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Grenzen der Menschheit, D716

First line:
Wenn der uralte
March 1821; first published in 1832 as part of volume 14 of the Nachlass
author of text

How can a great poet like Goethe write a poem bristling with anger like Prometheus, and a few years later write Grenzen der Menschheit, a work of the greatest humility? The two works contradict each other. Prometheus and Ganymed are also complete opposites, the latter song idolising the gods with Grenzen der Menschheit offering a compromise between the two – a ‘neue Mitte’ or Third Way. Goethe could easily have said with Walt Whitman ‘Do I contradict myself? / Very well then, I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)’. As Richard Capell puts it: ‘Let us admire the poet who lives so intensely in all his various days, and attempting no false synthesis seized for all he was worth on the truth of this one and of that’. (There is also something rather Schubertian about this fence-sitting. We might as well question the composer’s seemingly inconsistent attitude to religion – at one moment he sets the Roman Catholic Mass, at another, songs which sympathise with pantheism). Goethe himself was always aware of a ‘creative polarity which seemed to guide his development’ (Reed). When he first sent this poem in a letter to Charlotte von Stein (on 1 May 1780) he also enclosed a drawing – a design for a pig-sty. ‘I send you the highest and the lowest’, he wrote, ‘a hymn and a pig-sty. Love binds everything together’ (‘Liebe verbindet alles’). A little earlier Goethe had written a poem, Menschengefühl, not set to music, which sums up the theme of Grenzen der Menschheit in a more humorous, certainly more pithy, way:

Ach ihr Götter! grosse Götter
In dem weiten Himmel droben!
Gäbet ihr uns auf der Erde
Festen Sinn und guten Mut
O wir liessen euch ihr Guten,
Euern weiten Himmel droben!
O ye gods, great gods
In the spacious heavens above!
If you could give us here on earth
A sense of firm purpose and good cheer,
Oh we’d gladly leave you, dear friends,
In you spacious heavens above!

In Grenzen der Menschheit the idea of a matey compromise between man and gods, an equable dividing of territory, is shorn of its humour. This is as grand a poetic hymn as Goethe ever wrote, and Schubert treats it with the same seriousness that Mozart reserved for Die Zauberflöte which features comparable trials by fire and water to be undertaken by mankind. The fact that the music is conceived for bass voice immediately signals a link with Sarastro. The four mighty strophes which precede the envoy (the marvellous lines about the ring, that age-old symbol of completion and wholeness) traverse the whole range of universal experience and aspiration. The first verse is perhaps the most remarkable – the rest of the poem flows from this initial inspiration, a marvellously imposing picture presided over by a calm and mighty figure who stands somewhere between Zeus and the Judeo-Christian God depicted in the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel (which Goethe was to see for himself seven years later). Each of the strophes is given over to one of the four elements: in the first, immortal fire; in the second, air; in the third, earth; and in the fourth, water, the most Schubertian of the four elements perhaps, although it is noticeable that the composer avoids the tempting diversions of scene-painting in favour of forging, as if chain by chain, a symphonic whole. This song was written at the same time as the two Suleika songs which are similarly organic conceptions. These and Grenzen der Menschheit could not be further in style from the continuously re-invented recitative and arioso of Prometheus. The composer seems to have cannily chosen the texts at the moments he was best able to handle them. In Prometheus there is still a trace of the youth, the earnest composer of the long early ballads, pushed to new extremes of reckless abandon; but here we find a composer who has emerged from the song experiments of 1819 and 1820 (the Schlegel and Novalis settings, as well as some of the most challenging Mayrhofer) with a command of form whereby symphonies can be songs, and songs symphonies. Of course, this concept suited only the grandest of poems. But Schubert had recently proved himself capable of managing the vast ongoing frieze of Schlegel’s Im Walde as if it were a single sonata movement; he was now well able to encompass the span of Grenzen der Menschheit.

The composer made certain important decisions when he looked at the poem on the printed page. There are five strophes; the first two are the longest (ten lines each) and the shortest is the last (six lines). Verses 3 and 4 have eight lines each. In order to arrange a recapitulation which comes full circle (true to the ‘ring’ concept of the whole conception) Schubert divides the first strophe into two sections (six and four lines respectively). This enables him to set the work effectively in six strophes where the last incorporates most of the features of the first, and some of the second – thus ABCDEA.

Like another important Goethe setting of this period, Versunken, the music begins far from the home key of E major. The majestic C major chord (with an upbeat B) which starts the whole work seems to denote a blank canvas, a universe not yet created (Haydn’s Creation affected every composer who followed him). Schubert has actually borrowed this progression (a short upbeat which rises a semitone and opens out to a longer chord) from the accompaniment to the Prometheus of 1819 – the turbulent music which goes with the outburst ‘Ich dich ehren? Wofür?’ (‘I honour you? What for?’). Einstein calls this ‘the iambic motif of defiance’, and it pervades and unites the song in such a way that we forget that it is a succession of slow-motion variations on this fragment of Promethean music. Whether this is a conscious borrowing or not is uncertain, but it seems to be; ‘Why should we honour the gods?’ Prometheus asked; and this song long ruminates on the question which remains musically embedded in the answer in the most subtle manner. In the introduction, every shift of chord denotes a new contour and a filling-in of detail. The overall harmonic direction may be summed up as a progress from G major (the second full bar) to the dominant of E minor (bar 6) and thence to E major where the long-awaited G sharp which signifies the arrival of the home key (not yet in root position however) appears like a shaft of light which floods the dark landscape with colour. Throughout this section the harmonic shifts vividly convey the ‘gelassener Hand’ of the great Creator as it moves first here, then there. There is a textbook (but highly effective) use of the subdominant (the plagal relationship always serves to illustrate a religious point) in the shift to A major after ‘heilige Vater’. Here the composer signals his awe in the divine presence, but at ‘rollenden Wolken’ the abrupt change to G sharp major (the dominant of C sharp minor) is a cosmic shift as the clouds are parted with the casual turn of an all-controlling Hand. The most tempestuous storms below are caused by the mildest of movements above; it is as if Paul Bunyan were absentmindedly creating the Grand Canyon with a trailing hoe. Accordingly the thunderbolts, seen from the gods’ point of view, are given gentle music only slightly graced with semiquavers on ‘Blitze’ and ‘Erde sä’t’. The music is also marked ‘pianissimo’, pointedly contrary to the normal musical depiction of thunder and lightning.

The change to Schubert’s favourite dactylic rhythm (long-short-short) at ‘küss’ ich den letzten Saum seines Kleides’ is most effective. This is the ‘Kindliche Schauer’ experienced by the maiden in Der Tod und das Mädchen, and which we will later encounter in Mignon’s Heiss mich nicht reden. In that song, the young girl, helplessly locked into her fate, keeps a dark secret which only a god could make her reveal. Schubert usually reserves this rhythm for something cosmic (cf. Die Sterne) and this is no exception. The sweet gentleness and the vulnerable sense of surrender in this passage are remarkably caught in this dance-like music of the spheres.

The music to the next verse is the most active. The vocal line (which is never extremely slow anyway – the tempo marking is ‘Nicht ganz langsam’ and the time signature is alla breve) has a number of quavers, even a dotted quaver-semiquaver. This suggestion of agitation signals the crime of hubris. The progression of semibreves before ‘Denn mit Göttern’ is ornamented by an ominous trill reminiscent of the opening of Freiwilliges Versinken, a song about the immutable laws of nature and the movements of the sun god Helios. The accompaniment under ‘Hebt er sich aufwärts und berührt mit dem Scheitel die Sterne’ is an unambiguous use of the ‘Prometheus’ motif, describing, as it does, someone equally ill-advised and unwise. This phrase has risen in chromatic steps (beginning at ‘Hebt er sich aufwärts’) and the consequent plunging descent of the vocal line (at ‘nirgends haften dann die unsichern Sohlen’) depicts the fall from grace; the vocal line seems to lose its foothold and slip in successive sequences to ever lower regions where ‘Wolken und Winde’ will sport with the unfortunate climber. Clouds and wind are normally depicted aloft, above mankind; but here they are seen from the perspective of the even higher heavenly stars, and Schubert has imagined the drop between the two layers of existence as a vast one. Accordingly these words are set to some of the lowest notes in the piece. The nine-bar interlude, again a Prometheus variant, is made of crotchet upbeats, semibreves and minims; it moves the music from F major back to E major, and is a miracle of modulation where each sequence seems to encapsulate a thought or perception too profound to be expressed in human words. This music for the pondering of the gods shows Schubert equal to the challenge of describing it.

True to its meaning, the music for ‘Steht er mit festen markigen Knochen’ is more secure and grounded. The music has moved into the dominant key (B major). The vocal line aspires upwards for ‘oder der Rebe’ as if we are witnessing man’s attempt to measure himself with the vine. A simple interlude oscillating between D major and G minor chords introduces the question at the heart of the piece – what is the difference between gods and men? The ongoing melody (which throughout, in its grandeur and flexibility, is prophetic of Wagnerian word-setting in, appropriately enough, the Ring tetralogy) yields to the repeated notes of a phrase that sounds like a ritualistic chant, something that might be intoned by priest or shaman: ‘Was unterscheidet Götter von Menschen?’.

The answer to this conundrum is the song’s crowning glory. The waves which both lift us up, and then swallow us as we sink, are not depicted in anything like rolling water music – in this respect Hugo Wolf was a lot more graphic. It is the empty and dismal intervals of this section, empty thirds and grating fourths, which illustrate the wretchedness of man’s fate. We have already encountered intervals like these in connection with another ‘ewiger Strom’ – the river Styx in Gruppe as dem Tartarus (at ‘Schmerz verzerret ihr Gesicht!’). The enharmonic changes (E sharps = F naturals in the vocal line, and in the piano C sharps = D flats) at ‘verschlingt die Welle, und wir versinken’ matter only from the point of view of notation. But they show how strongly Schubert was engaged in the deepest aspects of the text. As life cedes to death, this enharmonic spelling reflects man’s altered state, the same yet not the same, and nature’s ability to absorb and recycle her own. The descents in the vocal line at ‘versinken’ may seem obvious, but they are hugely effective. The interlude closing this section is the only one where there is a direct quotation from Prometheus (bars 72/73 of the accompaniment) at the same pitches, but in different note values.

We wonder how it is that this sprawling song seems so much of an organic entity, despite the fact that we seem to have traversed a universe during its weighty progress. Schubert’s success lies in his flair for musical organisation and bringing the lessons he has learned in his symphonic writing to the lied. The final verse returns to the music of the opening; at the end it also uses the dactylic music which Schubert uses for the last four lines of Goethe’s first strophe. It is entirely appropriate that the elevated tone of the opening (not that the whole song has not been elevated, but the addition of subdominant harmony makes it feel even more sacred) should see this mighty song to its conclusion. In employing semibreves and minims (notes that look like rings on paper), Schubert (like Hugo Wolf when setting this poem) engages in the visual punning that we sometimes find as composers transfer their thoughts to paper almost in the manner of a draughtsman. But the song as a whole has been written as a symphonic hymn and only its great difficulty (the bass tessitura where the singer has to have a low E) has prevented it from being better known and performed with great regularity.

It is just possible that, like Das Abendrot, Grenzen der Menschheit was conceived for Count Esterházy who had a voice of this range. The music is slow-moving (which he seemed to have suited his technique) and the text is certainly lofty enough to have satisfied his tastes. It would have been also far too hard for him, however. Although it is likely that Schubert and the Esterházys kept in touch between the first visit to Zseliz (1818) and the second in 1824, there is no evidence to link the family with Grenzen der Menschheit.

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 18 on CDJ33034 [7'09] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 8 on CDS44201/40 CD24 [7'09] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

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