This marvellous song, with a text by Schubert's close friend Mayrhofer, has never achieved the popularity of its Schiller counterpart Gruppe aus dem Tartarus
(D583) in which rushing semiquavers in the accompaniment propel the voice part through a gruesome tour of the underworld. Fahrt zum Hades
is equally dramatic in its own way but the tempo is set in triplets: taken at a funereal pace (as often happens) this music can seem lifeless and complacent. In fact it should rage eloquently against the dying of the light. D minor is a favourite Schubert key to depict epic travel: the first song in Winterreise
launches another ominous journey; the winter clouds fly in strife in Der stürmische Morgen
in the same cycle, the old coachman Kronos drives a path in D minor through life itself with ineluctable force and it is in this key that Death invites the Maiden to cross the threshold into his domain. The commendatore scene from Mozart's Don Giovanni
(the Don also travels to Hades) must have played a part in Schubert's feeling for this tonality and in the choice of key for these songs. In the opening section of Fahrt zum Hades the bass line is particularly strong and the power of the triplets is merciless. This is after all a journey across the river Styx and Schubert here writes very unusual water music indeed. He often illustrates the crystalline, sparkling qualities of water, but here thick chords depict a heavier substance—Lethean ooze, denser than the Dead Sea, 'heavy with death' as Mayrhofer says. The modulation to the relative major ('Da leuchten Sonne nicht') gives rise to music which is a hymn to earth's beauties rather than a description of their absence. We cannot forget that the most famous musical visitors to these realms was Gluck's Orpheus
. The influence of that composer is discernible in the nobility of the vocal line at 'die letzte Träne'. We then glimpse King Danaus's fifty daughters, the Danaïdes who everlastingly fill leaking pails—Schubert himself added the adjective 'pale' to the poem to describe them. Among the many punishments traditionally ascribed to the wretched Tantalus was eternal hunger and (although up to his neck in water) eternal thirst … 'water water everywhere, nor any drop to drink'. As the music falls from B flat minor to the remote reaches of D flat minor the black depths of the ancient river Lethe are revealed; the vocal line here falls to its nadir. The last verse of the poem as Mayrhofer wrote it describes the soul's final struggle to break free, and Schubert provides a hectic ascending chromatic scramble for life which launches an impassioned but fruitless recitative. After a majestic and rhetorical bridge passage the composer uses the poet's first verse again for a recapitulation which is subtly varied in the vocal line to end the journal unequivocally with no right of appeal. This da capo gives the whole piece a shape which seems appropriate to its classical subject and epic emotional scale.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1988