About this work
How many songs did Schubert write on the subject of suicide? More than any other composer, that's certain. Even in his youth, Schubert seemed more than half "in love with easeful death," as Keats put it, and this love became more acute after he contracted syphilis in 1823: the song cycle Die schöne Müllerin of 1824 ends with the suicide of the cycle's protagonist, and the traveler of the Winterreise of 1827 seeks suicide but instead finds insanity. That Schubert died young of the self-inflicted wound of syphilis only makes his early infatuation with easeful death more bitterly and painfully ironic.
In his setting of Johann Mayrhofer's Freiwilliges Versinken (Voluntary Oblivion, D. 700), from September 1820, Schubert wrote one of the greatest suicide notes in all music. Mayrhofer, who was himself to commit suicide in 1836, took the image of the Greek sun god Helios, who daily drowns himself in the sea at sunset, as a poetic symbol for voluntary oblivion, or suicide. Schubert's setting of Freiwilliges Versinken follows the course of the sun as it sinks beneath slow and stately waves of harmonic motion. These harmonic waves are sketched in a hymn-like piano accompaniment, supporting and sustaining a vocal melody whose prodigious leaps are wholly integrated into a lingering legato flow. The melody falls gracefully and even gratefully into the depths of the singer's range. And yet even after the singer has fallen into silence, the piano alone floats benevolently upwards, a final image of the soul rising upwards into the blessed realm. So sublimely beautiful is Freiwilliges Versinken that one can comprehend being in love with easeful death.