Saturday, 31 March 2012

A Wolf in Schubert's clothing

Schubert's 600+ songs contain so many kinds of songs - from simple strophic songs to long through-composed ballads. Many are lyrical but there are are plenty of dramatic lieder among that vast horde of musical treasure. And you can't get more dramatic than Schubert's setting of Goethe's Prometheus. (Text and translation here.) 

Goethe's poem is a mighty one and needs a setting to match it. It's a dramatic monologue whose defiant tone reads as incendiary even today - given that when the poet wrote 'Zeus' he didn't just mean Zeus. In its day the poem had a powerful effect in the swelling revolt against the established churches of Europe. 

Schubert's song captures much of what Goethe was getting at - the defiant challenges, the insults, the confidence, the closing optimism - though there is no sense of the despair which some read into the poem. It doesn't feel like a song though, being much more of a dramatic scene. The setting moves naturally between recitative and arioso in a way that comes close to the style of the still-distant music dramas of Wagner. The recitative-style passages make much of the bold figure played in bass octaves by the piano at the very beginning and also use tremolos to great effect, summoning up a stormy atmosphere. As Prometheus begins his taunting of the gods, Schubert turns to arioso and to part-writing that seems to crawl like some unclean beast of the field. Loud chords (diminished sevenths) accompany the next recitative as the put-upon hero erupts in fury. The next arioso brings some of the song's most memorable musical lines before the music grows especially chromatic as Prometheus insults the gods again. The optimistic end rings with chords evoking the hero hammering defiantly on his anvil, hurling out hope. 

At the other end of the same century, another great lieder composer wrote his own setting of Prometheus - Hugo Wolf. Wolf's setting is extraordinary, capturing all that Schubert's song caught but raising the anger of Schubert's song into out-and-out fury. Like Schubert, Wolf begins with a striking motif that then becomes a key player (like a Wagnerian leitmotif) in his own dramatic song. Unlike Schubert, he first puts this motif to use in a long heaven-stormer of a prelude for the piano. The thunder and lightning effects of Schubert's songs are amplified by Wolf to powerful effect. The bass octaves of Schubert become huge and thunderous chords for Wolf. The singer enters as this music is repeated and spits out defiance. Wolf adored Schubert and Wagner and loved Schubert's most Wagnerian song. The influence is clear, as when Wolf draws on his own version of the crawling part-writing Schubert used for the first passage mocking the gods - here a wriggling motif. An increasingly dissonant crescendo leads to a pause and the return of the heaven-storming music. There are some memorable lyrical lines before the rage (as in the Schubert song) intensifies again. Prometheus shakes with tremolos of fury and the music proceeds towards its most Wagnerian climax. Then, as in the Schubert setting, chords evokes the hero hammering defiantly on his anvil, hurling out hope. Wolf went on to orchestrate his Prometheus and you can hear the magnificent results here

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