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The second section of the song ('Schmerz verzerret ihr Gesicht') is a merciless Allegro—music of twisted grimace, trapped within a tiny span of vocal intervals. We can hear martial dotted rhythms of this kind in Verse 2 and 3 of Amphiaraos where it is associated with armed struggle; the dotted motif of struggle in D minor in Gruppe aus dem Tartarus prefigures its use in another D minor Schiller setting, Der Kampf D594 from two months later. Buoyed up by this motif, held semitone minims rise in half steps from F to the high-water mark of A. Hollow eyes then prompt cavernous harmonies with the voice now taking its turn in chromatic duty, rising from E flat to F sharp, then settling in F sharp minor ('folgend tränend'); it is the nearest we get in this song to the sound of compassion, but F sharp is another tritone in relation to the song's home key of C, and there is to be no mercy. The next verse begins in C sharp minor, the dominant of F sharp, and builds tension in the way of a Rossini crescendo—a reworking of the idea of ascending chromatic scales that has pervaded this piece. Instead of watery rumblings we now hear urgent pulsating quavers, the sound of an entire chorus whispering urgent imprecations. There is scarcely a vocal line here at all, only a succession of quasi parlando rising intervals; so strong is the tonal scheme that we scarcely notice the lack of conventional melody. The damned are asking whether there is an end to all this suffering. From their perspective the word 'Ewigkeit' is not a promise of release to better realms but a horrible taunt—a sentence of eternal death, sung in triumphant C major, the word twice elongated above expansive and virtuosic piano chords which sweep in exultant circles of grim satisfaction at richly deserved punishment. The scythe of Saturn is broken by stabbing, jagged chords. Only in the piano postlude, as we leave the scene, do the chromatic scales reverse their direction and descend—it is as if we have summoned a ghoulish nightmare which now returns to the depths from whence it came. For Fischer-Dieskau the final C minor chord of semibreves is the image of Saturn, coldly presiding over this endless tragedy. On the page the semibreves, and the rippling line making a spread chord of them, resemble the ring-surrounded planet named after the god.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991
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