The assembly of the gods - Raphael
The first two lieder by Schubert, composed when he was thirteen, were written from poems by Friedrich von Schiller. In all, there are forty-four Lieder with texts from this poet; That positions him third as the most musicalized behind Goethe and Mayrhofer, but, for some reason, just two of those Lieder are often performed or recorded. That is: what in theory should be a strong presence of one of the most important figures of German culture in Schubert's work, in practice it is reduced to a pair of songs, to one of which, Die Götter Griechenlands, we're listening today.

Die Götter Griechenlands is a long poem written by Friedrich von Schiller in 1788. His publication in a magazine led to a huge controversy, and the poet was accused of being heretic and atheist because of his criticism towards Christianity. Two years later, he rewrote it and the twenty-five initial verses were reduced to sixteen. He probably had more reasons but deleting the most offensive remarks suggests he wasn't indifferent to that scandal. Despite having tempered it so much, the poem was still unpleasant for many people, and when it was published in 1805 (just a few controversial pages within a volume of poetry) the book was left on the highest shelves of bookcases in many homes, thus generating a kind of "Streisand effect" in the 19th century.

A first (and arduous) reading of those poems allowed me to understand that Schiller speaks highly of a world inhabited by gods that we clearly identify with some knowledge of mythology, while he speaks harshly of a "heiliger Barbar" (holy barbarian) which is also easily recognized. When I think of the Greek gods, I think of young men and women abducted, children conceived in rapes, terrible torture, cruel revenge, and Goya's picture "Saturn devouring his son". Despite my little understanding of this poem, I would say that the poet omits this less attractive side of gods. Fortunately, this piece of work has been widely studied, so I could turn to experts to extract the basics to figure out what Schiller says.
  • To begin with, let's consider the place and the time: from the mid-18th century on, there was a real passion for Ancient Greece in Germany, after Johann Joachim Winckelmann published his studies on the Art of Antiquity. Without travelling to Greece, based on copies and engravings, the Germans fell in love with Greek art, which became Art.
  • And now, let's go to Schiller: For him, art is essential, and he realizes unhappily its loss in his society. He says: "Utility is the great idol of our age, to which all powers are in thrall and to which all talent must pay homage." (the poor Schiller, if he would have lived in the 21st century!); On the other hand, "Art is a daughter of Freedom and takes her orders from the necessity inherent in minds, not from the exigencies of matter".
  • In that idealized world of Ancient Greece, gods and nature (splendid, always young, always spring) blend together: the sun is not the nearest star, the sun is a beautiful and glowing god that, every day, drives a chariot across the sky, from east to west. If nature and gods are equivalent, pantheism, according to Heine, "the secret religion of Germany," and one of the basic concepts of Romanticism, is not far behind.
  • And who are the ones living in harmony with nature, that is, with gods? Men, in their natural state, innocent as children. They are so close to gods that they even have something divine in themselves; In the penultimate verse of the first version of the poem, omitted at the second one, Schiller says: "Da die Götter menlischer noch waren / Waren Menschen göttlicher" (when the gods were more human, / The humans were more divine). These verses remind me of Müller’s verses in Winterreise: "Will kein Gott auf Erden sein / sind wir selber Götter" (If there is no God on earth / Then we ourselves are gods!), but we'll talk about that some other day.
These elements are, roughly, the key to Schiller's poem: in the world of Greek Gods, men, art and nature become a unity. The poet praises art and, living in a time distinguish by materialism and away from art, he regrets the loss of that perfect world. If some Greek gods were depraved (and really human), that's a minor detail that I shouldn't have mentioned, because there's no place for it in an ideal world.

Schubert took only one stanza from the long poem by Schiller (in fact, the full title of the lied is Strophe aus "Der Götter Griechenlands"), just that one in which the poet asks for lost world to return, to compose a wonderful miniature. That is, a piece that we really appreciate when we look closely, and I assure you that it's worth listening to it carefully. Although we are lacking many context stanzas, the eight verses clearly describe the feeling of loss and it's difficult to get rid of such moving music. Schubert insists on the first two verses: the question (where are you?) and the plead (come back!); he isolates them by differentiating their music and framing them between some solo piano measures, and he repeats them several times. The last phrase of the song, the last question, takes us, inevitably, to miss something. Our lost paradise, a moment of our life... Every listener knows whatever they would like to have back.

I'm talking about this little pearl today because it's included in the program of Josep Ramon Olivé and Francisco Poyato next Sunday, the third recital of the Schubert Lied Project. The more I look at the programme, the more I like it. We've listened to some of the songs here, so I'm linking them just in case you want to go over them. While Sunday arrives, I suggest you listen to Die Götter Griechenlands performed by Bernarda Fink and Gerold Huber.
Die Götter Griechenlands
Schöne Welt, wo bist du? Kehre wieder
Holdes Blüthenalter der Natur!
Ach, nur in dem Feenland der Lieder
Lebt noch deine fabelhafte Spur.
Ausgestorben trauert das Gefilde,
Keine Gottheit zeigt sich meinem Blick,
Ach, von jenem lebenwarmen Bilde
Blieb der Schatten nur zurück.
Fair world, where are you? Turn back again,
sweet blossom-age of nature!
Alas, only in the fairyland of song
lives still your fabulous trace.
Deserted mourn the fields,
no god appears before my eyes.
Alas, of that life-warm image
only its shadow remains.

(translation by Emily Ezust)

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