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The song begins with frightening intensity. The key is C minor, always portentous in Schubert, and the singer means grim business. The minstrel tries out chords and a couple of sequences of semiquavers on the fingerboard before he finds a diminished seventh chord which he plays resoundingly seven times. Atreus is father to Agamemnon and Menelaus, so we are about to hear a tale of the Trojan war, or perhaps a tale about Thebes of which Cadmus was the founder. Instead a martial chord of D flat major softens to a seventh chord on F underpinned by a C flat. From there it is a short step, in this slipping of tuning pegs, to the dominant seventh chord in the key of E flat, which is the tonality of a loving aria, legato and peacefully tuneful. It is as if the lyre, forbear to Sparky's eventually rebellious magic piano, has a will of its own, and all the singer can do is to ruefully follow its dictates. This will not do. A bar's rest allows the strings to be changed and the pegs to turned tighter. The singer strums again and, altering tessitura, works himself up into a higher pitch of warlike intensity. This Herculean task prompts talk of Alcides, another name for Hercules himself. By a rather more circuitous and adventurous harmonic route, the lyre finds its own way back to the same chords that set up its entry into the E flat of love's aria. The singer admits himself defeated and, by now in love with the music of love, he bids farewell to the 'threatening' songs ('drohen' is accompanied by an ominous bass trill) of ancient times and to the heroes of antiquity who have once held him so much in thrall. The salute to these figures is a respectful one, with also not a little tenderness, but life is to be lived in the here-and-now, and as Shakespeare said 'youth's a stuff will not endure'. The darts of love are as potentially wounding in their way as the dangers of battle, and the yearning postlude leaves us in little doubt of this fact.
from notes by Graham Johnson © 1991
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