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Schubert and Greek mythology part one

Schubert has a certain reputation as a composer of attractive ditties such as Die Forelle or Heidenröslein, but for those who wish to deepen their acquaintance with his finest music, the songs which treat of classical themes are as surprising as they are rewarding. There are 33 in total. The lion’s share are by Mayrhofer, followed by Schiller, Goethe and others. Here is a complete list. You will note that many of them date from 1817, the year in which he collaborated closely with Mayrhofer.

Amphiaros, D 166 (Theodor Körner, 1815)

An die Leier, D 737 (Anacreon, tr. Bruchmann 1822-1823)

An eine Quelle, D 124 (Claudius, 1817)

An Schwager Kronos, D 369 (Goethe, 1816)

Antigone und Oedip, D 542 (Mayrhofer, 1817)

Atys, D 585 (Mayrhofer, 1817)

Augenlied, D 297 ) (Mayrhofer, 1817)

Daphne am Bach, D 411 (Friedrich Leopold, Graf zu Stolberg- Stolberg, 1816)

Der entsühnte Orest, D 699 (Mayrhofer, 1817)

Der zürnenden Diana, D 707 (Mayrhofer, 1820)

Didone abbandonata, D 510 (Metastasio, 1816)

Die Bürgschaft, D 246 (Schiller, 1815)

Die Götter Griechenlands, D 677 (Schiller, 1819)

Die Liebesgötter, D 446 (Uz, 1816)

Dithyrambe, D 801 (Schiller, 1824)

Elysium, (Schiller, 1817)

Fahrt zum Hades, D 526 (Mayrhofer, 1817)

Fragment aus dem Aeschylus, D 450 (Mayrhofer, 1816)

Freiwilliges Versinken, D 700 (Mayrhofer, 1817)

Ganymed, D 544 (Goethe, 1817)

Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, D 396 (Schiller, 1816)

Hektors Abschied, D 312 (Schiller, 1815)

Hippolits Lied, D 890 (Friedrich von Gerstenberger, 1826)

Iphigenia, D 573 (Mayrhofer, 1817)

Klage der Ceres, D 323 (Schiller, 1816)

Lied des Orpheus, D 474 (Johann Georg Jacobi, 1816)

Memnon, D 541 (Mayrhofer, 1817)

Orest auf Tauris, D 548 (Mayrhofer, 1817)

Philoktet, D 540 (Mayrhofer, 1817)

Prometheus, D 674 (Goethe, 1819)

Uraniens Flucht, D 554 (Mayrhofer, 1817)

Most of these songs are never performed, and until the public's taste for pretty tunes is informed by unfamiliar, let us say "difficult" repertoire (here the responsibility of the performer is self-evident), they will remain unknown. But there is evidence to show that this may change: after all, the piano sonatas appear regularly in recital programmes, but until the 1970's that was not the case.

Amphiaros, D 166/Theodor Körner/1815. The song was not published by Peters, thus ensuring its oblivion until recently, thanks to the new Bärenreiter Ausgabe. Amphiaros, son of Apollo, was persuaded by his wife Eriphyle to take part in the expedition of the seven against Thebes. Knowing this to be a plot to murder him, he ordered his children to avenge him by killing their mother. Zeus dispatches a thunderbolt and the ground opens up and swallows him (we are a far cry from Heidenröslein territory! ) Reed comments that the song suggests early film music, and that it has the dramatic vividness of a ballad by Loewe.

An eine Quelle, D 530/Matthias Claudius/1817. The classical link is tenuous, with the youth (Endymion) espying Daphne, who stands in for any maiden. (Classical allusions were very popular for this reason: if the girl in question was a mere mortal, the young man would be a vulgar voyeurist. Similarly, classical art was a handy catch-all for the depiction of nudity — which is why Manet's Déjeuner sur l'Herbe caused such shockwaves.) The song is pleasing, classically restrained, Mozartean. Reed describes it as a minor masterpiece.


An Schwager Kronos, D 369/Goethe/1816. Hard to believe that a ninenteen-year old penned this stunning masterpiece, the best known of the songs based on classical mythology, along with "Ganymed". All of Schubert's greatest songs have an obsessional figure in the accompaniment, driving the action and commenting on it at the same time. Here recitative is out of the question: the helter-skelter progress of youth through life brooks no respite, apart from the sideways glance at the young girl ("labe dich, labe dich"). The thundering piano octaves à la Beethoven are like a cold shower after the sauna of contemporary bourgeois tinklings. The Lied comes into its birthright.

An die Leier, D 737/Anacreon, tr Bruchmann/1822-3. An exquisite song, full of contrast: the bragadaccio of the jingoists put in their place by the power of love. The handling of the recitative sections — particularly the timing — is masterly, and the lyricism of the lute's panegyric to love is as fine as any found in better-known songs.

Antigone und Oedip, D 542. Strictly speaking a duet, and I have shied away from performing it on account of its extended range. Some solo songs feature two or even three characters (Der Tod und das Mädchen, Erlkönig), but are always performed by one singer, while certain others, such as Antigone deserve I think two singers (another case in point is Eine altschottische Ballade, the duet setting of which I find superior to the solo version, and which I have performed with Belgian mezzo Marine Fornasari).

Atys, D 585/Mayrhofer/1817. Based on the legend of a Phrygian shepherd boy abducted by the godess Cybele. Reed comments that "the song fails to make a very deep impression, in spite of its pleasing melodiousness." I often find myself in disagreement with his pronouncements.

Augenlied, D 297/Mayrhofer/1817. The significance of this song is not in the classical allusion, made en passant to Acheron, but that it was the first song heard by Michael Vogl, a retired opera singer who was to play an important rôle in championing the Lieder. This first meeting was less than auspicious: Spaun describes how Vogl "took up the nearest sheet of music, containing Mayrhofer's poem Augenlied, a pretty, tuneful, but not very significant song. Vogl hummed rather than sang, and then said coldly "Not Bad!" "

Daphne am Bach, D 411/Friedrich Leopod, Graf zu Stolberg-Stolberg/1816. Nothing particularly significant about this little song except that it points to greater things, notably Wohin? in Die schöne Müllerin.

Der entsühnte Orest, D 699/Mayrhofer/ 1817. The legend of Orestes has all the elements of Game of Thrones: murder, exile, madness, purification. Reed comments that "it is difficult to think of another song with the nobiliity of utterance of this one." I must admit I look forward to performing it.

Der zürnenden Diana, D 707/Mayrhofer/1820. The form of this song owes much to the not always happy influence of theatre on Schubert's style around this time. Endymion's extended and rather tastelessly self-indulgent pre-raphaelite death is giving the full metal jacket lyrical treatment, with many phrases being repeated, making the song overlong. There is something very admirable yet ultimately unloveable about it.

Didone Abbandonata, D 510/Metastasio/1816. Schubert may have been angling for an appointment at the opera house in writing this song. One sees the beneficial influence of Salieri at work (who, just for the record, was not the monster depicted in "Amadeus", but a generous man who gave free composition lessons to needy pupils). Reed describes it as a "remarkable song and a wonderful vehicle for a powerful soprano with a confident top C for the final peroration." Oops.

Joseph Stallaert (1825-1903): Didon abbandonée

Die Bürgschaft, D 246/Schiller/1815. Not for the first time in his song-writing career Schubert threw himself into the ballad-form with great gusto, producing another impressive piece, although Reed finds that "the song cannot be said to transcend the limitations of its form, which now seems to us inescapably pre-Erlkönig". He goes on to say that Schubert would have made a great film composer. There is a fundamental problem in setting ballads either pictorially or musically, since the story is what matters. Schubert's greatest songs are to do with the distillation of a particular mood or feeling. That said, the ballads — and in particular Der Taucher — deserve an airing from time to time, if only to demonstrate Schubert's extraordinary versatility.

©Conor Biggs

(End of part one.)


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