About this work
In July 1815, 18-year-old Franz Schubert put to paper the first of two Lieder that go by the title Wandrers Nachtlied (Wanderer's Night-Song); sometime between seven and nine years later he crafted another of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's poems into this, the second Wandrers Nachtlied, D. 768, also known as Op. 96, No. 3. The distance traveled between these two equally-famous songs can hardly be expressed. In length, rhythm, and texture, the two songs are uncannily similar; that the later song is the superior effort, however, is immediately clear to anyone hearing the two next to one another. The 1815 Lied is a work of simple beauty -- Goethe's rich, intricate text obviously speaks to Schubert, but the composer cannot always find the right fold of musical fabric, that perfect twist of phrase by which either to encapsulate or to open up the text. By 1824, Schubert has achieved things in the realm of song that some would say nobody has since even approached, and he seems to have been passionately interested in recreating the early Nachtlied in his more mature image.
The two Wandrers Nachtlieder are not settings of the same text. The poem of D. 768, written in 1780 when Goethe was about thirty, describes in eight short lines the beauty and peacefulness of a sunset; the mountains gleam peacefully, the birds in the woods are quiet. Fourteen bars of Langsam (slow) B flat major are all Schubert requires to set the song -- any more would crush the delicate words under too great a musical weight. The piano plays alone in the first two measures, also in the final peaceful bar. As the text unfolds in a steady, relaxed manner, the accompaniment moves forth from the calm homophony of the two-bar introduction into a world of shimmering pianissimo syncopations; finally, as the last two lines of text -- "Just wait -- soon you will know peace as well!" -- are sung twice by the singer (each time pausing to reflect on the highest note of the Lied), a series of rocking "horn fifths" sound in the very great distance. The last bar of music is repeated like an echo from the mountains of the poem's first line; the singer, however, has disappeared into peacefulness and there is only the piano's final, chromatically-inflected cadence.