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Prometheus, D674

First line:
Bedecke deinen Himmel, Zeus
October 1819; first published in 1850 as part of volume 47 of the Nachlass
author of text

The myth of Prometheus (the main classical sources are Hesiod, Aeschylus, Apollodorus and Pausanias) has attracted western artists since the fourteenth century: the unfortunate Titan appears in John Gower’s Confessio amantis (c1390); he was painted by Botticelli and drawn by Parmagianino; Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, Pierre de Ronsard and Jonathan Swift wrote about him. Gottfried August Bürger and Christoph Martin Wieland took up the subject in 1770, shortly followed by Goethe who wrote his dramatic fragment Prometheus in 1773. August von Schlegel wrote an epic poem on Prometheus in 1797, and Johann Gottfried Herder treated the subject in 1803. Beethoven wrote the ballet music for Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus in 1801, and Johann Friedrich Reichardt composed a setting of Goethe’s poem in 1809. In Byron’s work Prometheus features in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and elsewhere (from 1812), and Wordsworth broaches the subject in 1814. We can also easily forget that the full title of Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley’s famous novel was Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1817).

Schubert’s first encounter with Prometheus was writing a cantata by that name in 1816 with a text by Philipp Dräxler von Carin (D451). The manuscript of this substantial work for two soloists, chorus and orchestra was mislaid even in the composer’s lifetime, and we must now consider it entirely lost to posterity. The Goethe setting, the solo song recorded here, dates from 1819. During the early Romantic period, Prometheus continued to fascinate artists of every kind: in poetry, Percy Bysshe Shelley with his epic and idealistic Prometheus Unbound (1820), also Giacomo Leopardi (1824) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1833). It would only be later in the century that music caught up. The main rival of Schubert’s setting – Hugo Wolf’s – appeared in the Goethelieder of 1889. The opera, Prométhée, written by Gabriel Fauré for forces uncharacteristically vast for his tastes, was conceived for open-air performance in 1900. Alexander Scriabin’s Prométhée: Le poème du feu dates from 1908-10. Other engagements with the legend from the more recent past are found (just by way of example) in the poetry of Pablo Neruda and Robert Lowell; in the art of Henry Moore (lithographs for André Gide’s translation of Goethe’s poem) and Oskar Kokoschka (a triptych of paintings of the ‘Prometheus Saga’ in 1950); and in the music of Carl Orff (an opera, Prometheus, written in 1968) and Luigi Nono (Prometeo, 1984).

There are many versions and variants of the story. For our purposes it is enough to know that the Titan (his name means ‘forethinker’) was a champion of men against the gods. It was said (by Apollodorus) that he was the creator of the human race, fashioning men out of clay, and he taught men the arts and crafts necessary to improve their primitive existence. After Zeus had decided to deprive mankind of fire, legend has it that Prometheus stole a spark from the gods and carried it on a slow-burning fennel stalk in order to give it to mankind. In return for this and other acts of defiance, Zeus punished him in two ways: he created the first woman, Pandora, who brought with her all the world’s evils, and he chained the Titan to a rock in the Caucasus where an eagle daily plucked out his liver which grew again each night. This ensured his perpetual agony, for each day he suffered the same fate. The release of Prometheus from his captivity came about in the following manner: on the way to his eleventh labour (fetching the golden apples of the Hesperides), Heracles shot the eagle which tormented Prometheus; in return, Prometheus advised Heracles to offer to hold up the sky for Atlas, while sending the Titan to fetch the apples on his behalf. Zeus, proud of his son Heracles’ achievements, allowed this to happen and forgot his old enmity. There are thus two definite phases to the Prometheus story (Bound and Unbound) which have been variously treated by artists, only a few of whom are mentioned above.

From the point of view of Goethe’s poem, the Titan might be named Prometheus Defiant. The punishment of Zeus has not yet been visited upon him, but one has the feeling that it will not be long in coming after the song’s overwhelmingly scornful conclusion. The poet sketched three scenes of an incomplete Promethean drama in 1773. The first of these is an extended conversation in blank verse between Prometheus and Mercury; then the goddess Minerva enters who, although loyal to her father Zeus, loves Prometheus and is his protector. The second scene begins on Olympus: Zeus speaks with Mercury, and then we see Prometheus in his role as creator of mankind. There is also a long exchange between Prometheus and the newly created Pandora. The third scene is set in the workshop of Prometheus and consists of nothing more than the poem that we know, which Goethe rescued from this context and placed in his Gedichte. This shows that Goethe had imagined Prometheus as yet unpunished, still a free man when speaking this poem, and Schubert’s setting conveys this context. On the other hand, Hugo Wolf’s monumental song, which bristles with musical thunder and lightning, the vocal line sung as if in conflict with the accompaniment, suggests a tortured Titan, raging at his malefactor while bound to the rock.

As is usually the case in Goethe’s use of mythology, the ancient tale is an allegory for concerns very much more in the present. As Nicholas Boyle puts it, the poem ‘showed an awareness and affirmation of the anti-Christian logic at the heart of the contemporary philosophical and theological reflection in Germany’. The poet’s Sturm und Drang denial of a personal creator-God caused considerable controversy for some time in Germany’s literary circles. Added to this was something which seemed to be arrogant celebration of the self-sufficiency of genius, a great artist’s independence of the patronage and support of others, and his right to ‘go it alone’. Goethe later softened the effect of the poem by publishing it before Ganymed in the Gedichte. This accented its mythological aspect, and the behaviour of the recklessly defiant Prometheus was counterbalanced by the shepherd-boy who was a willing worshipper, excessively eager to give himself up to Zeus. The middle course, the sensible realisation of mankind’s limitations – not aspiring to be too close to the gods, but not confronting them either – was demonstrated by the third of the triptych, Grenzen der Menschheit. Hugo Wolf was to publish them together, in this order, as the three final songs of his Goethelieder.

The poem was set by Schubert at the time when he was very much under the intellectual influence of Mayrhofer (he had just begun to share the poet’s small apartment in the Wipplingerstrasse). There are a number of contexts in the life of both men which seems to make the decision to have set the poem to music especially significant. The first of these is the most obvious: the challenge to conventional religion where Goethe’s pantheism, leaning towards Spinoza and Leibniz, would have been sympathetic to a composer who had very recently set to music the texts of Novalis and Friedrich von Schlegel. (See the essay on Schubert and Religion accompanying Volume 31.) The composer’s difficult relationship with his own father is also full of Promethean resonances. Schubert was determined to continue on his path as a full-time composer, and Franz Theodor Schubert, a patriarch who was accustomed to being obeyed, thought his son foolishly over-ambitious and disloyal to the family schoolteaching business. Whatever the state of the relationship between father and son in October 1819, Schubert seems to have been through many a period of conflict with Franz Theodor since the onset of his teens. Another consideration was the paternalistic authoritarianism of Clemens von Metternich’s regime, a permanent source of irritation and intimidation for Austrians of student age, as well as for Mayrhofer whose work as a book-censor was completely at odds with his liberal private beliefs. The poem could be thought of as an artist’s gesture of defiance against the overweening power of the state which meddled in the lives of individuals. This meant a revolt against the authority of both Church and state, not only in terms of political belief, but also social mores. A poem by A E Housman, for example, glowers with more than a touch of Promethean anger:

The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me;
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affair …

In this case the poet feels himself an outlaw because of his sexuality, and the unfairness and repression associated with ‘the laws of God’. Such an issue would also lead to an identification with Prometheus’s revolt against authority. In a country like Biedermeier Austria, the Church and the state were so entwined, and matters of private morality so often the subject of police interference, that it seems possible that Schubert and Mayrhofer read into Goethe’s defiant words much more than a challenge to conventional religion. In post-revolutionary Europe the poem resounds like a battle-cry for individuality because it mocks the notion that our official protectors and guardians (whether God, parents, priests, or police) are all-powerful. These people only pose as benefactors, claiming that they care for our good. But every man is responsible for his own feelings, and what he loves is sacred to him. The sole pleasure known to these false and selfish gods is destroying what is good and beautiful so that they can maintain control over their helots. They have to be confronted, no matter the cost, and Prometheus was the first hero to do so.

Schubert is encouraged by Goethe’s free verse (the strophes are of uneven length) to find a musical form that is equally free. This reflects the Titan’s defiance of convention and hierarchical order. Not since the ballads of 1813 to 1815 has Schubert evolved something so daring in terms of form. A look at Carl Friedrich Reichardt’s setting from 1809 shows us that it must have been known to Schubert – indeed he was not above learning from it, beginning in the same key signature of two flats and writing for the same vocal range – but he was to go much further than Reichardt to depict the rage and scorn of Prometheus. This music is the paradigm of spontaneity, of feelings vented ‘on the spot’ without forethought. Accordingly, there is nothing that looks back to the past – the song thrusts relentlessly forward, each section having its own atmosphere and logic, the whole held together less by subtle planning than by an ongoing intensity which melds the disparate movements together in the white heat of the moment.

1. The song begins with storm music, a grimly triumphant fanfare-like phrase of octaves between the hands. This is a one-bar cell of strutting dotted rhythms which occurs seven times in all in the opening section. But we are never allowed to feel harmonically safe and settled. The opening bar seems to announce the key of B flat major, but the second is a series of hammered chords in A flat which lead to E flat major. Another stormy fanfare in this key (the same dotted rhythm) leads to a bar of similarly insistent D major chords which, in turn, lead to the G minor tremolo which underpins the opening recitative. Zeus’s rage is depicted in all this at the same time as being the subject of the singer’s mockery. These shifting tonal centres suggest the search for a firm foothold from which to launch an attack, the turn of the harmonic screw a metaphor for the screwing-up of courage. The singer has not uttered a note and yet we are already in the presence of a dangerously restless individual with what the Americans would term an ‘attitude problem’. When the singer begins with ‘Bedecke deinen Himmel, Zeus’ there is a snarl built into this music, anger and contempt which are seldom to be found in Schubert. The setting of the word ‘Zeus’ on the fourth beat, and tied across the bar-line, produces a syncopated casualness, the swaggering insolence of blasphemy.

After ‘Wolkendunst’ the thundering dotted-rhythm motif of the introduction returns as an interlude, as if played by trombones. Mention of Zeus beheading thistles suggests a visual musical image to Schubert as the right-hand tremolo (B flat – D) is also beheaded, cut down first to B flat – D flat, and then B flat – C. Further majestic interludes after ‘köpft’ and ‘Bergeshöhn’ punctuate the accusation that Zeus’s behaviour is merely childishly petulant; indeed, they may be taken as a parody of the god throwing his weight around to no good purpose. After this, Prometheus really gets into his stride with the venom of a biblical seer (the sentiments recall ‘They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat’ of Isaiah Chapter 65) or a trade-union prophet. With the phrases ‘und meine Hütte, die du nicht gebaut’ and ‘und meinem Herd, um dessen Glut du mich beneidest’ the confrontation between Prometheus and Zeus takes on the revolutionary aspect of worker against boss, of organised labour challenging Olympian capitalism. Each of the sentences in this section is pitched slightly higher than its predecessor, and adds to the feeling of almost hysterical accusation. After ‘beneidest’ we have the last appearance of the storm motive, and it is as if Prometheus has become so heated that arioso is abandoned in favour of a recitative (‘Ich kenne nichts Ärmeres under der Sonn’, als euch, Götter!’) which is almost spluttered in its frustrated anger. In Goethe’s versification, this is actually the beginning of the second strophe, but Schubert reserves his change of mood and tempo (Etwas langsamer) for ‘Ihr nährt kümmerlich’.

2. This strange passage is full of irony and sarcasm, a very rare quality in Schubert indeed. The ‘offerings’ and the ‘breath of prayer’ mentioned here obviously encourage the composer to think of church ceremonial as he knew it. Thus the Titan’s continuing accusations and put-downs are accompanied by music in four parts that seems to have been written for organ; the creeping chromaticisms suggest extreme servility as they genuflect in an elaborate parody of the learned ‘old style’ favoured in church music. The vocal line is the descant above this four-part writing, but the exaggeratedly woebegone setting of ‘kümmerlich’, and the sarcasm built into ‘eure Majestät’ make it clear that, far from identifying with the solemnity of his accompaniment, the singer scorns it. This picture of superstitious church ceremonial is conjured in order to be debunked. There is no song in Schubert that this passage resembles more than the religious Vom Mitleiden Mariä, also in G minor, written nine months earlier. It is no surprise with the image of the ‘Bettler’ that we also hear echoes of the beggar’s song An die Türen will ich schleichen sung by the Harper from Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister. Old-fashioned subservience is the theme uniting all these works.

3. A shift to D minor signals a moment of respite. Schubert knew that a break in the invective was necessary, and that he would have to réculer pour mieux sauter. The flashback to childhood – ‘Da ich ein Kind war’ – allows a moment of tenderness, and we identify more closely with Prometheus when he shows this vulnerable streak. The accompaniment here is very simple, as if it might be played by a child. The emotive accented passing notes on ‘ein Herz wie meins’ and on the final ‘erbarmen’ emphasise the human compassion of which he, unlike the uncaring Zeus, is capable.

4. At ‘Wer half mir’ we return suddenly, and without warning, to the screaming match, although Zeus here is silent – like some dismayed parent who has been bossy for years, and is unexpectedly confronted with the wrathful onslaught of his once-timid offspring. Here the past is brought up and thrown in the father’s face, the recitative requiring the singer almost to spit out the words. The harmonic basis for this, massive in its effect, as if carved out of marble, is made up of three blocks of diminished-seventh chords on G, A and then B. The questions of ‘Who helped, who saved me?’ are answered not in the god’s favour; it is thanks to his own heart, not as he had once believed to the ‘sleeper up above’ that Prometheus owes his deliverance. In ‘wider der Titanen Übermut’ Goethe has invented a piece of background without a basis in mythology; Prometheus is himself a Titan, and only in Aeschylus do we hear of him fighting, not his siblings, but Kronos on the side of Zeus. Once again the word ‘Herz’ is set on a passing-note denoting compassion; this time (at ‘Heilig glühend Herz’) it is an F, the highest note in the song and usually the most difficult to sing. This adds to the heartrending effect of this passage where Prometheus realises that he can only look to his own resources for his salvation. After ‘Schlafenden da droben?’ the piano chords are the most grandiose in the piece. The music is left suspended on the dominant of E flat minor.

5. This is never to be resolved. In perhaps the most exciting passage of the piece (marked ‘Geschwinder’) the harangue continues on a succession of diminished sevenths pivoting at first on that hanging bass B flat. The rhythmic effect of this suggests the taunts of a physical challenge – ‘Ich dich ehren? Wofür?’ – with raised fists and jabs into the air. The diminished-seventh harmony (here associated with the selfish and disruptive god) is contrasted with the major-key wholeness and health of humanity. ‘Hast du die Schmerzen gelindert’ is written out in C flat major, but ‘Je des Beladenen?’ effects an enharmonic change to B major symptomatic of transformation and eased suffering. The next four bars are a sequence of what we have already heard, notched a semitone higher. For the repeat of ‘Ich dich ehren? Wofür?’ the diminished sevenths, rocking back and forth with a boxer’s nervous footwork, are built on a bank of B naturals. In this context, hearing the consolatory C major of ‘Hast du die Tränen gestillet / Je des Geängsteten?’ (set in the trickiest part of the voice, requiring much control in mezza voce) is like emerging from a forest bristling with accidentals to find comfort and help in a sunlit clearing. Schubert underlines Goethe’s point that Prometheus is capable of human compassion, something beyond the understanding of the jealous gods. The hammer-blow chords at the passage beginning ‘Hat nicht mich zum Manne geschmiedet’ are built on a descending sequence of chromatic harmony: left-hand octaves, starting on a B flat, stride downward in tone and semitones. This pattern repeats in the next bars beginning on B, and then C and then C sharp. These basses are harmonised with a blistering array of chords, logical but daring, in a sequence where flats change to sharps and sharps to naturals. Here we hear the very process of mankind being forged in the smithy of Creation. The sparks fly also thanks to the singer’s invective: reference to ‘die allmächtige Zeit’ and ‘das ewige Schicksal’ refer to the Greek figures Chronos and Moira, who are greater than all the gods. The meaningful elongation of the cadential ‘und deine?’ (a chord of G sharp major) reminds Zeus, with sarcastic obeisances, that he too is subject to the laws of nature.

6. Another brief moment of respite before the final onslaught, although still heavily laden with irony. We slide into G sharp minor at the beginning of the section, and somehow find ourselves in G major after only five bars. It is as if these words are whispered to Zeus with a smile of triumph on the part of the singer. They inform the god that one of his ploys has not worked. He had hoped that Prometheus would hate life on earth and find himself unable to cope with the setbacks regularly endured by human beings. In the same way, many a disapproving parent has decided that it would be best to let the hard knocks of life bang some sense into an errant child. The tone of this music is full of taunting politeness with isolated quavers punctuating the bass line like the muffled drum of a dead-march. The honeyed sweetness of ‘Weil nicht alle / Blütenträume reiften?’ is the most richly sarcastic phrase that Schubert ever wrote. It is here that we might imagine him saying to his father: ‘Do you imagine that because I am not an instant success, because I have been disappointed with some failures, that I am going to give up my life in music?’.

7. The crowning glory of this piece is, for the first time, grounded in a solid tonality; and what could be more elemental than C major? The music is marked ‘Kräftig’ and there is something about these hammered chords, massive in their effect and grounded in diatonic harmony, a contrast to all the preceding chromaticism, which puts one in mind of Beethoven, surely the most obviously Promethean of all artists, and the one who might have been forgiven for turning on his Creator, denouncing him for the cruel trick played on his hearing. When Schubert wrote this song, the most recent work by Beethoven to be published in Vienna (mid-September 1819) was the Hammerklavier Sonata Op 106. That work opens with an upward leap from bass to treble, and massive chords like an imperious call to arms, hammered and then snatched away in an implacable Allegro tempo. This is followed by silence for a crotchet and a half, which makes the succeeding sequence, crashing upon the ear and leaping yet higher up the keyboard, even more dramatic. In this song we have a similar effect: Schubert uses the silence between similarly snatched and leaping chords to depict the magnificent recklessness of the Titan’s utterance. And we are reminded that for the composer this is the heart of the song because it shows Prometheus at work, sitting in his workshop and fashioning a new race of men, just as Schubert daily fashioned a new type of music. One can best be defiant not by shouting about it, but by doing something different. The energy field set up by this alternation of loud, leaping chords and eerie intermittent silence is immense. It is as if the stuff of which men are made is being thrown against the potter’s wheel, first one, then another. Time and trouble are taken to paint ‘zu leiden, zu weinen’, mournfully descending intervals on both verbs as if Prometheus were attempting to teach Zeus a new emotional vocabulary. There is a hint of shudder beneath the first ‘Wie ich!’ (suddenly piano in dynamic) as if Prometheus, aware of his hubris, has a premonition of his punishment. But of course there is no punishment, and that is the message of Goethe’s poem. Divine retribution is a fairytale, and we are all responsible for our own destinies. The second ‘Wie ich!’ makes this clear – a jump of a fifth from G to C which is as unambiguous and assured a cadence as one could wish for. All the chromatic doubt of the previous pages has been clarified and focused into enlightened rationalism. The piano’s two thundering C major chords set the seal on one of Schubert’s most remarkable works. We may all be made of Promethean clay, but only genius can be fired to produce a work as extraordinary and highly-coloured as this.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 2000


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/40Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 34
CDJ33034Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Track 15 on CDJ33034 [5'31] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 11 on CDS44201/40 CD22 [5'31] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

Track-specific metadata for CDS44201/40 disc 22 track 11

Recording date
1 January 1999
Recording venue
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Antony Howell & Julian Millard
Hyperion usage
  1. Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 34 (CDJ33034)
    Disc 1 Track 15
    Release date: January 2000
    Deletion date: October 2009
    Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
  2. Schubert: The Complete Songs (CDS44201/40)
    Disc 22 Track 11
    Release date: October 2005
    Deletion date: July 2021
    Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
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