Schubert's Lieder: Settings of Goethe's poems
Schubert's Lieder: Settings of Goethe's poems

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Schubert's Lieder: Settings of Goethe's poems

4.5.1 ‘Prometheus’

Both the poem and the song are quite different from the others considered in this course. The poem does not rhyme, and its rhythmic patterns are irregular. It is more like an extract from a drama than a conventional poem – and indeed it comes from a play that Goethe began writing in 1773 and never finished.

Prometheus was, in ancient Greek mythology, one of the Titans, who created the human race out of clay. Zeus, the king of the gods, tried to destroy humanity by denying them access to fire. Prometheus saved them by stealing the fire back. For this offence Zeus condemned him to be chained to a mountain-top, where his liver was pecked out each day by an eagle and regrew each night. The myth of Prometheus attracted a number of writers and musicians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Shelley wrote a verse drama on the subject; Beethoven wrote music for a ballet called The Creatures of Prometheus. Schubert wrote a substantial cantata on Prometheus in 1816, which had several successful performances during his lifetime, but was lost after his death (this was the cantata written for the name-day of a law professor, and which gave him his entree to the Sonnleithners' weekly concerts).

In Goethe's drama, Prometheus delivers this speech in his smithy. Schubert's song is like a miniature cantata, or perhaps a scene from an opera. It takes the form of a short, dramatic monologue – a form which is often referred to by musicians by the Italian term scena.

Exercise 8

Click the link below to read the poem ‘Prometheus’. How would you describe the substance and tone of what Prometheus is saying? Then play the performance by clicking the audio link and follow the words. In what way is Schubert's setting like a scene from an opera? How does he characterise each section of the poem?

Click to read the poem ‘Prometheus’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

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The predominant tones of the poem are defiance and revolt. But Prometheus does not merely defy the king of the gods: he views him and the other gods with disdain, declaring that they survive only because credulous fools continue to believe in them. He glories in the fact that he has achieved what he has without the help of the gods, and he ends by extolling the full range of human experience, from suffering to joy.

This is a poem of defiance against the rule of gods, and in praise of human accomplishment and human emotional experience. It is very much in tune with the anti-religious sentiments of much Enlightenment writing, and it places a Romantic emphasis on the primacy of the emotions.

Schubert's setting sounds somewhat like a scene from an opera because much of it is written in recitative, the operatic style which can also be found in Mozart's Don Giovanni, in which the freedom of the vocal line comes close to the rhythms of speech. If you imagine it accompanied by orchestra rather than piano, it is close in style to the accompagnato recitative that Mozart uses from time to time.

Schubert's scena has no obvious formal structure. Though it is in sections, they do not repeat – it is through-composed. It has the character of a psychological drama, emphasising the emotional force of each part of the poem as it occurs. But the song nevertheless falls into distinct and contrasted sections. As in ‘Gretchen’ and ‘Erlkönig’, it is the piano which both sets the tone and drives the song forward. The assertive rhythm which begins the song punctuates the opening section from time to time, giving a coherent sense of defiance to a passage which would otherwise seem like nothing more than a piece of speech set to music. Schubert continues this section through to the first two lines of the second verse in the original, so shifting the break by two lines. Then, at ‘Ihr nähret kummerlich’ (‘Meagrely you nourish …’), the tone changes completely. The sliding harmonies in the piano give the passage a smooth, almost creepy character, perhaps intended to be ironic.

At ‘Da ich ein Kind war’ (‘When I was a child …’) the piano adopts a walking tread, giving a sense of narrative. The voice reaches up at the description of the young boy gazing up at the sun, and the ‘ear to listen’ and the ‘heart to pity’ are set to high, plaintive phrases. This is abruptly interrupted by fierce chords at ‘Wer half mir’ (‘Who helped me …’), returning to the mood of the opening. Then the pace increases at ‘Ich dich ehren?’ (‘I honour you?’), with an impatient-sounding, lurching rhythm in the piano. And the scene ends magnificently, with Prometheus's final shout of defiance, at ‘Hier sitz’ ich’ (‘Here I sit …’), punctuated by forceful chords, like a yet fiercer version of the rhythm with which the song began.

Unusually, the song ends in a different key from its beginning. After the opening bars, the music settles into G minor for the first entry of the voice. The final section, from ‘Hier sitz’ ich’, is in C major. This absence of any formal structure of keys adds to the impression of a song which proceeds freely from one mood to the next.

This unusual informality of structure is something that Schubert exploits to even more striking effect in the last song we shall consider, ‘Ganymed’.


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