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Mahomets Gesang, D549

First line:
Seht den Felsenquell
March 1817; first published in 1895 in the Gesamtausgabe; completed by Reinhard van Hoorickx
author of text

At the time of writing Götz von Berlichingen (1772-1773) Goethe was much occupied with theological themes. He wanted to write a play about Mahommed (or Muhammad as the Encyclopaedia Britannica has it), but this was never completed apart from a few fragments of which this free-verse hymn is the most important. This was not meant to be sung by Mahommed himself, but by Ali and his wife Fatema, the prophet's daughter, as they trace the astonishing story of the growth of Islam. Study of such sources as the Koran and the Greek and Roman classics freed Goethe from the Christian conventions of his upbringing; in the story of Mahommed, as with his study and re-working of Greek mythology, he was able to find a new context for the discussion of man's place in the universe, and his relationship to Nature and a non-Christian God. Mahommed was a great revolutionary who, as this poem makes clear in Goethe's analogy, carried his supporters with him, like a river collecting its tributaries, to establish a glorious new epoch in history. This sense of a brotherhood collaborating to found a new order chimed with Goethe's Sturm und Drang belief that his own genius was a pre-eminent factor in the future of German literature. He was right of course, but at this stage he still believed in a collective enterprise of which he was a part. He wanted to carry all his colleagues with him in a Mahommed-like way, but however much he wanted to play the prophet this was beyond even Goethe's powers.

Schubert was immediately attracted to this poem which Nicholas Boyle calls 'a magnificently controlled rhythmic crescendo'. It was natural that the composer should have attempted to reflect this in music. It must be stated immediately that Schubert failed twice in this, but both settings are magnificent failures and there is nothing else quite like them in all the song output. There is something here of an epic struggle on Schubert's part to live up to Goethe's scale – perhaps to make himself worthy of the poet with a work so mighty that it would break down the doors of the poet's resistance with the force of an unleashed dam. It is perhaps for this reason that we can sense that the composer's salutary common sense has here abandoned him, and that the poem has inspired in him a madness both divine and fatal. He was at the height of his powers with a moto perpetuo masterpiece like An Schwager Kronos already behind him. Here was another moto perpetuo poem with the added bonus that it required his already finely-honed plumbing skills to divert spring, stream, river and ocean into musical imagery.

Schubert chooses E major as his key. The Bewegung is sextuplets in a 2/4 time signature which immediately represent the tiny spring at the beginning of the story. This movement brooks no change throughout the piece however. The fatal flaw of the setting is thus evident in the very first bar, for if six notes per beat represent a bubbling stream it will be beyond the capacity of a mere piano, not to mention a mere pianist, to render an ocean convincingly. Although the accompaniment starts off gently it is soon evident that we glimpse here a type of pianistic virtuosity which, though rare in Schubert's songs, emerges from time to time in his chamber music – a school of note-spinning favoured by Hummel and his inferiors where the piano makes a dense weave of sound which whirrs away unstoppably, unpunctuated by even the tiniest suspicion of a rest. We find this more often in works of the North German Lieder school, and Schubert usually avoided it in his songs; superficially impressive from a pianistic point of view, this type of relentless accompaniment is a strait-jacket which denies the vocal line freedom and flexibility, and inevitably leads to monotony.

The second verse ('Jünglingfrisch tanzt er') modulates into the relative minor and now the major pianistic difficulties appear in earnest. The accompaniment underneath the repeat of 'Jauchzet wieder nach dem Himmel' with its leaping left hand is as difficult as anything in the whole Lieder repertoire, but to no especially stirring effect. At the end of this thicket of notes we find ourselves in B major which softens to B minor for the beginning of the third verse ('Durch die Gipfelgänge'). This quickly passes through D minor and F minor ('Und mit frühem Führertritt reißt er seine Bruderquellen') to a long section in A flat for the fourth and fifth verses. At 'Nach der Ebne dringt sein Lauf' we move through A flat minor and lift into A minor. In a way Schubert seems here to be impressively in his stride. The harmonic scheme has the music turning the screw of tension with undeniable power, but we have to ask 'Wohin?', for we would now need five pianos and ten sets of hands to do justice to the scope of the narrative. The sixth verse has twenty-one lines and the composer does not quite reach the end of the ninth. He summons up all his energy and sets 'Und die Flüsse von der Ebne' most impressively in his thundering Dem Unendlichen style, but then courage fails him. Sadly Schubert was one of the many pilgrims who never reached Mecca.

A setting of the tenth line of the verse has been added by Hoorickx to bring the piece to an end, admittedly in mid-strophe but with as little fuss as possible.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1995


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Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 24
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Track 23 on CDJ33024 [3'50] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
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