About this work
Most composers would be happy to get done in half a year (if not longer) the quantity of work that Schubert managed to get done in just the first half of the month of July 1815. Between July 1 and July 15, Schubert finished the Singspiel Fernando (he would begin another Singspiel before the end of the month), composed a hymn for choir and piano, finished the Symphony No. 3 in D that he had begun in the last week of May, and put to paper no fewer than 12 Lieder -- 13 if we count the Salve regina in F, D. 223 for soprano, organ, and orchestra. These Lieder came out in great gushes of creativity: four were written on July 7, and four on July 5 (including the Salve regina). It is to the July 5 foursome that one of Schubert's best-known early songs, the first Wandrers Nachtlied (Wanderer's Night Song), D. 224, belongs.
Like so many of Schubert's famous songs of 1815 -- including Erlkönig, the work that more than any other made his name a household word -- Wandrers Nachtlied I (so-called to distinguish it from the Wandrers Nachtlied II of 1824, a setting of an entirely different poem) takes its text from the poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The poem, written by Goethe in 1776, is brief but powerful; it is the prayer of a worn-out, long-suffering traveler, a man who calls up to God begging for peace.
Schubert sets this single stanza of text (really a single sentence) in ten broad measures of G flat major, to which a single measure of music for the solo piano acts as a kind of cadential benediction. Langsam, mit Ausdruck (Slow, with expression) is the indication at the top of the score. The rhythm of each line of text is steady and, with two vital exceptions at the end of the song, virtually unchanging; the accompaniment, on the other hand, unfolds in a continually developing array of colors, from the hymn-like homophony of the first two bars to cloud-puff offbeats and some more hurried sixteenth notes. But they are still dignified -- however pained our supplicant may be, there is no room for anything frantic in the song; indeed, one might say that the music has already achieved the peacefulness that the text begs for. The last line of text -- "Sweet peace, come, oh come into my heart" -- is sung twice to the same music, the first time beginning pianissimo and growing quieter still, the second time commencing with greater strength only to almost immediately dissolve into the tenderest kind of sotto voce, after which anything but the piano's gentle "amen" would seem a rude intrusion.