Untitled (1969) - Mark Rothko
Untitled (1969) - M. Rothko
 
After 2013, the year of Wagner and Britten, and 2014, the Year of Strauss, here is 2015, the Year of Sibelius and Schubert. We'll have some posts about Sibelius (it's about time!) to celebrate his 150th birth anniversary but we'll especially devote ourselves to Schubert (surprise, surprise!). We won’t commemorate any round anniversary of his birth or death but the bicentennial of his "year of miracles": during 1815, Schubert composed almost one hundred and fifty songs. We opened the celebrations in November, listening to a less-known Lied dated that year, Furcht der Geliebten; today we're listening to one of the most well-known Wandrers Nachtlied I (Wanderer's Nightsong I)

Schubert started from a poem by Goethe, as many other times in 1815. It's a short poem, only eight verses, written in 1776. The first verse reminds us of the beginning of the Lord's Prayer in German ("Vater unser, der du bist im Himmel") and, indeed, the poem is a prayer; the wanderer is praying for peace, to feel relieved from the fatigue of a hectic life. One interpretation of this poem suggests that peace refers to death, but the poem could also talk about the need to soothe the sense of unease with peace of mind. I prefer this second interpretation, perhaps because in this 21th century, we all know about stress and the urgency of finding some inner peace.

Schubert only needed eleven measures to write a great song with this poem. If you read it, you'll see that it can be divided in three parts: the first four verses praise God for his mercy; at the fifth and sixth the wanderer expresses his concern and the last two are the prayer: fill my heart with peace! That's the outline that Schubert follows (in fact, it's me who follows Schubert’s outline). The melody in the first and second verses is the same; the one of the third and fourth are very similar. However, what really draws our attention is that the four verses (every verse corresponding to a measure) repeat the same rhythm pattern, that's to say, the duration of the notes (except for a small modification at the end of the last one). This way Schubert conveys a feeling of spiritual retreat. During this four verses, as the piano keeps on changing, we are able to feel the restlessness of the wanderer.

Let's see the fifth and sixth verses. We hear the restlessness in the initial lament that, though quite moderate, contrast to the previous serenity; then the voice goes quieter in the last verses and again, the piano shows us the true feelings of the wanderer despite his apparent calm. As we said before, the final prayer arrives, and Schubert reinforces the request (and the song, because this phrase is a jewel) by adding a repetition. And the eleventh measure? It's a short postlude.

Do you know what Schubert did the 5th of July when he finished writing this song? Write three more songs. Yes, I know I'm talking about the apple of my eyes and I'm biased, but I take my hat off. And he was only 18...

Wandrers Nachtlied I is an exquisite Lied. I don't know if it's one of those that arouses fondness but I think, it perfectly describes what a lied is and how a poem can melt into music. I hope you enjoy the version I chose as much as I do; the baritone Florian Boesch sings accompanied by Roger Vignoles.
 
Wandrers Nachtlied I
 
Der du von dem Himmel bist,
Alles Leid und Schmerzen stillst,
Den, der doppelt elend ist,
Doppelt mit Entzückung füllst,
Ach, ich bin des Treibens müde!
Was soll all der Schmerz und Lust?
Süsser Friede,
Komm, ach komm in meine Brust!
You who are from heaven,
You quiet all sorrow and pain;
And he who is doubly wretched
You fill with twice as much [comfort]1.
Ah! I am tired of being driven!
For what is all this pain and joy?
Sweet peace,
Come, ah, come into my heart!

(translation by Emily Ezust)

 
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