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The collection was named by its first publisher Tobias Haslinger, presumably wishing to present it as Schubert's final musical testament to the world. Unlike the earlier Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, it contains settings of three poets, Ludwig Rellstab (1799–1860), Heinrich Heine (1797–1856) and Johann Gabriel Seidl (1804–1875). Schwanengesang was composed in 1828 and published in 1829 just a few months after the composer's death on 19 November 1828.
In the original manuscript in Schubert's hand, the first 13 songs were copied in a single sitting, on consecutive manuscript pages, and in the standard performance order. All the song titles are by Schubert, as Heine did not give names to the poems. (Reed 259) Tobias Haslinger, Schubert's publisher, collected the songs together as a cycle, most possibly for financial reasons, as Die schöne Müllerin and Die Winterreise collections sold very well. "Die Taubenpost" is considered to be Schubert's last Lied.
Franz Liszt later transcribed these songs for solo piano.
Schubert also set to music a poem named Schwanengesang D 744 by Johann Senn, unrelated to this collection.
On 2 October 1828, Schubert (after the manuscript had been written) offered the Heine set of poems to a Leipzig publisher by the name of Probst. We can assume, then, that Schubert – at least in the beginning – intended to publish the sets separately. In addition to this, the order of Numbers 8–13 as they appear in the manuscript is different from that of the poems as Heine published them (No. 10 followed by 12, 11, 13, 9, 8). It was customary for Schubert to respect the poet's sequence; the manuscript may not represent Schubert's desired order. The Seidl song, "Die Taubenpost", has no connection to the rest of the cycle and was appended by Haslinger at the end to round up all of Schubert's last compositions.
The songs of Schwanengesang, as found in Schubert's manuscript:
|Title||Order in ms.||in Heine's Heimkehr||Key||subject|
|"Der Atlas"||8||24||g||Having wished for an eternity of either happiness or wretchedness, the narrator blames himself for the weight of sorrow that he now bears, like the giant Atlas.|
|"Ihr Bild" ("Her image")||9||23||b-flat||The singer imagines that the beloved's portrait favoured him with a smile and a tear; but alas, he has lost her.|
|"Das Fischermädchen" ("The fisher-maiden")||10||8||The singer tries to sweet-talk a fishing girl into a romantic encounter, drawing parallels between his heart and the sea.|
|"Die Stadt" ("The city")||11||18||The singer is in a boat rowing towards the city where he lost the one he loved; it comes foggily into view.|
|"Am Meer" ("By the sea")||12||14||The singer tells of how he and his beloved met in silence beside the sea, and she wept; since then he has been consumed with longing — she has poisoned him with her tears.|
|"Der Doppelgänger" ("The double")||13||20||The singer looks at the house where his beloved once lived, and is horrified to see someone standing outside it in torment — it is, or appears to be, none other than himself, aping his misery of long ago.|
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