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Elysium, D584

First line:
Vorüber die stöhnende Klage!
September 1817; first published in 1830 as volume 6 of the Nachlass
author of text

Schubert had known these words since his schooldays. He had set all but one of the verses, for five separate unaccompanied vocal trios (TTB) in April and May 1813, as composition exercises for Salieri. Only a few tiny rhythmical ideas from these early essays have survived into this ballad which is contemporary with two mythologically inspired masterpieces—Schiller's Gruppe aus dem Tartarus (Schubert had also known that poem for years) and the Mayrhofer Atys. It is interesting to think that having composed a mighty song about the Inferno, Schubert's natural programme-planning and balancing instincts led him to fix his eyes on Olympus. Capell was probably right when he said 'Hell has been found by all artists from Dante downwards to be a more manageable subject than heaven'. Schubert is at his most inventive and original in Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, for hell is a milieu where every groaning composer must fight for himself. In recording the delights of the Elysian fields on the other hand, he needed a model; up there, after all, homage is the order of the day. Beethoven had not yet composed the Ninth Symphony (first performed in May 1824) which, at a stroke, would bring him more fame as a Schiller composer than Schubert was ever to enjoy. But so great was Beethoven's influence on all younger composers (and Beethoven was a 'public' composer in the sense that Schiller was a 'public' poet) that it is no surprise that the composer of the Ode to Joy should somehow be related to the genesis of Elysium. There was something about Schiller's poetry that constricted (with a few exceptions) that rich vein of introspection which is so much Schubert's seal; the result is many a Schiller setting where ceremonial drama or physical exuberance makes up for a deep philosophical impression. The influence of Beethoven's music is analogous; its function is most often (though not always) to build muscle and sinew in the body of Schubert's work rather than Mozartian heart and soul. Elysium reminds me in some powerful way of Beethoven's 'Pastoral' Symphony which is in itself an evocation of heavenly fields for the mortals of Vienna. One of the most delightful things about this Schiller cantata is its succession of bucolic dances; it is rare that Schubert's genius as a composer of dance music is reflected in his grander vocal utterances.

Verse 1: The opening words—'Cease all plaintive moaning'—set the tone of the entire piece. They announce the end of the groans of the lost souls in Gruppe aus dem Tartarus. Serious business is swept aside, the heavy dishes of the first course taken away, the tablecloth changed in readiness for the dessert, the sweet side of life, and death. There is a chorale tune for the opening three lines of text, a skipping dance for the fourth and fifth, and delightful water music for the last. All in all, a guided tour for the new arrival. The interlude (a passage better suited to clarinets, bassoons, and horns rather than the piano) leads to a recapitulation of the opening idea.

Verse 2: A sudden and delightful change of key to the subdominant. This is the one verse which Schubert had never set before and it contains the work's most original pianistic ideas. Cascading arpeggii depict hovering May breezes and the dance of the hours. Left hand crosses over right, and the texture is that of a one-man piano duet. The music of the passing of time is distantly related to the falling figurations of Auf dem Wasser zu singen. The pace and feel of this verse are the same as that of the 'Pastoral' Symphony's first movement.

Verse 3: How on earth to depict endless heavenly joy? Another dance of course, and another, a marathon and orgy of dancing, the same idea repeated in different keys. Schubert makes the first line of the verse appear as an introduction to the heavenly ball. Another change of key and two main ideas establish themselves. The first of these is inspired by Ganymed, a Goethe setting written six months earlier which ends with an ascent to Elysium. The piano figuration under Ganymede's words 'Dass ich dich fassen möcht in diesen Arm' is re-vamped in almost parodistic fashion. Euphoria pulsates through this music, speed flowing through the veins: the joy is somewhat artificially induced. The Goethe setting was true fantasy, but the Schiller is here nearer Disney's Fantasia. The second idea, a gently melancholic movement of tripping quavers in alternating hands, attempts to depict the elusive image of gentle rapture. In this heavenly locale where most people are on a real high, this is a bad trip, a drug-dealing rip-off, the merest imitation of Ecstasy. And then on with the dance! Ganymede's theme reappears a semitone higher, and we begin to suspect that perhaps there is something grim about being condemned to have nothing but fun for all eternity.

Verse 4: There have already been astonishing (perhaps even unprecedented in Schubert) shifts of tonalities a major third apart: in the original key A - F - D flat. Our pilgrimage around these realms continues with a further shift from G to E flat. It is now the compound-time triplets of the Pastoral's second movement (the Szene am Bach) which are evoked. Traveller's music in the traditional horn-like thirds and sixths (the opening of Beethoven's Les Adieux sonata in the same key) paint the burning-limbed pilgrims stretching out in the shade (they have no doubt been dancing). The little harvest hymn that follows (with sighing silences redolent of something falling from the pianist's hands) has tiny felicities such as the accompaniment's hemiolas suggested by the quivering of harps.

Verse 5: Battle music this, and the stridency of the thrice-repeated motif of chords has a Beethovenian confidence in its refusal to modulate. A menacing chromatic scale of rising octaves, beneath a long note held high in the voice, uses hackneyed means to achieve a thrilling effect. This provides a foil for more water music, this time prophetic of the stream's music in Mein from Die schöne Müllerin. This movement is treated like a miniature sonata, with recapitulation arranged to bring us back to the key of the opening fanfares. This is an old-fashioned approach to form (Schubert usually allows his durchkomponiert ballads to follow the progress of the words without repetitions of complete sections) wholly in keeping with its classical theme.

Verse 6: It takes Schiller's erotic imagery to summon from Schubert the most sensuous and deeply felt music of the piece. The grass is definitely greener on the other side. Couples disport themselves; intertwined thirds and sixths smoothly flow in quavers, or swoon in rhapsodic triplets. The finale (the last three lines of the poem) is worked into a magnificent set piece where martial and triumphant fanfares are balanced by an ominous three-bar motif for the tread and threat of death. The piano, as such, has ceased to be of interest in Elysium; in the land of ceaseless bounty, the horn of plenty furnishes the wedding feast, and an expensive orchestra, horns aplenty, accompanies the priapic revelry. The concept of eternity is illustrated by asking the singer (picturesquely and unreasonably, but Beethoven was never kind to singers, and Schubert is here in his Beethoven mode) to stay interminably on the word 'ewig'. The last six bars of piano postlude hammering away at various inversions of the tonic key (not by the way the E major of the very opening, but the new tonic of A) confirm that in this piece Schubert's debt to the older composer lies halfway between unconscious imitation and affectionate and (sometimes somewhat amused) parody.

from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991


Schubert: The Complete Songs
CDS44201/40Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only
Schubert: The Hyperion Schubert Edition, Vol. 11 - Brigitte Fassbaender
CDJ33011Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40


Track 17 on CDJ33011 [8'38] Archive Service; also available on CDS44201/40
Track 20 on CDS44201/40 CD19 [8'38] Boxed set + book (at a special price) — Download only

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