Section 1: In the preface to his translation of the Iliad, E V Rieu avers that in that epic, 'the comic element is introduced almost solely on occasions when gods are shown together …' Like the Schiller setting Dithyrambe D801, the beginning of this ballad also shows the gods having a party, their joviality untainted by mortals' presence. This is excellent curtain-raising music and one can almost hear the merry clinking of glasses and a hubbub of chatter. Zeus strides centre stage and issues a summons; all creatures great and small are bidden to rise up from the depths by means of a musical hydraulic lift, one of the mechanical marvels in the Olympus opera house, and pedal-powered by a rumbling tremolo on A for thirteen bars. The principle is the same as for the chromatic ascent of the introduction to Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, but the effect is entirely genial.
Sections 2-3: The gathering of the gods is in a moderate 3/4, as if they have all the time in the world, as indeed they do—an eternity. There is a fancifully ornate vocal line at 'blumenreichen Fabelstrand' and again at 'Dryadengruppen aus dem stillen Hain', but the most beautiful effect of this section is where the tune of 'Helikons erhabne Dämmerungen' is repeated at 'und der beherrscht des Ozeanes Wellen' by the piano, while the voice part stays, quasi parlando, on one note in the middle of the texture. The tune of this passage, and the way it is treated twice in these different ways is identical with the lines 'Rausche, Fluss, das Thal entlang' and 'was von Menschen nicht gewusst' in the second great setting of Goethe's An den Mond D296. Perhaps this may help to place this last song, contentious in its date, nearer 1817 than 1819.
Section 4: The round dance at the court of Zeus is taken at the same unhurried pace; as the accompanying quavers ascend in stately staccato (harps, what else?), one is reminded of how Schubert would also thus evoke the ethereal music of the harps of fairyland in Ellens Gesang I D837.
Sections 5-6: The wonderful things that happen at a nod from Zeus prompt music of the utmost charm. The felicities of the Schiller setting Elysium D584, composed six months later, are here rehearsed for the first time. Hebe's wine and Ceres' ambrosia are different in colour rather than substance (red and white perhaps?) and the music for the pouring of this sequence of refreshments differs only in key and register. The mellifluous sliding of thirds and sixths in the inner parts suggests the pouring and swallowing of the smoothest of liquids. In other regions all this would lead to an outbreak of earthy lust, but here even Eros smiles with a radiant innocence. For Schubert such divine, unsullied happiness conjures up …Mozart. The music of Verse 6 ('Schon rötet Lust') and its introduction, a miniature piano sonatina movement, are as pithy a homage to that master as Schubert ever wrote. The new musical section in F minor begins on the last two lines of Verse 6, the way Urania slips into the gathering ('in die Versammlung schlich') suggested by a beautifully crafted chromatic ascending bass line in the piano.
Sections 7-9: The static nature of the music for Verse 7 describes not so much Urania's appearance as the effect it is having on the heavenly throng—they are numb with shock at her bedraggled appearance; the party is brought to a halt, and the accompanying minim chords seem to change harmony with difficulty. The music moves into crotchets and quavers at Verse 8—a sign of Zeus's quickening curiosity. By Verse 9 there is an accelerando and Urania admits her identity. Zeus's confident, almost arrogant, questioning is countered by a heartbreaking reply ('Ich bin's!') of helpless vulnerability. The 'chorus' is suitably shocked (stage whispers of 'What! Urania?!') and in operatic manner we are all set for a big aria from Zeus.
Sections 10-11: This is something of a disappointment; head gods can be pompous bores. Dotted rhythms in the grand manner suggest that someone important is speaking, and someone large to boot. A glimmer of feminine interest is provided by the flashing jewels ('Den Schmuck, den meine Liebe um dich hing') which shimmer like pearl-drop earrings in a quivering setting of staccato left hand quavers.
Sections 12-16: Urania's recounting of her fate fails to strike the ear as exceptional, but Schubert has obviously worked hard at cultivating for her a vocal line of meek, but not servile, deference in the presence of Zeus. There are some nice illustrative touches: the rocking of the left hand quavers for the child in the cradle (Verse 14) and the wide-ranging vocal line at the beginning of Verse 15 which, as the piano jangles manfully and metallically, suggests the depth of the shafts into which Urania has been thrown. But it has to be admitted that this catalogue of woes fails to excite our sympathy—or that of Zeus it seems. It is only after the recitative of Verse 16 when he hears of mankind's hubris of wanting to burn his gifts as winter fuel, that he is roused to action.
Sections 17-19: After the long slow exchanges between Mayrhofer's Wotan and Brünnhilde, the ear longs for some fast music, and Schubert now provides it. But in other songs he has thundered to much mightier effect. Too many earth-threatening events are crammed into too small a musical space; there is only so much excitement to be generated by swashbuckling tremolandi, and here this is not quite enough to engage the listener. The music of sudden suspended motion ('er sinkt der Rächerarm') is effective enough, as is the way Zeus points downwards with the tessitura of his vocal line ('hinunter schauen') as he bids Urania look earthward.
Sections 20-22: The words 'in weiter Fern' inspire Schubert to use for this passage the music of muted horns; the key of E flat and the suggestion of a far-off hunt denotes distance in many a piece of romantic music. All is idealised love, with never a discordant note in the idyllic thirds and sixths, and although this is no more real than the posturings of Zeus, this passage is probably the most beautiful in the piece. At mention of the 'mighty ocean of harmonies' of her supplicants' entreaties, the music breaks into effulgent triplets. To put something of a smile on Urania's face Schubert lifts the music from E flat to E.
Sections 23-24: The triplets cease and a new duplet figure signals another outpouring for Urania—the length of a song in its own right. It is reminiscent of the section beginning 'Die grünen Bäume rauschen dann' in the Mayrhofer Nachtstück D672. This aria would sound effective enough if it had made an appearance somwhere else; lost within this gigantic ballad it fails to provide the dramatic 'lift' this piece now requires.
Sections 25-27: A rather perfunctory recitative for Zeus is followed by his closing aria in B flat, in character and movement not unlike the final section of Adelwold und Emma. The composer is aiming for the lofty and judicious tone of an Olympian peroration and, taken on its own, it is a splendidly crafted piece, reflecting emotions of paternal kindness and sacerdotal blessing. These qualities are not so apparent however at the end of a piece of this length which, because of its 'libretto', has insufficient variety of mood and pace.
This setting has all the hallmarks of a work set to please the poet—an indulgence of friendship rather than because the composer believed in it. Schubert abandoned a number of pieces where he encountered similar problems as those which cramped his style in Uraniens Flucht, but in this case he sticks with the piece until the end. It seems to me that Mayrhofer must have set set great store by having a musical setting of it—greater store evidently than the composer. It is worth asking why. Who in hell, or should we say in heaven, is Urania, and why should the poet have cared so much for her plight, a fate moreover which unlike Mayrhofer's Philoctetes, Orestes, Antigone and Oedipus does not derive from one of the great Greek plays? Mayrhofer seems to have plucked Urania out of the air—or has he? Urania was the name of a celebrated literary almanac, first published in 1810, and the name of a long religious poem by Tiedge, a section of which provided Beethoven with a song text. But the term Urania, and the modern worship of that goddess may have had a different meaning in the Vienna of 1817. It seems that in the Viennese double-speak necessary to disguise sexual matters at the time, Mayrhofer is referring to Venus, goddess of general love, on one hand, and for public consumption, and on the other hand, for the benefit of initiates, to Urania, protectress of the cult of the Uranians, or homosexual community. We know that 'Urning' and 'Uraniaster' were terms for pre-Freudian classifications of homosexuals employed in treatises in the 1860's by one Karl Friedrich Ulrichs, a pioneer researcher into the topic. His most important essay published in 1868 was Memnon: Die Geschlechtsnatur des mannliebenden Urnings. The very title of this may well reflect on Mayrhofer's interest in the mythological character, discussed earlier in this volume. It is not likely that the discreet term 'Uranian', comprehensible to none but initiates, was an invention of Ulrichs, but was rather in select and private use much earlier in German-speaking lands. If so, much of the poem makes more sense: Uranias's bedraggled persecuted appearance, her recounting of punishments which suggest the hard labour of Oscar Wilde's treadmill and oakum picking, mention of a 'Liebend Paar'—a loving pair whom the poet avoids identifying by specific sex, reference to a cult suggesting a temple visited only by special initiates, and to a land where perfection flowers. As a God of the Greeks and lover of Ganymede, Zeus would take for granted the potentially noble aspects of what was known as Greek love. Jehovah destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for so-called sin, but the pagan God threatens to destroy a world of cruelty, intolerance and persecution, a world where lust (presumably of every sort) has taken the place of elevated Platonic feeling, where romantic friendship between men is a noble thing. If this reading of the poem is correct, Uraniens Flucht is Mayrhofer's most impassioned statement, coded though it is, about his emotional world. It would also perhaps confirm that he suppressed the sexual expression of his inclinations in the manner of Platonic ideals. Whether Schubert was party to this reading of the poem is in doubt; indeed his lack of engagement with it suggests he is not absolutely au fait with Mayrhofer's metaphor, or, even if he was, found it too remote to bring it to life.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991
Other albums featuring this work