About this work
Prometheus was in the air in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Swift, Byron, Wordsworth, and both Mr. and Mrs. Shelley wrote about him in England, while Burger, Weiland, Herder, August von Schlegel, and of course Goethe wrote about him in German-speaking countries. Schubert himself treated the subject twice, first in 1816 in Prometheus Cantata (D. 451) -- unfortunately lost in the composer's lifetime -- and then again in his 1819 of this setting of Goethe's 1773 poem drawn from his incomplete drama. At this point in the drama, the Titan has created man in his image, "a race that shall...suffer, weep, enjoy, rejoice and ignore you Zeus] as I do!," and is at the height of his fearless defiance. Needless to say, Goethe wrote no more, apparently unable to visualize Prometheus bound. Schubert's second Prometheus is as defiant of the rules of music as Goethe's poem is defiant of the rules of prosody. Set in seven sections separated by fermatas, Schubert's Prometheus is held together by nothing but its creator's genius and its own fury. After a five-bar piano introduction that moves through B flat major to A flat major to E flat major to the dominant of G minor, the first section is a bold recitative in G minor set over tremolo chords in the piano that ends back on the B flat major of the opening. But the second section quickly contradicts this with a slow hymn-like melody over evenly moving, four-part counterpoint in the piano starting in B flat minor but stopping a semitone lower on A major. This proves to be the dominant of D minor, the tonality in which the third section starts with a quiet arioso and ends on F major, the relative major of D minor and the dominant of B flat. But Schubert throws that all over when he begins the fourth section with a fortissimo diminished seventh chord thunderclap followed by another heroic recitative that seems to close once again on B flat major. This, too, proves illusory as Schubert starts the fifth section with a fast series of up-thrusting modulations under a plaintive melody that closes on a G sharp major chord. But this, too, is a mirage that fades from major to minor to start the brief, lamenting arioso of the sixth section that ends on a G major chord. This proves to be the dominant of the tonality of the final section, a fortissimo recitative in C major over courageous chords in the piano accompaniment. And it is in C major -- a whole tone above the tonic and in complete defiance of all the rules of music -- that Schubert ends his song of the Titan Prometheus.