Prometheus & Ganymede

The P-G Paradigm


In February 2010 I was studying ‘From Enlightenment to Romanticism’, an Open University Arts course which explored the transition which occurred between the years 1780 and 1830; instead of a clear change from the Classical (elegant, rational, polite) to the Romantic (emotional, transcendent, unkempt) there was a dramatic upheaval which saw bold developments in art, politics, science and religion.

As part of this course we were required to submit a 2000-word essay discussing the nature of Romantic works of Art: do these creations share a ‘common essence’, or do they simply have a family resemblance? The assignment was to be centred around two of the Goethe settings composed by Schubert, along with one other piece (which could have been a poem by Wordsworth or Byron, the Museum of John Soane, any of the late paintings of Delacroix or the Royal Pavilion at Brighton).

And naturally the two songs by Schubert which I most wanted to discuss were the settings of ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Ganymede’. Here we have two songs – same poet, same composer, same instruments and same cultural context (classical mythology) but which represent distinctly opposing views of the relationship between man and God. Ganymede was the devoted cupbearer (a delightfully coy expression) to Zeus on Olympus, while Prometheus was the ultimate rebel, a titan who stole fire from the Gods as a gift to Man.

In the P-G Paradigm we see the essence of Romanticism – the reckless, passionate pursuit of an ideal – but one of the characters is a slave to the existing order, while the other is utterly defiant. And yet the same musical idiom serves to embody their individual missions.

While pondering these ideas, I would sometimes walk from my landlord’s house up to the local branch of ASDA (the only place where I could receive a decent cellphone signal). It was early in the year, and the sky would be dark at six o’clock. Sometimes I would glimpse the moon through the bare trees, and think that this was the essence of the Romantic ideal.

And then I found myself thinking about the mystery of Schubert’s musical output. His Great C-major symphony, a huge orchestral creation, had as its slow movement a jaunty march where one would expect to find a sensuous cantabile. And Franz did know how to compose a slow movement – symphonies five and eight both have the most glorious, poignant melodies as their second movements. So why, in this tremendous manifesto, did he restrain his natural talent?

I can only think that it would unbalance the whole work if he had included a languorous, swooning rainbow of melody in this work. Indeed, the entire symphony seems to rely on small motivic cells being repeated  hundreds of times to generate an irresistible momentum, and this technique would not work in a section where the main tune was twenty bars long.

And of course, in producing a symphonic movement like this, with the barest variety, it becomes possible – as in a Japanese Noh drama – to create bold shifts in feeling with only subtle key changes. Having mastered the art of composing tender, poignant slow movements, Schubert wanted to move beyond, to the essence of music – ‘Heard melodies are sweet….’, where the plainest tunes can evoke a range of emotional responses.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s