The third play of the trilogy Oresteia
, the Eumenides
deals with the trial of Orestes for the slaying of his mother Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus in revenge for their murder of Agamemnon, his father. With the casting vote of Athena he is acquitted, much to the anger of the Furies who pursue him with bouts of madness. To expiate his guilt he is bidden by the Delphic oracle to go across the Black Sea to Tauris (the Crimea) and bring back to Attica the statue of Artemis which had been stolen by the Scythians. Little does Orestes know that his long-lost sister Iphigenia is priestess of the Tauri, spirited there by Artemis when she was about to be sacrificed in Aulis with the connivance of her father Agamemnon. Little does she know what has happened to the rest of her family in the meantime. (Could there ever have been such a tribe of doom-laden siblings as Chrysothomos, Iphigenia, Orestes and Electra?) It is the custom of the Taurians to sacrifice all strangers to the goddess, and as high priestess it is Iphigenia's duty to officiate at such bloody occasions. Orestes arrives in Tauris unaware of the dramas awaiting him and that his sister will recognise him and save his life. It is at this point that Mayrhofer chooses to introduce us to the character. The story was so well known that the reworking of any fragment of it would be comprehensible to the educated public. The poet also wrote Iphigenia
, set by Schubert as D573, which is something of a sister piece to Orest auf Tauris
: it records Iphigenia's longing to return from exile to her homeland. A similar speech opens the play Iphigenia in Tauris
by Goethe (1787) which was doubtless one source of Mayrhofer's knowledge of the legend, while the other was certainly the play by Euripides. Schubert knew the story from having seen the Gluck opera in his early teens (the libretto translated into German after the French original by François Guillard). He had much admired Vogl in the role of Orestes, and here he was in 1817 writing Orestes music of his own for the great singer.
It was Schubert's great ambition to write an opera for Vogl of course—he eventually did so in 1819 with Die Zwillingsbrüder, which had a limited success. In a way it is difficult not to see a number of these classical songs as audition pieces, meant to convince Vogl that here was a fine young opera composer waiting to be discovered (and commissioned!). This produces strong-boned music of noble line and import, which lacks however the special relationship of insight and commentary between voice and piano of which Schubert is elsewhere capable. Despite this feeling that one is playing from a vocal score rather than a Lieder album, the music is always inventive and strong. The opening chords give Orestes/Vogl a splendidly rhetorical entrance line over a four-bar orchestral phase which repeats in sequence a fourth higher. This is music worthy of a king, albeit a harassed and weary one. The third and fourth lines of this verse are a measured recitative in E flat minor which would have given Vogl ample opportunity for grisly word-painting; the depiction of a touch of madness always his speciality. The next two verses describe the surroundings—one vista in G flat, the next in B. The vocal line is always regal, the accompaniment as spare as the bleak, inhospitable topography. The beautiful descending vocal line in B major of 'Steine fügt die Kunst' is repeated by the piano, this time in D major, as an introduction to the fourth verse; it is then reincorporated into the voice part as we are led to the heart of Orestes' dreams and hopes. The tiny, almost diffident postlude seems to say 'Who knows?—To be continued!'
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991