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The Britten-Auden relationship failed to survive this letter-lecture, and after composing Heliopolis II Schubert abandoned Mayrhofer's poetry for two years. The parallels are far-reaching. It would be idle to compare Mayrhofer's stature as a poet with Auden's, but to have heard Britten perform Schubert was to be made aware of an uncanny spiritual affinity between two composers. The poet in each pairing was the more articulate and intellectual, generously capable of broadening the composer's mental and literary horizons; in each case an intense friendship cooled when the protégé escaped from a claustrophobic influence to establish a modus vivendi more congenial to his own nature. The third verse of Mayrhofer's poem sounds as if he could be attempting to censor Schubert's friends; after all, would his opinion of who was 'worthy and great' be the same as the composer's? Despite the distance between Greece and Bohemia, the last verse of Mayrhofer's poem is remarkably similar to Auden's, in sum 'your art will be greater once you have shaken off the shackles'. But whose? The line between mentor and tormentor is a fine one.
Of course, just as Britten brilliantly set 'Underneath the abject willow', Schubert set this Heliopolis poem with demonic energy. The songs Selige Welt and Mayrhofer's Der Schiffer (both Volume 2) come to mind, and all three songs are almost over-idealised portraits of manly strength (see note to Der Schiffer in Volume 2). Mayrhofer might well have attempted the high-minded abstinence counselled by Socrates in Phaedrus and The Symposium, his whole life a struggle, inspired by the precepts of the Platonic dialogues, between the spirit and the flesh. The composer probably grew tired of Mayrhofer's tense and highly charged behaviour, passionate on paper, and almoKMst certainly repressed and uptight in practice. Schober (with whom Schubert shared lodgings more than once) was no doubt much easier company.
Schubert thinks himself into the exaltation of Mayrhofer's would-be heroic nature (the heroism the poet seeks to encourage in him) and finds the right tone for the song—the brandished fist of a Beethovenian C minor. The pianist has to resist the temptation to brandish anything for here he is a rock-climber holding on to the keyboard, the doubling of octaves descriptive of determination and willpower. The safe grip of both hand and foot, the climber's treble and bass as it were, is thus secured on the treacherous rock-face. The repeat of 'Grab sie' (two identical bars) is to ensure that the etching is scratched deep enough the mind. The harmonic progressions are astonishing, rising a semitone, and then slipping back a notch, building a tense (and Tensing) ascent, inch-by-inch. The third verse pauses in the home key to look at the view and gather its breath and the last section modulates into a victorious C major, without a smile to bless the exhausting triumph. Finding the 'right word' for Schubert was seldom the self-conscious struggle that this text and its music implies.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991
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