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Der Gott und die Bajadere, D254

First line:
Mahadöh, der Herr der Erde
first published by Weinberger and Hofbauer in 1887
author of text

This important poem was a rare excursion into the East for Goethe in the years before his West-östlicher Divan period (see also the even earlier Mahomets Gesang). It was written in 1797 and published in Schiller's Musenalmanach for 1798 with Zelter's melody as part of the supplement provided in a pocket at the back of the book. The idea for the poem came from a story recounted rather dryly in Sonnerat's Journey to East India and China (1783) but marvellously fashioned by Goethe into a tale about the redemptive power of love. The practice of suttee, where a Hindu wife immolates herself with her husband's body, incomprehensible and repulsive to Christians, was treated by Goethe with a characteristic respect for other religions and customs.

The word 'Bajadere' is the German version of the French bayadère (meaning a Hindu dancing girl, particularly at a Southern Indian temple) and derives from the Portuguese bailadiera or dancer. It was Goethe's idea to introduce the god Siva into the poem under the name of Mahadöh or Mahadeva – the great god. The story was made into an opera by Auber and a ballet by Minkus. It is the only song in the repertoire which is about prostitution – a sore point in Schubert's later history when he was to discover the terrible consequences of love at a price. The young composer's selection of this text seems to show a tolerance and freedom from convention that would almost certainly not have reflected his father's religious views, for example, despite the fact that Hegel had already compared this saga to the Christian story of Mary Magdalene.

Schubert's setting is controversial in its unambitious simplicity. Capell favours it and John Reed does not, counting the composer to have been completely led astray by his decision to treat the poem strophically. Fischer-Dieskau finds the poem intractable for musical setting; for him Schubert's solution is too simple and, in the other direction, Othmar Schoeck's too descriptive. It might be added that Carl Loewe's setting, not his greatest, is also episodic and attempts to reflect the poem strophe by strophe. 'The poem', writes Capell, 'makes no call at all for music; but if music there was to be, Schubert's unobtrusive hymn-like tune was better than an elaborate setting which would for a certainty have been tiresome.' In agreeing with Capell, one is reminded of Schubert's 1828 setting of Edward (Eine altschottische Ballade) which in its strophic simplicity seems a failure on paper but which is riveting in performance. Like that ballad, Der Gott und die Bajadere is not the sort of strophic song where the performer can leave out a number of verses. The sense of the story requires almost all of them. Having embarked on the long journey with trepidation, both performer and listener find that the repetitive quality of the music has something hypnotic and mantra-like about it; one is tempted to give the composer credit for having imagined the chants of a far-away land with its exotic religious rites. The tune at first hearing seems merely hymn-like; mention of Mahadöh, Lord of the Earth, in the opening seems to have put Schubert in mind of Haydn's Emperor's Hymn. But the piece has hidden beauties, particularly in the second half where Goethe's metre (a tricky one) requires flowing dactyls to offset the foursquare opening. We are caught up in the grave dignity and concision of the story and, as Capell suggests, are somehow grateful that gratuitous musical illustration does not interrupt its flow. Loewe makes the girl dance trippingly, which adds nothing to the story.

On the manuscript Schubert wrote: 'In these verses as well as in the others the content must determine the dynamics'. We have extended this implied freedom to the allocation of certain lines to other characters in Schubertiad fashion: the main voice of the narrator is supplemented by that of Mahadöh in the opening, and the voices of the temple priests in the final strophes.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1995


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CDS44201/40Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 24
CDJ33024Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Track 6 on CDJ33024 [9'01] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 1 on CDS44201/40 CD9 [9'01] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

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