About this work
As befits its subject, Schubert's Fahrt zum Hades (Journey to Hades, D. 526) is one of his most epic and most emotional settings. Setting the four-verse poem of his close friend Johann Mayrhofer as a through-composed song with a recapitulation of the opening verse and its music in the last verse, Schubert's poem is as relentless, as merciless, and as fuliginous as the subject: a soul's journey to the lands of the dead.
The opening verse is in D minor, the tonality of Mozart's "Commandatore" aria from Don Giovanni and, more pertinently, of Schubert's own Der Tod und das Mädchen. Over triplets in the piano accompaniment's right hand and descending bass line in the left hand, the vocal melody is full of pathos and longing. The second verse's depiction of the sun and stars turns the music to lyrical F major. But with the last tear of the soul, F major becomes the dominant of the third verse's bleak B flat minor of the soul's first vision of Hades. Yet even B flat minor seems luminous compared with the fourth verse's recitative in the flat-strewn blackness of D flat minor. Schubert's decision to repeat the opening verse and its by-now almost brilliant D minor sets the song within a classical frame and allows the listener some relief from the darkness of the poem. This is one of Schubert's most despairing songs.