Hyperion Records

Mahomets Gesang, D721
First line:
Seht den Felsenquell
March 1821; published as a fragment in 1895 in the Gesamtausgabe; completed by Reinhard van Hoorickx
author of text

'Schubert: The Complete Songs' (CDS44201/40)
Schubert: The Complete Songs
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Mahomets Gesang, D721
Schubert had attempted to set this poem before, in 1817. That fragment can be heard on track 23 of Volume 24 where there is an accompanying commentary. There are two main differences between the two songs: the 1817 version is for tenor, the 1821 for bass; the 1817 version has a moto perpetuo accompaniment of triplets, the later attempt, recorded on this disc, semiquavers. There is a possibility that Schubert actually completed the earlier version; it breaks off at the bottom of the page after 114 bars, and it may be that the continuation has been lost. Even if this was the case it seems strange that Schubert should have once again embarked on setting this monumental text unless he was dissatisfied with his first efforts. There is no doubt however that the composer lost heart with the second version as it breaks off after only 39 bars. Schubert seems to have had similar difficulties in both attempts. The challenge of a song about the growth of the Muslim faith is considerable, and the size of the canvas is established by the virtuosity of the piano writing. He must have been attracted to this poem partly because it offered a chance to write water music: apart from the drama of the historical background, the composer saw the exciting task of depicting a stream turning into a river, and then becoming a veritable flood – all of this a metaphor for the gathering force of Mahommed’s followers. The poem was written as part of a projected verse-drama on the life of the prophet planned by Goethe in the early 1770s. This too was unfinished.

The second version owes a lot to the first, above all in its constant, restless movement and the similarity of the prosody. Both works have a key-signature with four sharps, but the tenor version starts rather gently with bubbling triplets in E major while the second is in a much more ominous C sharp minor. In 1817 Schubert had taken the opening words about the joyful stream at face value, but there is much more of a sense of drama in the second version. Schubert was not of the generation which remembered the danger that Austria had faced with Turkish invasion, but by 1821 his knowledge of history would have been much more sophisticated (probably thanks to his sojourn with Mayrhofer). There is in this second song a sense of momentous happenings, with threatening implications for the West. From this point of view the earlier song had begun much too genially, but that fragment stays the course much longer precisely because the composer does not play his hand all at once. Goethe’s admiration from fifty years earlier for Mahomet as a great historical figure has here been tempered by a Viennese historical viewpoint, and in the song recorded here we hear a stream of violence and inherent danger rather than a merry little brook. The most interesting music in this fragment is for ‘Jünglingfrisch tanzt er aus der Wolke’ where Goethe develops the same theme (in miniature) already familiar from Gesang der Geister über den Wassern (Vol 24) – that of water coming from the skies above, and returning there as part of a great natural cycle. The idea of youthful energy is appropriately reflected in a bouncing hunting-horn motif in the left-hand accompaniment; and the phrase ‘Jauchzet wieder Nach dem Himmel’ climbs the stave (the song is written in the bass clef) propelled upwards by relentless pianistic fingerwork which, crab-like, traverses the keyboard in an impressive, if somewhat mechanical, manner. It seems that as soon as he saw that that he was trapped into writing such clichés, the composer retreated, for it is here that the music breaks off.

Reinhard Van Hoorickx has brought this fragment to a close by returning to the opening music to make a four-bar postlude. This leaves everything that Schubert himself wrote intact, and takes us back to the dramatic mood of the Vorspiel in C sharp minor.

from notes by Graham Johnson 1997

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