a modest, brave, upright and pious man,
a powerful seer allied against his judgement
with blaspheming, boastful men …
The war was a long one, but in combat at the city's Homoloian gate (each of the seven champions attempted to storm one of Thebes' seven gates) Amphiaraus was finally put to flight by the Theban hero Periclymenus who chased him to the banks of the Ismenus. Amphiaraus would have been slain had not Zeus sent a thunderbolt which made a cleft in the ground into which horse, chariot and driver disappeared. This spot was something of a tourist attraction as late as the second century AD.
Section 1: The introduction consists of a powerful rising sequence of chords in dotted rhythm, with a strong tolling bell on the second half of the bar, a musical gesture which insists 'What must be, must be!'. Bars 9 to 12 of the slow movement of the B flat Piano Sonata D960 use this rhythmic pattern to more sophisticated effect—in that masterpiece from Schubert's final year, the 'bell' in the piano's upper regions is haunting rather than strident. Unexceptional narrative recitative is followed by a recapitulation of this impressive overture. The fighting men's joyful dreams of battle and victory are voiced in deliberately repetitive and banal manner; in contrast, the state of mind of Amphiaraus, who alone knows how doomed is their cause, is emphasised by a superb setting of his name, standing alone, without accompaniment except for three steadfast chords under the longest vowel.
Sections 2-3: Throughout this work Schubert seems to be thinking in longer paragraphs, harmonically speaking, than in some of his earlier ballads. This march is constructed on a stirring sequence of chords which skilfully suggests the searching of a man of deep and subtle perceptions, different from the herd who think and act only in terms of tonic and dominant harmony. The hammer blow chords 'Er kennt des Schicksals verderblichen Bund' are the immutable fall of the iron dice. The dotted march motif returns on 'So ging er zum Kampf', this time as strangely out of sorts with the harmony of the vocal line as Amphiaraus is with his allies. Mention of the 'heavenly flame' prompts a movement marked 'Feurig' with scales and arpeggios throwing off sparks of no great originality.
Section 4: An effective recitativo stromentato built on falling harmonies to mirror the hero's disbelief and depression which are courageously negated by insistence on 16 resolute D major chords on 'Verderben will ich durch eigene Macht.'
Sections 5-6: This section opens with battle music for piano, one of Schubert's more effective piano interludes, different from the battle music of the Kenner Ballade D134 but comparable to the depiction of the seething waters of the abyss in Der Taucher; a different diminished seventh chord is sabre-rattled every two bars, thus suggesting strenuous fighting in first one Theban arena of war, then another—those commentators who anachronistically compare passages such as this to silent film music are at least correct in hearing that Schubert, in his ballads, imagines things in closely cut cinematic terms, avant la lettre. The third to the sixth lines of Verse 5 are arioso and form a bridge between the battle music and the galloping triplets, doubling the vocal line, at 'Und wandte die Rosse auf Leben und Sterben'. Whipped up to a 'Geschwinder' marking, logically enough, at 'Und schneller und schneller', the music works itself up into a veritable lather of both foaming horseflesh and flooding river. The conventional way of playing tremolo passages, octaves together, is inverted to make a long sequence of dissonant clashes at the ninth (beginning at 'erschrocken heben die Götter … das schilfichte Haupt'), technically mere passing notes but daring enough to have no doubt delighted the young composer no end. It is notable that he reserves this grisly effect for something as extreme as the horror of the gods.
Section 7: After this the denouement is something of a disappointment and very quick let-down. The thunder of Zeus seems to be written in the wrong part of the piano to sound effectively mighty; the lightning looks good on paper however, descending from the top of the treble stave to the bottom, falling from on high with jagged edges. The ripping open of the earth is effected with abruptly rippled arpeggios. The final address to the deity, suddenly calm and spacious, fails to convince, and an abrupt return of the galloping motif pushes our hero quite unceremoniously over the precipice. One has to admire the composer for the audacity with which he drops Amphiaraus in it—and the singer too if he is not careful; the lowest note in the piece opens up without any warning.
Theodor Körner's background as a student of law and history gave him a good working knowledge of the classics, although his poems do not often venture into the world of the Greeks and Romans—the only others in this vein (and not set by Schubert ) are a dialogue between Brutus and Portia, and a hymn to Phoebus. The tale of Amphiaraus (mightily influenced in the telling of it by Schiller's style) seems rather an obscure story for the young poet to choose, unless it tells us something about his determination (like the poem's hero) to do his patriotic duty and fight, trusting to the protection of Apollo, god of creative artists, no matter what his misgivings and forebodings. If so, this 'Kriegers Ahnung' was accurate enough; Körner lost his life in battle and this would have been in the forefront of the mind of his young friend Schubert, whose choice of text seems to be a tribute to Körner's heroic and sudden death. It is as if the poet had, in Schubert's eyes, earned the right to the same immortality conferred on Amphiaraos by Zeus—poet and Greek hero have become as one. The Körner setting Gebet während der Schlacht D171, also from March 1815, gives a Christian slant to the same theme of a warrior's surrender to the will of higher powers. Schubert composed Amphiaraos 'in 5 hours' in a rush of emotion—probably a mixture of patriotism and affectionate personal gratitude for someone who encouraged him in his fight to be a composer.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991