Auf dem Flüsse , a setting by Wilhelm Müller , was composed by Franz Schubert in 1827 and published in 1828. It is the seventh lied of his song cycle, Winterreise.
“Many consider Winterreise (Winter travel), written by Schubert, as one of the most important and breathtaking song cycles ever written. For the first time, the words were set, giving equal importance to the vocal line and the piano part (later Schumann will compose in the same way).
Schubert had already set another of his major song cycles, die schöne Müllerin, earlier in 1823 on an ensemble of poems by Wilhelm Müller. Müller, an early romantic German poet, probably never met Schubert and, for sure, never heard Schubert’s Winterreise as he died in 1827.
Schubert, aged 31 at the time of the composition, is dying from syphilis and feels drawn to what the poems express: solitude, discouragement, memories of long gone happiness, non-reciprocated love. Unknown in Vienna where he is living at the time, extremely lonely and unsuccessful, he composes his most sad song cycle: all hope is illusion and the only outcome of the journey and of winter will be death. Schubert, as often, intended his work for a tenor, but the drama and despair expressed in the song cycle often led baritones and basses to perform it instead.
Auf dem Flusse is the seventh lied of Winterreise. The song cycle achieves such unity it seems relevant to learn about the songs that precede it. A stranger must leave in cold winter, in the dead of the night. He had found love but she now rejects him and he leaves thinking of her (Gute Nacht, N.1). In Wetterfahne, N.2, the house of the one he loved creaks in the wind as if making fun of him. She doesn’t care about his suffering and is now a wealthy bride. In Gefrorne Tränen, N.3, the narrator realizes he has been crying, his tears freezing one after the other. In the following lied, Erstarrung, N.4, he looks for her footprints but is left with nothing to remember her, except his pain. The Linden tree calls out for him, promising him rest and peace but he turns away (Der Lindenbaum, N.5). He hopes that the brook will bring back his tears to the one he loves (Wasserflut, N.6).
In Auf dem Flusse, N. 7, the stream is a metaphor of his heart, frozen on the exterior but powerfully throbbing beneath the surface. He carves in the ice of the stream a remembrance of their love. The structure of the song ABA’ follows the text. In the first part (A), the slow piano staccato cords suggest the frozen water while the dotted notes in the vocal line figure the sadness of the narrator. In the second part (B), the tonality changes and rhythm fastens (double, triple crotchets) as the heart of the narrator beats faster and faster at the remembrance of their love. In the last part (A’), the piano plays the vocal line (sang in part A) mirroring what the poet is expressing: the frozen stream is a metaphor of his heart.