About this work
However soiled Anton Salieri's reputation may be these days -- he has suffered all kinds of historical injustices throughout the last two centuries, perhaps the most notable being his role as a murderer in Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Mozart and Salieri, a fiction still clung to by countless armchair musicologists -- and however generally unappreciated his contributions to the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- century music scene may be, we can at least still note with satisfaction that Salieri's best-known pupil, Franz Schubert, held him in high esteem indeed. By 1821, Schubert's star was beginning to rise and the first published volumes of his music -- at first entirely made up of his seemingly countless Lieder, the only genre for which he was famous during his short lifetime -- began to appear. One of these 1821 volumes, the Opus 5 group of four songs composed to texts of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is dedicated by the composer to Salieri, possibly in part because each of the songs contained within it was composed during 1815, Schubert's second-to-last year under Salieri's tutelage. The third Lied of the Opus 5 volume, Der Fischer (D. 225), was written by Schubert on July 5, 1815, one day in a productive week that saw the composition of nine individual Lieder. Schubert revised the song slightly sometime during the next half-year and included it in a bunch of songs sent to Goethe for the poet's inspection (Goethe was unmoved by Schubert's efforts and returned the songs, to the young composer's dismay but not his disillusionment), and it is this second version that today is most often heard.
Goethe's ballad, written in 1778 or 1779, tells in four stanzas the story of a fisherman's encounter with a water-nymph. By the end of the poem, the fisherman has succumbed to the charms of the nymph and the temptation of the deep sea; he drowns and is never seen again.
Schubert sets the poem in pure strophic fashion, the same sixteen measures of song being used for each of the stanzas; two measures of music for the piano alone wrap things up at the end of each stanza, and act as a little coda after the whole tale has been told. While there is indeed action in the poem -- during the final stanza the fisherman is "half dragged" into the water -- Goethe maintains a more-or-less placid tone throughout, and so Schubert's strophic design never seems at odds with the text (as it occasionally does in other Lieder from these first few years of production). The singer's folk-like B flat major tune is supported by a lilting accompaniment in 2/4 meter; in the second version of the song, Schubert provides some sparkling mordents in bars four and eight. The warm, simple cadence of the little piano codetta at the end of each stanza helps remind us that this is a tale as much suited to a child's storytime as to the concert-hall.