About this work
Schubert's songs were infrequently contrapuntal. Sometimes the piano accompaniment would provide a countermelody to the vocal melody, but this was more in the nature of a duet than line against line counterpoint and, in the overwhelming majority of cases, Schubert songs were melodies accompanied by homophonic piano parts. But in his March 1819 setting of his close friend Johann Mayrhofer's An die Freunde (To the Friends) (D. 654), Schubert did in fact compose a truly contrapuntal song. The whole first verse is simply a curving vocal line arching high above a pizzicato-like bass line in the left hand of the piano. In the second verse, a second alto line in the piano's right hand joins the proceedings. But at the final line of the second verse -- "This is all nothing to the dead" -- the piano plays its first chords, which blossom into the third and final verse's accompanied cantilena.
The contrapuntal nature of the song, however, is a mere technicality compared with the emotional effect of the counterpoint. Like so many of Schubert's greatest pieces, An die Freunde starts in A minor and ends in A major. And like so many of Mayrhofer's poems, this one is about death. The combination of the beauty of the vocal melody, the strictness of the counterpoint, and the sublimnity of the modulation make An die Freunde one of Schubert's most moving songs.