This is a translation of a lyric by Anacreon (fl. 6th century BC), a poet known for playful charm and satire rather than depth of tragic utterance. Thanks to a sixteenth-century French translation of the work of Anacreon and his disciples, his style of poem (occasional and convivial with a touch of philosophy to counterbalance wine-induced levity) was much copied by German writers of the eighteenth century. Writers such as Gleim and Uz, not to mention Goethe in a certain mood, wrote anacreontic odes; the influence of the poet goes deeper into the nineteenth century with, for example, the Parnassians and the Odes Anacréontiques
of Leconte de Lisle, set to music by Fauré and Roussel among others. An English translation of the poem under consideration here, with the title The poet sings the Trojan Wars
, or Anacreon's Defeat
, was set by Purcell in 1688. The English composer treats his subject playfully, as if the notion of a lyre that will not do its owner's bidding merely focuses ribald attention on the autonomous amorous stirrings of love's instrument, and provides him with a metaphor for a charmingly turned compliment. Schubert understands the metaphor well enough—and in that sense this song merely uses classical analogies in order to depart from them—but when love comes into question it is not often that we hear him respond in flippant manner. This song stands on the threshold of the composer's full maturity, an upbeat to the world of Die schöne Müllerin
and the coming to terms with his own mortality that was in store for him in 1823. He has put aside childish things, and these include an enthusiasm for the sounding brass and tinkling cymbal of classical antiquity. Whatever he had learned from crafting the masterpieces of that period of his life he now brought forward into the realms of reality. As the singer attempts to sing of heroes in An die Leier
there is a certain pompous, hollow tone. Schubert now knows that the real heroes of life are the composers and poets who engrave their immortality on their tombstones with strokes of the pen.
The song begins with frightening intensity. The key is C minor, always portentous in Schubert, and the singer means grim business. The minstrel tries out chords and a couple of sequences of semiquavers on the fingerboard before he finds a diminished seventh chord which he plays resoundingly seven times. Atreus is father to Agamemnon and Menelaus, so we are about to hear a tale of the Trojan war, or perhaps a tale about Thebes of which Cadmus was the founder. Instead a martial chord of D flat major softens to a seventh chord on F underpinned by a C flat. From there it is a short step, in this slipping of tuning pegs, to the dominant seventh chord in the key of E flat, which is the tonality of a loving aria, legato and peacefully tuneful. It is as if the lyre, forbear to Sparky's eventually rebellious magic piano, has a will of its own, and all the singer can do is to ruefully follow its dictates. This will not do. A bar's rest allows the strings to be changed and the pegs to turned tighter. The singer strums again and, altering tessitura, works himself up into a higher pitch of warlike intensity. This Herculean task prompts talk of Alcides, another name for Hercules himself. By a rather more circuitous and adventurous harmonic route, the lyre finds its own way back to the same chords that set up its entry into the E flat of love's aria. The singer admits himself defeated and, by now in love with the music of love, he bids farewell to the 'threatening' songs ('drohen' is accompanied by an ominous bass trill) of ancient times and to the heroes of antiquity who have once held him so much in thrall. The salute to these figures is a respectful one, with also not a little tenderness, but life is to be lived in the here-and-now, and as Shakespeare said 'youth's a stuff will not endure'. The darts of love are as potentially wounding in their way as the dangers of battle, and the yearning postlude leaves us in little doubt of this fact.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991