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|Florian Boesch (baritone), Roger Vignoles (piano)|
This song serves as an invocation to summon the heroes and deities to descend from Olympus on a laser beam. In Schiller's poem of sixteen strophes (of which Schubert set only the twelfth) a good number of our cast of characters is assembled: Helios, Tantalus, Cupid, Orcus, Orestes, Philoctetes, and the heavenly twins Castor and Pollux, as well as many a deity who does not make an appearance in Schubert's Lieder. In 1770 Herder had told Goethe that he would have to learn Greek in order to understand the eternal verities. In this long poem published in 1788, Goethe's younger contemporary Schiller averred that something had died in the soul of man if the old Grecian gods were indeed dead. Thus did the pendulum swing away from the precepts of the Age of Reason at the dawning of the Romantic age. This beautiful setting of a fragment of the poem sounds curiously, if not deliberately, incomplete; it is if we are ruefully contemplating fragments of a broken Greek vase; we feel certain that we will find the missing piece to render it once more whole, but this, like the belief that we can travel backwards in time, is cruel illusion. In the song, the missing piece is the tonic chord. The remote other-worldly quality is achieved by the lack of an anchored bass in the minore sections where everything is built on the second inversion, the 6-4 chord. The change to the major key, and the arrival of an underlying tonic, suddenly brings the dream into focus. As Keats wrote in his sonnet To Homer, it is as if healing light were to fall on a poet's blindness:
Aye on the shores of darkness there is light,
This visionary major tonality is only mock reality, like Die Nebensonnen in Winterreise where the deranged traveller also sees illusions shining in A major. Mention of 'the magic land of song' transports us into the submediant major—the effect is one of hallucinatory happiness which fades at the crestfallen minor at the repeat of the words. For the second four lines of the strophe we find ourselves in the tonic minor and the deserted fields of present-day Greece. Is that perhaps what gives the section beginning 'Ausgestorben trauert das Gefilde' the feeling of a slow Greek folk dance with instrumental interlude for oboe and plucked strings in the piano's left hand? Could Schubert have known any Greek music from some of Vienna's many Greek emigrés? Is it possible that he equates the glories of Greece's past with the cause of Greek independence from the Turks, the struggle for which was to break out out two years later, in 1821? The piano line intertwines with the tune of the singer, ornamented with weaving melismas, and in rhythm that suggests the Greek open circle-dance known as the syrtos. The piano's wan imitation of the vocal line is the perfect musical metaphor for a shadow cast at the distance of a bar. The original tonality of Die Götter Griechenlands (A minor/major) is pertinent to its various resonances in the Schubert canon. In this key the composer seems to find the contrast between major and minor most tellingly poignant. A number of times in Schubert's chamber music, Lieder and opera, we find a special modulatory benison with the emergence of a sunlit A major breaking through the shadows of the minor key. A major appears to magical effect in the 23rd bar of the first movement of the A minor String Quartet D804, but it is the Menuetto movement of that work which begins with the wavering motif (E -D -E), first played on the cello and then taken up by other strings—the motif from which grows Die Götter Griechenlands.
In the early months of 1824 Schubert was exceptionally depressed and touchy. In a notebook, in a rare outbreak of temper and violence he confided that he envied Nero's ability to to do away with his enemies to a musical accompaniment. This was his last written allusion to classical history. During the writing of the A minor Quartet he wrote an exceptionally downcast letter to his friend Kupelwieser in Rome (quoted in the introduction to Volume 13) the subtext of which seems to be 'Beautiful and happy days of yore, where are you now?' In July he wrote his brother Ferdinand a letter which seems to me to be the A minor and A major of the composer's prose: 'It is no longer that happy time during which each object seems to us to be surrounded by the shining aura of youth but a period of fateful recognition of miserable reality, which I endeavour to beautify as much as possible by my imagination. In quoting the opening of the song from 1819 in the string quartet of 1824, Schubert was referring back to comparatively carefree and optimistic days, rather than to classical allusions. By this time he had certainly come to realise that nostalgia for his own past was even more potent than a high-flown 'Sehnsucht' for the times of the ancients.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991
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