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Track(s) taken from CDJ33014

Memnon, D541

First line:
Den Tag hindurch nur einmal mag ich sprechen
composer
March 1817; published in 1821 as Op 6 No 1
author of text

Thomas Hampson (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano)
Recording details: October 1991
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Martin Compton
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: April 1992
Total duration: 4 minutes 56 seconds
 
1

Reviews

'The readings, with Johnson's piano at its probing best, are constantly enlightening and carry the absorbed listener into a rarefied world of word and music. The disc lasts an incredible 80 minutes, but the time flies by in such perceptive company' (Gramophone)

'Many of the songs here, as on all the discs, are masterpieces, and wonder and gratitude are unabated' (CDReview)
Memnon, son of Aurora and Tithonus, King of Egypt and Ethiopia, was sent to Troy by his father to help fight the Greeks. He slew Antilochus, son of Nestor, but was in turn slain by the wrathful Achilles. Aurora, goddess of dawn, begged Zeus to resuscitate her son, and he agreed to do this once a day. Every morning Aurora, or Eos, caressed him with her warming rays; he replied with disconsolate wailing. It is this sound which connected the young warrior's story with the mighty Colossi of Memnon, twin statues of the Pharaoh Amenofis III, originally built as guardians of his burial temple, nothing of which remains; they now stand alone in a large empty field on the West bank of the Nile at Thebes, the modern day Luxor. The sandstone colossi are 20 metres high, 2 metres in length and 1 metre in width. It was the north colossus (on the right, as one faces the pair of them) to which the legend is attached. The historians Strabo, Pausanias, Tacitus and Philostratus all testified that at dawn the statue gave forth a prolonged sound which seemed like mournful singing. It had been damaged in an earthquake in 27BC and the phenomemnon was probably caused by the vibration of air within its cracks; this seems to have been triggered by the sudden change of temperature at dawn, when the sun's rays, immediately scorching during Egyptian summers, hit the statue chilled by the desert night. This was a big tourist attraction until the third century AD when the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus had the cracks repaired, and Memnon sang no more.

Schubert's masterpiece works on every conceivable level—as a worthy depiction of a great classical legend, and as a deeply human metaphor of the poet, Mayrhofer himself, trapped behind a stony mask and inside a destiny which are not of his choosing, his songs created at a painful cost undreamed of by the listener. The key is D flat, a tonality used by the composer only half a dozen times and for some of his most rapt and magical songs—the first Ellens Gesang, Am Bach im Frühling and Die Sternennächte, another Mayrhofer song which also aspires to the consoling perspective of a distant star. The introduction has a marvellously sumptuous tune but, with its inner voice of staccato triplets, its texture is hollow; in a knock-on effect we somehow hear notes resonating within a cavernous chamber. Slowly the statue warms into life, the vocal line at first nursed within the smallest intervals, and gradually widening its scope until the heavenly aspiration of 'Purpurstrahlen liebend brechen'; the heartbreakingly tender high F on 'liebend' at the end of the first verse is in response to a mother's comforting caress after a cold night of exile. The introductory ritornello is now repeated in A flat, the sun is five degrees higher in the tonal firmament, and Memnon warms to his theme. The sequences beginning 'Für Menschenohre …' followed by 'Weil ich die Klage …' are among Schubert's loveliest. The colossus now takes us closer into his confidence; with a shift to the mediant key of F major he opens a chink in his armour that leads us closer to his heart. His quiet regret at man's misunderstanding of his grief ('vermuten sie in mir ein selig Blühen') is that of a gentle giant, his massive size evident by the breadth and nobility of the vocal line, now spanning a ninth. In the third verse the innocuous knocking triplet figure of the introduction is the foundation of the storm, leading us through many keys, within the stony breast. The writhing of these snaking semiquaver sextuplets underpins a quite frightening power in the declamation; Memnon's awakening has been so cleverly paced that in now hearing the full range of his vocal powers we fear that he will walk off his very pedestal in his rage and anguish.

But he is no Frankenstein and, with the waxing daylight, his song, which thrives only in the moment of the cruellest contrast between cold and heat, gradually fades away. The last three lines of the poem are set to music of almost indescribable beauty and noble resignation as he sees his dream as a hopeless one. The spirit of life evaporates from his unwieldy body until the next dawn—his punishment to be rooted to the spot while he weeps for what might have been had he been able to join his spirit in its heavenward aspirations. Schubert chose not to set the poet's sequel Aurora which is a mother's reply, helpless to release her son from the weight of his grief. And so Memnon still looks down on the 'vain bustle'—in our age, hordes of tourists who seldom bother to go nearer him than the 'photo opportunity' vantage point where the buses park. This traveller went to pay him closer homage and discovered that he was covered in chiselled inscriptions, the graffiti of former ages, beginning with the Greeks who claim to have heard him sing. One of the most prominent of these marks was made by a visitor in 1817, and that year is engraved in a large rectangle on the right leg of the colossus. Memnon bears on his flesh, as it were, the mark of the very year in which he was assured of a second lease of musical immortality.

from notes by Graham Johnson 1991

Other albums featuring this work

Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/4040CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)