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

4.5.2 ‘Ganymed’ (‘Ganymede’)

‘Ganymed’ is another through-composed setting of a poem inspired by ancient Greek mythology. Ganymede was a boy of exceptional beauty, and Goethe's poem describes the feelings of the young lad as he is transported up to heaven by Zeus to become cup-bearer to the gods.

Like ‘Prometheus’, this is a freely written poem, with no consistency in the length of lines nor any formal metrical scheme. There is only one rhyme (‘Nachtigall’ and ‘Nebeltal’ in lines 18–19), and there are only occasional suggestions of half-rhymes (in the first verse there are ‘Liebeswonne’, ‘Warme’ and ‘Schone’, which have enough similarity to sound associated).

Exercise 9

Click the links below to read the poem ‘Ganymed’ and its translation, and then listen to the song. What has Schubert done to Goethe's poem? Does the combination of words and music suggest further similarities with ‘Prometheus’, or with the other songs you have studied?

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

Click below to listen to Ganymed.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: a207_2_008s.mp3
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Perhaps the most obvious similarity to ‘Prometheus’ is that the poem is written in the first person. The two poems/songs are expressions of personal feelings. But unlike Prometheus, who is raging against the gods because of past events, Ganymede is expressing his feelings while the most important event of his life is actually taking place. In this sense, he has more in common with Gretchen at her spinning-wheel (though even she is describing her feelings about what has already happened).

Another feature which ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Ganymed’ share is that the music, like the poems, is extremely free. About ‘Prometheus’ I wrote that Schubert's setting has no obvious formal structure and that it has the character of a psychological drama, emphasising the emotional force of each part of the poem as it occurs. The same applies to ‘Ganymed’.

As in several of the songs we have discussed, Schubert has been rather free in the pacing of ‘Ganymed’, dividing up Goethe's verses where they are continuous, and continuing where they are divided. The first eight lines are continuous, as in Goethe, and Schubert emphasises the effect of ‘Unendliche Schone’ (‘Infinite beauty’) by drawing the phrase out, giving several notes to a syllable for the first time in the song. In the poem, the next two lines (‘Dass ich dich …’) stand on their own, separated from what follows. But Schubert ignores this, carrying straight on for four lines to a gap at ‘Lieg ich, schmachte’. Then he introduces a gap after another two lines (’… an mein Herz’), another gap three lines later (after ‘… Morgenwind’), and another, coinciding with the end of Goethe's verse, at ‘… aus dem Nebeltal’. Schubert has used these gaps in the vocal line to emphasise the sense of ecstatic calm in the poem, as if Ganymede is looking around him, drinking everything in. There is a charmingly naive touch just before the mention of the nightingale, where, during the pause which Schubert has introduced in the vocal line, the piano plays trills to suggest the bird's song.

From ‘Ich komm …’ the character of the piano part changes: the rhythm becomes insistent and staccato, and Schubert gives the instruction ‘un poco accelerando’ (‘accelerating slightly’). There is a distinct sense of ‘We're off’. The song drives through, reaching two climaxes. The second climax is achieved by repeating the last seven-and-a-half lines of the poem, and then repeating again the final cry of ‘Alliebender Vater!’ (‘All-loving father!’). This repetition is certainly taking liberties with the poem, but the changing character of the music is, one could argue, simply a response to what is already in the verse, as the lines and phrases become shorter and more urgent towards the end of the poem.

As in several of the songs we have studied, it is the piano which sets the mood, the pace and the rhythm as the events unfold, with the voice, so to speak, floating on top of the piano part – almost as if the voice is the ‘accompaniment’, as in ‘Gretchen’. A big difference between ‘Ganymed’ and ‘Prometheus’ is that, whereas ‘Prometheus’ falls into distinct and contrasted sections, ‘Ganymed’ does not. It all flows smoothly on, and even when the voice pauses, the piano continues. This helps to convey the impression of events unfolding which are not within Ganymede's control – the piano, like Zeus, sweeps him away.

As in ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Gretchen’, we are not told the story in the poem. It is as if the poet and composer have thought ‘What would it be like to be Ganymede/Prometheus/Gretchen in this situation?’, and have sought to convey that directly, assuming that the audience would know the stories from which these characters come (and Goethe and Schubert could assume some knowledge of classical myths in the well-educated circles to whom their work was principally addressed). This is very different from the narrative of ‘Erlkönig’, in which the song tells the whole story, as well as conveying the feelings of the characters in it.

Schubert ends the song with six bars of the piano, rising higher and higher, pianissimo. Like the song of the nightingale earlier, this has an effect which is both powerful and naive: it conveys both a strong sense of mystery and the suggestion of Ganymede physically disappearing up into heaven.

More than in any of the other songs we have discussed, I would say that, by the end of ‘Ganymed’, we have the sense of having travelled a long way since the song began. There is one particular musical reason for this: as in ‘Prometheus’, the song ends in a different key from the beginning. It starts in A flat major and ends in F major. During the song, the music progresses through a variety of keys so gradually that the listener is not necessarily aware of how far from the original key it has travelled. But if you replay the beginning of the song immediately after listening to the ending, you will hear the contrast between the F major of the ending and the A flat major of the beginning.


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