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Cantata, "Prometheus"

Franz Liszt
(1811-86)



Liszt's cantata "Prometheus," composed in 1850, is based upon the poem of the same name, written by Johann Gottfried von Herder, the court preacher of Weimar. The poem closely follows the well-known legend of Prometheus' punishment for stealing fire from heaven, and his ultimate rescue by Hercules from the vulture which preyed upon his vitals.

In building up his cantata Liszt has introduced several prologues from the poem without music, which serve as narrators explaining the situations, linking and leading up to the musical numbers, which are mainly choral. Thus the opening prologue pictures the sufferings of Prometheus, the crime for which he us forced to endure such a terrible penalty, and the patience, hope, and heroism of the victim. The closing lines introduce the opening chorus of sea-nymphs ("Prometheus, woe to thee!"), for female voices, arranged in double parts, and set to a restless, agitated accompaniment, expressive of fear and despair.

The second prologue, reciting the wrath of Oceanus ("On his swift-winged ocean Steed"), that mortals should have dared to vex his peaceful waters, and the reply of Prometheus that ("on the broad Earth each Place is free to all"), introduces the choruses of Tritons and Oceanides. The first is a mixed chorus full of brightness and spirit ("Freedom! afar from Land upon the open Sea"). Their exultant song is followed by a fascinating melody ("Hail! O Prometheus, hail!) for female chorus, with short but expressive solos for soprano and alto ("When to our Waters the golden Time shall come"), the number closing with double chorus in full, rich harmony ("Holy and grand and free is the gift of Heaven").





Thereupon follows the third prologue, introducing a chorus of Dryads ("Woe to thee, Prometheus") of the same general characters as the opening chorus of sea nymphs, and containing a dramatic and declamatory alto solo ("Deserted stand God's Sacred Altars in the old Forest"). A dialogue follows between Gaea and Prometheus, in which the latter bravely defends his course. As the Dryads disappear, Prometheus soliloquizes ("This is, in Truth, the noblest Deed"). A mixed chorus of gleaners follows ("With the Lark sweetly singing"), which is graceful and melodious.

In the next prologue Ceres consoles Prometheus, and while she is speaking a shout of gladness rises and Bacchus appears. He smites the rock, and at his touch a bower of grape vines and ivy boughs interlaces over the head of the Titan and shadows him. This serves to introduce the chorus of vine dressers ("Hail to the Pleasure giver"), a lively strain for male voices with an effective solo quartet. As Prometheus resumes his soliloquy, Hermes approaches, leading Pandora, and seeks to allure him from his purpose by her enchantments, but in vain. The voices of the spirits in the lower regions sing a melodramatic chorus ("Woe! woe! the sacred Sleep of the Dead has been disturbed"). An allegro for orchestra follows, preluding the approach of Hercules, who kills the vulture, strikes the fetters off, and bids him ("Go hence unto thy Mother's Throne"). The scene introduces the seventh number ("All human Foresight wanders in deepest Night"), an expressive and stately male chorus with solo quartet.

The last prologue describes the scene at the throne of Themis, the pardon of Prometheus, and her assurance that ("Henceforth Olympus smiles upon the Earth"). Pallas presents him with a veiled figure as the reward of his heroism ("Who will bring to thy Race the richest Blessing -- Truth"). The goddess unveils her and declares her name "Agathea. She brings to man the purest, holiest gift -- Charity." The closing chorus of the Muses follows ("Of all bright Thoughts that bloom on Earth").





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