Am Feierabend (What I love about this song)

I love….

  • the arresting piano introduction whose pounding chords set up the feeling of the physical nature of the work but also the frustration of the young poet – the missing third beat in combination with the rising phrase gives the passage a kind of staggering urgency
  • the main theme: a wonderful, strong melody, so direct, passionate and “singable”
  • the accompaniment to the theme: an evocative combination of the staggering frustration feeling from the introduction (in the left hand) and the flowing mill wheels and stream music from earlier songs – you really feel you are there in the mill in the thick of it all with the machinery churning around you
  • the sweetness of the major key when he think of the miller’s daughter “Dass die schöne Müllerin”. This is a classic Schubert A minor turning to A major moment which so often represents love which is too shy or naive for its own good and doomed to failure. Another of my favourite songs also has this bitter-sweet harmonic change: Schubert’s wonderful Abendstern  (I recommend highly the performance on this disc by Anthony Rolfe Johnson  and Graham Johnson – here it is on youtube – the rest of the CD is equally as stunning)
  • furthermore, the repetitive mixing up of A minor and major during that phrase: in just two lines of poetry it changes from minor to major and back again 3 or 4 times, representing so touchingly the poet’s confused state where his tender feelings for the girl come into conflict with feelings of frustrated inadequacy
  • how those pounding chords from the opening are now miraculously devoid of energy when played softly at “Ach, wie ist mein Arm so schwach” – how pathetic this rhythm now feels!
  • the cosy, gemütlich music which accompanies the evening rest (“Und da sitz ich”) and the simple, sincere depiction of the Meister’s congratulations (“Euer Werk hat mir gefallen”) – how wonderfully this contrasts with the turbulence of the poet’s heart
  • “Allen einer guter Nacht” – I find this one of the most moving moments in the cycle, how Schubert highlights the protagonist’s longing to be the only one in the girl’s heart, not just one of the crowd: the poignant minor chord on a soft high note is so unexpected, skilfully zooming the camera away from a general shot of the room right into the unnoticed pain of the poet. This could so easily be missed if you were reading the poem (despite the fact that Müller puts the word “Allen” at the beginning of a line, making it more prominent) and I love the way Schubert makes such a strong decision about featuring it
  • how this pain (the point above) sets off the poet’s thoughts and heart racing again, with a more passionate, faster and more pounding reprise of the original verse. The subtle change of rhythm in the left hand is very effective – you probably wouldn’t be aware what the difference is on first listening, but it intensifies considerably the feeling of frustrated striving
  • the alteration to the end of the verse: now the major-minor sweetness has disappeared and is replaced by an almost obsessive, urgent repetition of the word “meiner, meiner” on rising phrases – again, this is in response to that painful moment that Schubert highlights in the evening rest: “alle” vs “meiner” – “why doesn’t she see me?!
  • the way the voice is resigned at the end of the song, and the piano follows the downwards vocal line, tailing away until the very emphatic last two chords which, to me, suggest a kind of blunt truth “this is fact – this is what life is like”!

Am Feierabend from die Schöne Müllerin, by Franz Schubert, text by Wilhelm Müller. Go to 2:30 on this performance by Gerhaher and Huber to hear a spirited interpretation. The score can be found here.

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