idea of a game with a human retriever.

Verses 3, 4: The narrator takes over. We see/hear the king's milling entourage and their astonishment as he hurls the cup into the abyss. His challenge is met by a bar of cowed silence (an inspired amendment of earlier ideas), then follows the tentative music of the frightened entourage. The hero emerges supported by clean, naïve chords. The chromatically rising interlude suggests the court's disbelief and astonishment.

Verses 5-7: The horror of the challenge is grimly outlined in the sort of music which served the cause of melodrama (including silent film accompaniment) for more than a century afterwards. The seething C minor whirlpool music at the beginning of 6 is a major structural force in the song. As the waters momentarily subside the music thins out and the yawning rift is revealed as an empty chord of cavernous wide-open semibreves in C flat major.

Verses 8, 9: Recitative hurries the story along. As the youth takes the plunge an unexpected diminished chord in the treble register screams on behalf of the frightened women. This is followed by waiting and suspense; demisemiquavers hover menacingly around the same few bass notes.

Verses 10-12: The chorus rates the hero's chance at nought. (In D77 Schubert had made this scene lyrical with arioso to little dramatic effect.) The waters begin to surge up again in a gradual chromatic spiral and this leads to a recapitulation of the music of 6.

Verse 13: The appearance of a white hand and then, bit by bit, the rest of the diver, is supremely dramatic. Schumann must have known this passage, for the writing on the wall by a disembodied hand in Belsazar (in a section also beginning 'Und sieh') is depicted in similar ascending chromaticism. Then comes the music of triumph ('Und er ists!') as the crowd greets the returning hero.

Verse 14: or the young man this is a holy moment. The harmonies breathe deep and long with him in gratitude for life. This music is forte in D77, but here its hushed radiance provides a moment of respite in the ballad's hurly-burly.

Verses 15, 16: Recitative leads the youth to the king's feet and to a sight of the beautiful princess. Unlike D77 where the exhausted boy somehow manages an unlikely formal aria, free recitative here propels the story forward.

Verses 17- 20: As his story-telling warms up, so does the music. This is the heart of the work. As he describes the goblet on the coral reef, it hangs precariously on the vocal line; it is as if too much movement from the performers will dislodge it. The ominous music of the monsters of the deep waiting for him below slithers in oily passage-work; no mercurial semiquavers here, only massive caterpillar shapes on the page, two bars long. This music of sinuous menace culminates in a vision of the hammer-headed shark whose presence is painted by hammer blows in the left hand of the piano part.

Verses 21, 22: He hangs on for dear life (no tremolando in Schubert is more pregnant with fear). The youth's solitude is depicted in hushed music reverberating in the void. Time stands still in a blur of Adagio semiquavers anchored by the tolling notes of the bass. It is the calm before the storm. The catharsis of one more terrifying verse (the most agitated vocal line in the piece) is needed for the youth to describe how he was delivered back to mankind, borne on the crest of a wave. The court receives the tale in stunned silence (as indeed they might!). The restraint of this section is particularly superior to the grandiloquent passage of D77.

Verses 23, 24: The youth's descriptions have been fatally fascinating. The king wants more information about the depths, and the game is changed to double or nothing. The princess tugs at the sleeve of the tyrant with music of telling sweetness, begging for mercy on the youth's behalf. The intimate pleading of Wolfs Nun lass uns Frieden schliessen comes to mind.

Verse 25: The music of 2 returns. The last line of the king's recitative gave Schubert great trouble. In earlier versions he makes the king sing his final words tenderly. Here a brutal modulation gives them a contemptuous irony. Suddenly we can see that paternal jealousy has played a part in his cruelty.

Verse 26: Inflamed by the girl's beauty and her swoon, the youth throws himself again into the abyss. The massive piano interlude (Prestissimo) recalls Gruppe aus dem Tartarus in its diabolical energy. As if this masculine music is not exceptional enough Schubert then writes a feminine counterpart—an exceptionally beautiful wordless vignette of the princess's grief. It is surely this tearful passage that Einstein had in mind when he described the harmonic resources of Der Taucher as far in advance of Schubert's time: 'there is nothing like them until we reach the Wagner of Tristan and The Ring'.

Verse 27: The seething music of 6 and 12 now reappears transposed into the D minor of Schubert's dangerous journeys that end in death. The inevitable outcome is described, accompanied by water music which is now the background to a requiem postlude. Again immeasurably superior to D77, this elegy has an oboe-like tune floating above the semiquavers like a wreath thrown on a watery grave.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1988


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/40Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 2 - Stephen Varcoe


Track 13 on CDJ33002 [24'50]
Track 1 on CDS44201/40 CD3 [24'50] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

Track-specific metadata for CDJ33002 track 13

Recording date
18 October 1987
Recording venue
Seldon Hall, Haberdashers' Aske's School, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Antony Howell
Hyperion usage
  1. Schubert: The Complete Songs (CDS44201/40)
    Disc 3 Track 1
    Release date: October 2005
    Deletion date: July 2021
    Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
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