Schubert and the sea of choices

An engraving of Franz Schubert stands in front of a video of ocean waves.

It’s a little song about a fishing girl, but it’s by Schubert — which means there are many different ways to sing it. Susan Youens considers the lovely possibilities in Episode 3 of The Necessary Show.

By David Brittan

A man on a beach, possibly a poet, hails a young woman at sea who is fishing from a rowboat. He attempts to lure her ashore with offers of physical affection and the not exactly reassuring claim that he is only as dangerous as a raging ocean. He promises her pearls.

And that’s it. That’s as much as the poet Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) is prepared to tell us about what happened on the beach that day. But it was enough to fire the imagination of Franz Schubert, who turned Heine’s untitled poem into the song “Das Fischermädchen” (“The Fisher Maiden”) in 1828, the last year of his short, turbulent life.

I don’t know about you, but I’m left scratching my head. Is the guy on the beach sincere? Is he bipolar? Has he ever met this woman? And there are questions of plausibility: Does he really think a person in a boat can hear him from shore? If he intends to cuddle with her, may the fisher maiden at least shower first? And does he realize that a woman who rows for a living can, in all likelihood, beat up a poet?

Yes, it’s an enigma, that poem. The song, doubly so — because Schubert has created a musical setting that, while outwardly simple, may not be what it seems. This is why it’s helpful to have a guide.

Headshot of Susan Youens wearing a cowl-neck sweater
Susan Youens

My guest in Episode 3 of The Necessary Show is the musicologist Susan Youens, one of the world’s leading experts on the songs of Schubert. She’s a professor emerita at the University of Notre Dame, author of many works on nineteenth-century German song, and a busy public speaker (even in Covid times).

To Susan, the song’s enigmatic qualities are all part of Schubert’s appeal. The composer “deliberately incorporates all kinds of possibilities into the music,” she tells us, “and leaves it up to the performers to decide what to do with it.” Depending on the performers’ choices, “Das Fischermädchen” can assume any number of guises — whether a tender love song, a wistful lament, or simply the boasting of a horny dude at the beach.

In the podcast, Susan shares her insights on three very different interpretations of “Das Fischermädchen.” (Snippets are in the box below, if you want to preview them.) Each pair of performers — singer and pianist — has dived into a sea of choices. Each has followed a different route to the seafloor. And each has brought up a pearl.

If you haven’t spent much time with Schubert songs, Susan Youens gives you an easy in. The episode is a brisk 19 minutes in length. Listen now or download it for the drive home.

Three takes on Schubert’s “Fischermädchen”

Anthony Rolfe Johnson & Graham Johnson
Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor; Graham Johnson, piano: Franz Schubert, “Das Fischermädchen” (excerpt), The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 37
Christoph Prégardien & Andreas Staier
Christoph Prégardien, tenor; Andreas Staier, piano: “Das Fischermädchen” (excerpt), Schwanengesang and Songs After Seidl (Challenge Classics)
Bryn Terfel & Martin Martineau
Bryn Terfel, bass-baritone; Martin Martineau, piano: “Das Fischermädchen” (excerpt), Bryn Terfel the Early Recordings: Schwanengesang Schubert (Sain Records)

The Heine poem

German original
 Du schönes Fischermädchen,
Treibe den Kahn ans Land;
Komm zu mir und setze dich nieder,
Wir kosen Hand in Hand.
Leg an mein Herz dein Köpfchen,
Und fürchte dich nicht zu sehr,
Vertraust du dich doch sorglos
Täglich dem wilden Meer.
Mein Herz gleicht ganz dem Meere,
Hat Sturm und Ebb’ und Flu
Und manche schöne Perle
In seiner Tiefe ruht.
English translation
 Beautiful fisher-girl,
Row your boat to shore;
Come to me and sit down,
We’ll nestle hand-in-hand.
Lay your darling head on my heart
And don’t be too afraid;
You entrust yourself without a care
Each day to the wild sea.
My heart is like the ocean,
Has storms and ebbs and flows,
And many a beautiful pearl
Rests in its depths.

DAVID BRITTAN is curator & editor of The NecessaryEmail • Bio

1 Comment

  1. What a lyrical, lovely podcast, made all the more enchanting by Susan’s sing-song voice. I am ever thankful when deep knowledge such as Susan’s is conveyed in a lively, inviting, and accessible manner. For 40 years I have loved singing Schubert and now I have a deeper sense of why. All three interpretations of “Das Fischermädchen” are stunning, great examples of what is possible, but Bryn Terfel makes my heart soar!

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