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Atys, D585

First line:
Der Knabe seufzt über’s grüne Meer
September 1817; first published in 1833 as part of volume 22 of the Nachlass
author of text

The legend of Attis, a Phrygian youth whose cult was linked to the worship of the fertility goddess Cybele, is one of the strangest of the Greek myths. Grandson of the river-god Sangarios, he was famed for his beauty; loved by Cybele, he was unable to respond to her advances. Most of the versions of the myth have it that Attis was in love with the wood nymph Sagaritis; in a jealous rage Cybele killed her, and Attis went mad with grief and castrated himself. He died at the foot of a pine tree where his blood made violets grow. In certain versions of the legend Attis is changed into a pine. This eastern cult became more important during the Roman epoch, and it was at its height during the reign of Claudius. Devotees of Cybele worshipped Attis almost on a par with the goddess, and the priests of Cybele castrated themselves and feigned madness as part of their rites.

We do not know how and where Mayrhofer came upon this story; there were various contemporary books in German which dealt with classical mythology. One of the most important of these was Götterlehre oder mythologische Dichtungen der Alten by Karl Philipp Moritz (Vienna and Prague, 1801) where the myth is told through the perspective of Roman legend, and is subtly different from the Greek version. In Moritz, the story of Attis is discussed directly after that of Ganymed (where Goethe’s poem is quoted in full). We read that ‘Atys’ (Mayrhofer also spells it thus) left his home country and hastened, voluntarily, to the Phrygian woods in order to dedicate himself to the service of Cybele. For violating a vow of chastity he was punished by madness and self-inflicted castration (‘Entmannung’). Moritz tells his readers that in a beautiful poem from the ancient world, Attis, temporarily having regained his sanity, dreams of returning to his homeland over the sea. The goddess reappears with her lion-borne chariot, and the youth becomes mad again. He serves the goddess for the rest of his days, Moritz says, ‘in weibischer Weichlichkeit’ – a phrase describing effeminate unmanliness which makes the author’s distaste for such a condition quite clear.

‘The beautiful poem from the ancient world’ is the Attis poem of Catullus (Carmina LXIII). It seems likely that Mayrhofer was able to by-pass such books as the guide by Moritz, and read this work in a German translation (for example, J X Mayr 1786, Leipzig and Vienna) or even the original Latin. Indeed all of this poet’s work inspired by mythology seems to owe something to Catullus’s practice of re-dramatising a myth from a new and imaginative angle. It is unlikely, for example, that Mayrhofer would have written Lied eines Schiffers an die Dioskuren without knowing the Catullus poem (Carmina IV) about the old sailor home from the sea, and dedicated to the worship of Castor and Pollux. In Catullus, as in Mayrhofer, Attis’s love for Sagaritis plays no part in the scenario; instead the Roman poet concentrates on Attis’s unmanly enslavement to the cult of Cybele, and a brief moment when the youth desires to escape from its thrall. The whole poem is told from the viewpoint of a man trapped in the body of a ‘notha mulier’ – an ersatz woman, a being neither male nor female, caught in a similar limbo to those effeminate souls thought to be women trapped in male bodies. ‘Ego mulier, ego adolescens, ego ephebus, ego puer’ Attis says – ‘a woman I, a young man, an ephebe, a child’. Relieved of his madness for a short while, he longs to return to his homeland where, he says, he was once the flower of the gymnasium – ‘ego gymnasi fui flos’ and admired by all. Now he is condemned to live a life of shame, ‘life-long a female slave’ as Catullus puts it in Guy Lee’s translation. This moment of regret (‘Now what I have done appals me; I am sorry for it now’) ceases when the furious goddess unleashes her lion, Ferox, to ensure that Attis returns to a state of madness, and a life in her service.

Like Catullus, Mayrhofer ignores why and when the youth was castrated in the first place. What seems important to the Austrian poet is that within the arcane framework of classical references understood by those who looked to Greek history and mythology for a justification of their existence, Attis was the effeminate archetype, unmanned not by his own choosing, but as a result of the hand of the unreasonable gods. His condition is innate, and his sorrow and grief are undeserved and unjust. The first part of the Mayrhofer poem concentrates on the youth’s unassuaged longing to return to the safety and normality of his homeland. This is followed by a flashback which recounts how he begged to enter the goddess’s service in the first place. Mayrhofer’s third verse describes Attis’s life as ‘bleak and barren’, no doubt because the youth felt himself different from other people; he allowed the goddess to spirit him away to a life of decadent and orgiastic celebration (Capell, with the English good taste of 1928, calls this ‘ a peculiar priesthood’). Having lived as ‘a Maenad, half me, a male unmanned’, he realises, when granted a short period of lucidity, that he yearns for the love and acceptance of his family. Attis hears the cymbals of the returning goddess, and rather than submit to a return of the madness of his former life he throws himself from the top of Dindymus, the mountain of the goddess. With the words ‘er stürzt von Höhn’, Schubert’s poet departs from the other sources: unlike Catullus, the poet makes the boy jump to his death; he dies in the way that Mayrhofer himself chose (in 1836) as his own means of suicide.

The poem is to be found in the privately printed edition of Mayrhofer’s poems (1824) but does not appear in the second edition edited by Feuchtersleben in 1843.

Perhaps the omission of a poem with uncomfortable inferences is significant. This monologue of someone caught between a rock and a hard place is the plaint of an unmanned individual who belongs nowhere. Of course, we can read into this poem the plight of the transsexual, something quite different from a mere question of sexual orientation, and this is perhaps the deeper meaning of the myth. But it is doubtful, surely, that Mayrhofer was dealing with this topic. The present-day equivalent of his implied scenario would be a someone who has run away to the big city from a safe rural community; someone who has been lured into a life of sexual abandon where a mad frenzy of drink, drugs and discos only accentuates his unhappiness. The more he becomes part of this twilight world, the more impossible it is for him to return; he is spurned by his family and those he loves. He is the victim of both his physical and his psychological state, someone unable to reconcile his outer physical being with his spiritual centre. This theme recalls Memnon, another Schubert/Mayrhofer collaboration. Surely both these songs are elaborate classical metaphors for the plight of the ‘Urning’. (This term, deriving from Venus Urania – see the commentary on Uranians Flucht in Volume 14 – was coined by Karl Friedrich Ulrichs in the 1860s, long before the term ‘homosexual’ was invented; Ulrichs was the first German champion of gay rights, and the author of many tracts on the subject, one of which was entitled Memnon.) Attis longs for love and acceptance (this feeling lies at the heart of the beauty of the Schubert setting) but he remains eternally condemned to a life of shame.

Catullus’s viewpoint is ambiguous. He has a distaste for the hysterical plaint he puts in the mouth of Attis, but there is also pity: this could be summed up by ‘there, but for the grace of the gods, go I.’ The Roman poet ends with the envoy ‘Far from my house be all that frenzy of yours, O Queen. / Drive others to elation, drive other raving mad!’ In the morality of BC Rome, the AC-DC love of Catullus for his Juventius and for his Lesbia, were passionate without being unhinged. Cybele seems here embodied as a merciless and exacting life force, a metaphor perhaps for what we might think of today as an uncontrolled and self-destructive sex drive. The Austrian poet here finds in the classics the perfect justification for dwelling on this topic, and he too is obviously far from happy with the wilder urgings of nature. He has a horror of unbridled license, and in making Attis plunge to his death he makes the youth do something he deems honourable, even necessary. (This reminds us of ‘Shot? so quick, so clean an ending? / Oh, that was right, lad, that was brave: / Yours was not an ill for mending, / ’Twas best to take it to the grave’ by A E Housman, an expert on Catullus as it happens.) This response is typical of the more masculine homosexual’s disapproval of effeminacy, which can stem from self-loathing and fear of identification; the Attis of legend continues his life of involuntary depravity, but the nineteenth-century equivalent must commit suicide. It is clear that Mayrhofer, manly in his demeanour, was no Attis; but in the large transvestite (and perhaps transsexual) world of Mayrhofer’s Vienna, there must have been many a boy (and girl) enduring similar mental tortures, and it is of these outcasts that poet and composer sing. Like the majority of writers until relatively recent times, Mayrhofer chooses to emphasise the sadness of this demi-monde, and the inevitability of a tragic ending. It is interesting that another, even more substantial, work of art devoted to this myth is the opera Atys (1676) by Jean Baptiste Lully, a famously homosexual composer.

Little wonder, then, that this is one of Schubert’s most elusive songs. The commentators on the whole find nothing very exceptional about it: Reed states that ‘there is little attempt at dramatic immediacy’ and Capell finds the music ‘mild’ and the composer ‘untouched’. He notes the absence of ‘something exotic … some corybantic display’ (this adjective shows Capell’s classical learning – it derives from the Corybantes, wild, half-demonic beings, given to orgiastic rituals, who attended Cybele, the Asiatic earth mother). But surely Capell knew Schubert the man better than this? The decadent trappings which could be made to tart up this story were uninteresting to this composer in comparison to the bitter-sweetness of the human dilemma facing the benighted Attis. It is as well to remember that many people have found Schubert wanting in the erotic imagery of Ganymed, particularly when it comes to comparing his setting with Hugo Wolf’s. In actual fact Schubert comes closer to the poem’s freshness and vitality, its unselfconscious sensuality, than the music written in the sexually aware hothouse of the later nineteenth century.

One can understand the shy and retiring mood of this song better if one realises that the composer must have felt great compassion (and, who knows, perhaps some fellow-feeling) for the youth rendered gentle and effeminate through castration which was as much a mental ‘given’ as a physical ‘taken away’. Indeed, Schubert’s music softens the story, and comments on it, with more tenderness than Mayrhofer has to muster. The composer had responded to the outcast Gretchen with wonderful empathy, and Attis is similarly treated with an understanding that shows extraordinary emotional maturity. This subject is honoured with music in the key of A minor, with changes into A major – a ravishing tonal ambiguity which here hauntingly conveys exotic (pace Capell) ambiguity of gender – a change of key which the composer reserves for music by which he is deeply touched (cf the A minor/A major plea for a return to the values of antiquity in Die Götter Griechenlands). Thus the lack of virility in the setting is purely deliberate. The introduction begins in unison between the hands (Reed notes a similarity to the opening of the Arpeggione sonata). The gently rocking 6/8 rhythm encompasses music that is dreamy and full of longing; the wilting modal decorations which punctuate the vocal line (a motif encompassing the rise of a sharpened Lydian fourth, D sharp in the key of A minor, to E, a semitone higher) suggest longing as well as the soft swooning of a yielding nature. There is something restless about the melodic line, as if it were straining to be complete but never manages to be so. Thus the tune for ‘über’s grüne Meer’ is the same as for ‘Ufer kam er her’ when we might have expected the melody to have developed or modulated by its sixth bar. The change to the major comes about at the end of the strophe (at ‘im rauschenden Fluge bringen’) which lifts the music to a higher plane of longing. Schubert has built into the music the aching realisation that Attis’s request to return home is never to be granted.

The melody of the second strophe is based on that of the first. Attis speaks for the first time (‘O Heimweh! Unergründlicher Schmerz’). The whole of this verse remains in the minor tonality. Once again this music seems to be a musical metaphor for something incomplete, for something straining in vain to come full circle. Schubert is aware that this meant to be the music of antiquity, so the rippling semiquaver accompaniment suggests the harp-like arpeggiations of an ancient lyre. Attis longs for the unattainable, as does the miller-boy in Am Feierabend in Die schöne Müllerin: there is much in common between these two pieces of music including the tonality, time signature, accompaniment and changes to the major key at the moment when the unattainable is mentioned and made to blossom in the vocal line (this happens at the only moment in the cycle where the phrase ‘die schöne Müllerin’ is given voice). The fruit that ripens gloriously mentioned in this verse is obviously Attis’s beauty and his reputation (which had been much honoured and praised, hence mention of gold and purple, colours of honour and nobility) ruined by his deadly affliction.

The middle section of the song is a quasi-recitative, an arioso marked ‘Geschwind’. Here Schubert seems to have remembered the Gluckian studies of his youth, and with some justification – the appearance of a dea ex machina in verse 2 is worthy of an opera by that composer. The words ‘Ich liebe, ich rase, ich hab’ sie gesehn’ are set to a bracing and wide-ranging vocal line supported by chords punched out at the piano on the second and fourth beats of the bar. Here madness owes its depiction to the manner of the Iphigénie operas, and it must have seemed to Schubert that this was appropriate to a Grecian subject, so much had he learned to identify antiquity with Gluck’s style. At ‘ich musste flehn’ Attis begins to recount his encounter with Cybele. The chromatic wandering of this section paints the disorientation of a supernatural experience. The accompaniment shepherds the vocal line through a maze of harmonic changes – from C major to D flat major, and thence to C flat major, and a thicket of flats as far removed from the accidental-free purity of A minor as it is possible to imagine. The pleading eloquence of ‘Wirst du meine Bitte versagen?’ is repeated a semitone higher which results in a tone of almost feminine pathos. The description of the goddess’s reaction (the music is marked at a slower tempo at ‘Sie schaute mit gütigem Lächeln mich an’) is as sweet and unreal as a dream in slow motion. The music here has the silken seductiveness of the Erlking’s promises of a happy existence; a major-key simplicity marries charm and gentleness with something deeper and more ominous. A short recitative which, it is true, might have been more dramatic to please Capell and Reed, returns us to the present, and Attis’s terrified waking state; the words ‘kein Gott will sich hülfreich erzeigen’ seems passive, helpless, and frozen to the spot. A short interlude prepares the path back to the A minor of the home key.

And so for the last verse of the we return to the plaintive music of the opening as common time yields to a wafting 6/8. This is the mood which is at the heart of the poem, and Schubert’s response to it. Once again the change from A minor to A major works its magic; this time it is at the words ‘ich jenseits der Wellen’ where the raised third of the scale lifts the music into the major key, and with it all of Attis’s hopes for a return to a better life. How well this composer understood what it is to dream of what could not be! The tragedy of Mayrhofer’s closing lines could have been expanded to make something remarkably dramatic, but Schubert’s prefers to throw them away in a swift recitative as if he understands that this suicide is a decision taken in a moment of desperation; it is the moment when the beleaguered spirit, already stretched as far as it can bear, longs to end the pain. In mythological terms, a follower of Cybele would not be able to make such an easy exit, but this end is a feasible solution for the nineteenth century.

The last words of the poem, ‘waldige Stellen’, are followed by an E major chord as if in secco recitative. This is an upbeat to an A minor aria, but an aria without voice. The singer is no more, as if a vocal line suddenly struck dumb were a metaphor for castration, and an accompaniment without a soloist signals the death of the protagonist. The piano is an ersatz singer, standing in for the real thing as much as Attis has been ‘notha mulier’. Thus we find ourselves in a state of musical limbo that is unique in Schubert’s lieder. This feeling is intensified by the fact that for eight bars, underneath this singerless aria, we are not allowed to hear a chord in root position. That this is the longest postlude in all the Schubert songs (eleven bars) shows how deeply the composer was involved in this story. The first four bars comprise the repeat of a two-bar phrase. This is the music of yearning: over those familiar rippling semiquavers a rising scale, aspiring upwards (B–C–D–E) is limned in by the little finger of the right hand – and then again for two bars – as if trying again to do something that has failed at the first attempt. The bass line is an E, and the music is built on various elaborations of E major as the dominant of A minor. We long, like Attis, to go home, for a bass note to return us to the tonic. Instead, with almost painful rapture, the music blossoms into A major with rippling chord patterns in the right hand, fuller than any we have heard so far. But still the bass is a second inversion (or 6/4 in harmonic terms), and the effect of this passage (again a two-bar cell which is repeated) is gently sensual, infinitely sad as only Schubert’s major-key music can be, and offering neither bliss, nor resolution.

Only in the last three bars of the postlude does the piano return to the tonic (A minor) with music that derives from the introduction. For the first time in the song the rippling semiquavers are to be found in the depths of the bass clef; the left hand’s descent is eloquent testimony to Attis’s fall from divine grace. We are reminded of that wonderful bar of left-hand music at the very end of Der Müller und der Bach from Die schöne Müllerin, also deep in the bass clef, which signals the suicide of the miller-boy as he slips beneath the water. As we have already noted, this is not the only link with Atys; indeed, this song, written eight years before the great cycle, is one of several earlier manifestations of the composer’s compassion for outcasts and misfits. Reed and Capell may not think it a cut above the rest, but Atys was one of the Schubert songs most loved by Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/4040CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 34
CDJ33034Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Track 6 on CDJ33034 [4'21] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 19 on CDS44201/40 CD19 [4'21] 40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)

Track-specific metadata for CDJ33034 track 6

Recording date
1 January 1999
Recording venue
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Martin Compton
Recording engineer
Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 34 (CDJ33034)
    Disc 1 Track 6
    Release date: January 2000
    Deletion date: October 2009
    Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
  2. Schubert: The Complete Songs (CDS44201/40)
    Disc 19 Track 19
    Release date: October 2005
    40CDs Boxed set + book (at a special price)
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