About this work
The Austrian poet Johann Mayrhofer loved classical antiquity, and he loved the sort of high-flown sentimental idealism to which his age was inclined. In his best works, he combined these elements into a work which has the depth of ancient Greece and the melancholy passion of early German Romanticism. His poem Memnon is a superlative example of Mayrhofer at his best: using as his basis the classical myth of the son of Aurora (the goddess of the dawn), Memnon, who was killed fighting the Greeks in the Trojan War, but who was granted a sort of immortality as one of the two stone colossi near Thebes in Egypt which sang at every dawn, Mayrhofer created a four-verse poem which is a lament for the artist who creates immortal works at a terrible cost undreamed of by his audience.
Schubert's setting of Memnon (D. 541) from March, 1817, is one of his most sublime: a slow and noble work with anguish at its core. The song opens in D flat major with a joyful yet melancholy melody accompanied by doleful repeated notes in the piano which only Schubert could have written. The vocal melody of the first two verses is small in tonal scale, but enormous in emotional scope; a melody which is grateful for every phrase, but yearns for so much more. The melody is granted both more scale and scope in the third verse when it rises into the singer's range over a modulation to the dominant. But with the return of the mournful tolling notes of the piano introduction, the harmony returns to the tonic and the melody sinks back to the smaller scale of the opening.
Although all the gestures of Schubert's Memnon are deliberately restrained, it is in fact that restraint which gives the song its ineffable and immutable sorrow.