Schubert had first attempted to set this text in March 1813. Two pieces of a fragment exist for tenor and bass solo with SATB chorus. He returned to it thirteen years later to make his last complete Schiller setting and perhaps the most popular. It continues the jollifications initiated in Elysium, with the same sense of unreality and amusement that one relishes in that work. These gods are awfully jolly people; wreaths of grapes replace grapes of wrath, and even Prometheus would be invited for a conciliatory drink if his liver could stand the pace. The cast list is impressive: all tnphe top people are there in the manner of an old Hollywood biopic—'Brahms meet Liszt; Liszt this is Showpan'—but Johann Sebastian Bacchus comes first as is correct and proper in a form dedicated to his honour. Schubert too is remarkably true to the form; in ancient Greek times fifty men and boys danced it to reed flute accompaniment, and the composer makes a rollicking dance with a certain bibulous exaggeration which suggests that the gods are cads. Zeus (Jupiter) himself seems to be rather peremptory to Hebe in the third verse. A modulation to the subdominant (i.e. the lesser gods) is followed by confidential carousings in the dominant (kinky nudges and winks among the ruling classes). If the gods were Christian they would be supposed to set us an example. There seems to be a definite sense of relief here that they are not.
This song was first performed in the Musikverein in Vienna on the day after Schubert's death. It was rediscovered by record enthusiasts in the late 1930s when Elenpra Gerhardt sang it as part of her last set of records made privately on HMV white label. It here returns after fifty years to the mezzo-soprano domain.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991
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