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Der Reiter und der Bodensee, WoO11 No 1

11 November 1840; fragment first published in the Peters Yearbook of 1897
author of text

Schwab wrote a number of poems concerning the legends surrounding the Bodensee, that marvel of nature (known to English speakers as Lake Constance) situated in a geographical triangle which includes the borders of Switzerland, Germany and Austria. There are twenty-four further couplets to this celebrated ballad, and the remainder of the story is easily told. In the midst of this flat, snowy terrain the rider spies the twinkling lights of an inn in the far distance. Spurring his horse on he arrives at the house and, without dismounting, asks directions of the girl at the window. He wishes to cross the lake – which way to the boat? She tells him that he has already traversed the frozen Bodensee. The house is at the edge of the water, and if it were not for the layer of ice she would be greeting his arrival on the boat which lies deep beneath him. The village is summoned: everyone regards the visitor with wonder. No-one can believe that the crust of ice has survived the pounding hooves of his horse: he is the luckiest man alive. He should have been the victim of a terrible accident, drowned and eaten by pikes – the lake is some 250 metres deep. Young and old in the village (perhaps this is the old town of Lindau, situated on an island which projects into the Bodensee) beg him to dismount and eat with them. He is oblivious to their kindness. Shocked and benumbed he can think only of the danger he has survived; he realises that he is still sitting above the ice-cold depths. He imagines himself swallowed up in that chasm; the sound of cracking ice thunders in his ears, his own sweat drenches him in waves. He falls dead from his horse. Buried high and dry on the bank of the lake, he has been spared a watery grave at least; but he died a death in imagining it.

Schumann would have appreciated the ironies of this poem, including the idea of heroic deeds undertaken unwittingly. The phenomenon of being terrified in retrospect is worthy of Jean Paul. The hypochondriac in him would wish to be reminded that death comes at unusual times, seldom in the ways one fears; also that courage and determination go hand in hand with foolhardiness, and little can be accomplished if one weighs up every danger in advance.

Unfortunately the poem is un-manageable as the composer chose to set it – ‘Sehr langsam’ (Very slow). He makes the same mistake as in Die nächtliche Heerschau: the poem is too long to allow him the luxury of using so few words in such an extended musical space. The composer who would have managed such a ballad was Carl Loewe (that composer’s single Schwab setting, Kaiser Heinrichs Waffenweihe, is a marvel). As far as Schumann is concerned, the loss of momentum in the story-telling is fatal, and it is not helped by the poem being cast in portentous couplets. At the thundering pace of Schubert’s Erlkönig, it might have worked differently.

Ballad style for Schumann meant music that was slow, as if spoken by a great actor (cf Die Löwenbraut, Blondels Lied, and Die rote Hanne on this disc). Added to this, he specifies a bass voice which adds the problem of a lugubrious tessitura. We are scarcely aware that the song opens with a night ride; this is a frozen horse in slow-motion. The piano doubles the voice, the eerily anonymous landscape cast in the open whiteness of C major. Dogged determination is also clearly conveyed: the rider is not to be deterred from his mission, and he will get to that boat by nightfall, come what may. The shivering motifs in the piano interludes are effective, but rather heavyhanded. We can only assume that Schumann intended to tighten the tension later. At ‘Der Weg wird eben, die Bahn wird glatt’ the flat expanses stretching out before the rider are cleverly conveyed by a vocal line fixed on G for no less than eight bars. (It is only revealed much later in the poem – not set by Schumann – that this huge open space is the frozen lake.) In terms of mood setting it is an effective beginning. But there is simply too much remaining text for Schumann to contemplate the journey. Lacking the foolhardiness of his heroic victim, he turns back. The ice remains uncracked, and so does the musical problem.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2003


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Track 29 on CDJ33108 [2'40] Last few CD copies remaining
Track 8 on CDS44441/50 CD5 [2'40] 10CDs Boxed set (at a special price)

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