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