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Philoktet, D540

First line:
Da sitz ich ohne Bogen und starre in den Sand
March 1817; first published in 1831 in volume 11 of the Nachlass
author of text

Philoctetes was a tragedy by Sophocles, produced in Athens in 409BC. No doubt Mayrhofer studied this play, and a number of others, in the original Greek. He had made his own translation from Aeschylus after all. Lessing had published a life of Sophocles as early as 1790, and the first printed editions of the ancient master's plays in German translation date from 1815. Mayrhofer was obviously well abreast of all these recent developments. The outpouring of classical poems set by Schubert in 1817 mark the poet out as one of the pioneer romantic writers who delighted in looking at the classics in a new perspective, acknowledging and honouring disruptive Dionysus every bit as enthusiastically as calm, neo-classical Apollo.

Philoctetes had inherited the bow and arrows of Heracles from his father Polas. During the expedition to Troy he was bitten in the foot so badly by a snake, and thus poisoned with a terrible wound, that his pitiful cries obliged the Greeks to abandon him on the island of Lemnos. It is at this point that Sophocles' play opens. At least the wounded hero still has his bow which enables him to shoot birds to eat. Meanwhile on the battle front, a seer reveals that Troy will fall only with the help of Heracles' bow and arrows. Odysseus (Ulysses) and Neoptolemus (who has already appeared in these notes as Andromache's second husband) are dispatched to Lemnos to bring the bow back. Of the two, Odysseus is more ruthlessly determined to achieve this end, even if it means leaving Philoctetes helpless; as Philoctetes is in too much pain to undertake the journey back with them to Troy, Odysseus overrules Neoptolemus's objections and makes off with the bow. It is at this point in the story that Mayrhofer's poem begins. As befits a song with a very long off-stage prologue, we are plunged into the middle of the story with chords that manage to sound angry and impotent at the same time; they are also far from the home key of B minor, and despite their rage they, like Philoctetes, seem stuck in one place. John Reed points out that in the opening vocal line the composer uses his 'favourite tonal image of fate/death, plunging down from B minor to the dominant F sharp major.' Philoctetes is not depicted as a complicated character—he has the ancient virtues of unornamented directness and the barren island where he lives has thinned down his vocal line to the bone; 'die auf der wsten Insel' is supported by an accompaniment of undernourished, white-faced minims. The most exceptional harmonic change of gear in the song is at the second verse where D major suddenly veers to a B flat pedal in the key of E flat minor: the juxtaposition of tonalities is eerily modern, but the music for the flight of birds seems to be a homage to that rare old bird Gluck with its majestic, whirring accompaniment rooted on solid blocks of chords. The movement of the stag in the bushes, two bars before the words that describe it, is delicate and fleet. The invoking of Nemesis lacks total conviction, and it is no surprise to discover at the beginning of verse 3 that Schubert has composed this piece to something of a classical formula: it is a da capo aria and the music of grounded anger returns, as does the fate/death motif. The demand for the return of the bow is so imperious that (to continue the story beyond the song) Neoptolemus returns with the required article, hotly pursued by Odysseus who is nearly shot by Philoctetes wielding his newly restored weapon. In the end Heracles himself steps in and commands Philoctetes to go to Troy with the bow. The song's hero was eventually healed by the surgeon Machaon and helped win the Trojan war by shooting Paris.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991


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