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Antigone und Oedip, D542

First line:
Ihr hohen Himmlischen erhöret
March 1817; published in August 1821 as Op 6 No 2
author of text

The tragedy of Oedipus is one of the most famous in Greek mythology. Sophocles devoted two plays to the story of the king's life and death, and also wrote Antigone, a sequel about the fate of the ill-fated daughter. In Oedipus Tyrannus the first part of the legend is told, leading to Oedipus's discovery that in unknowingly slaying his son Laius and marrying his mother Jocasta he has brought down the wrath of the gods upon Thebes. Jocasta hangs herself at the end of this play, and Oedipus blinds himself with her brooch. Oedipus, deposed from the Theban throne, was banished into exile with his daughter Antigone. They wander until they arrive at Colonos in Attica where they fall under the protection of Theseus.

Oedipus at Colonos dates from 401BC and was first performed only after Sophocles' death. It opens with the blinded and banished Oedipus's arrival in Colonos a mile and a half north of the Acropolis. The inhabitants want him to leave, which he refuses to do, believing that it has been predicted that he will die there. Mayrhofer's text reworks this corner of the story, not so much as a duet but a two-part monologue; Antigone's filial prayer to the gods is followed by the old king's awakening from a deep sleep, and voicing his presentiments of death. It is impossible not to imagine the lordly figure of the retired opera singer, and the song's dedicatee, Johann Michael Vogl, relishing every opportunity that this piece gave him, including the chance to play the role of Antigone, perhaps in the falsetto tones that made his contemporary detractors think of him as foppish. (Singers of the nineteenth century were less inhibited about singing women's songs, and Vogl was a famous exponent of Ellen's Ave Maria.) Antigone und Oedip achieves greater musical and dramatic vibrancy than its Schiller counterpart, Hektors Abschied from two years before. Written, it seems to me, shamelessly to woo Vogl to the Schubertian cause, and taking his own conservative musical tastes into account, as well as his experience as a singer of Gluck, it deliberately refrains from harmonic adventures. The song has the classical virtues of Doric architecture and is free of extraneous detail—although it is true that the Neue Schubert Ausgabe publishes a version of the song which shows what Vogl added to it in terms of old-fashioned eighteenth-century ornamentation. This adds nothing to the composer's initial more simple inspiration; we do not miss the harmonic luxuriance which is Schubert's wont, and we see the ancient characters more clearly for the fact that their songs rest on a foundation of large blocks of harmonic marble. Antigone's aria, a type of pagan Ave Maria—which is also sung on behalf of a father's plight, is both grandiose and touching. The rippling semiquavers of the accompaniment serve to illustrate the flow of the 'herzentströmtes' entreaties, as well as the movement of the long wished-for cool breath of comfort. The second verse is in the dominant of G major (the 'avenging blow' of the gods prompts pulsating semiquavers) and the third graduates demurely to E minor with a temporary interruption of the semiquaver flow in the accompaniment; this returns on 'und stille ist's' for perhaps the two most beautiful lines in the work—a peaceful and spacious vocal line floating over a figuration which evokes breezes a-quiver in a holy place. Antigone's recitative after this, although introduced by an alert sequence of miniature piano interludes, is somewhat wooden by comparison. Oedipus is a noble creation; we can hear his blindness through Schubert's deliberate use of harmony with a limited field of vision. There are fanfares a-plenty to conjure his former status as a king and good old-fashioned drinking-song music—the sadder when the king remembers most that healing beverage of sunlight, never to be tasted again; the harmony in thirds and sixths befits the hunting horn, and the rhythm in triplets paints hearty carousings. The simplicity of this good old life in sunny C major yields to a heartbreaking change of harmonic circumstance; the progress to E flat of 'dass ich nun nimmer schauen kann' is a short journey for the voice, but it contains musical pathos of the highest order. The portentous last verse softens to include an unmistakeable echo of the rhythm and mood of death's utterance in Der Tod und das Mädchen D531, written the month before.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991


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