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Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, D583

First line:
Horch – wie Murmeln des empörten Meeres
September 1817; published in October 1823 as Op 24 No 1
author of text

This song was composed at the height of Schubert's enthusiasm for classical mythology in music. It is an astonishing achievement not only because it so well finds the key to Schiller's poem (it is arguably the greatest of all that poet's Schubert settings) but because it refutes the notion that it was only with Hugo Wolf that 'modern' declamation in the Wagnerian manner upstaged 'old-fashioned' melody. The song even looks extraordinary on paper, the introduction a cut-away map of the Underworld: at street level we see only a bank of C's, nodding like poppies sticking their heads above the stave, while rising semitones, undermining the foundations of hope in the afterlife, heave in the subterranean depths. The pianist's tremolandi begin on C, an octave apart; the insistent rising chromaticism squeezes the hands closer together, as mercilessly as a thumbscrew, until a plateau of pain is reached with the crunch of an A flat seventh chord. Another turn of the screw in the torture chamber and the process begins again, this time on C sharp, and yet again on D, the note on which the voice enters and where it stays in mesmerised horror for seven notes. By the time we reach E flat and the word 'Meeres' we realise that this is Schubertian water music, opaque with Stygian sludge, but water music of a kind, all the same; it is quite possible that the sinister scales of the accompaniment belong to a nest of writhing serpents, but Schiller tells us that the groans of the damned sound like the sea, and Schubert provides waves of sound to illustrate the analogy. It is a measure of the epic scale of this setting (very unlike the first version) that by this time we have only reached the end of the poem's first line. Harmonies, changing in the right hand, stay rooted on E flat in the left for five long bars, but then the basses begin to rise in semitones, one bar at a time, and this inexorable progress adds to the effect of panic and claustrophobia. (E flat to the arrival point of A is a tritone, long a metaphor for the devil in music and the underworld.) The musical suspense built up by this relentless approach to 'Ach!', turns that word into a desperate gasp when the music finally snaps into D minor like a spring-loaded trap.

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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