Dr. Michael McBride
Music Theory II
Der Atlas: Music Analysis
Der Atlas is a vastly dramatic piece by Franz Schubert about a man comparing himself to the greek titan Atlas who - according to the mythology - sided with the titans during the war between the titans and the olympians. The titans were defeated and Atlas’ punishment for being on their side was having to carry the world on his shoulders. The man in Der Atlas is in great pain and feels as though he has been given the same punishment as Atlas. He cannot take the pain of carrying the world on his shoulders and therefore he breaks under it.
Schubert starts out his piece in g minor and sets a very clear motif in his accompaniment that feels dramatic and intense. After comparing himself to Atlas, Schubert uses the word “Unerträgliches” which translates into “unbearable” to clearly show how deep his emotions are. He is using this word in two ways, firstly as a comparison of how Atlas felt when he was doomed to carry the world on his shoulder in all of eternity, and secondly as a description of how his emotional health can have such vast affection that it feels like his entire situation is unbearable. It is during this word that the first key change happens in the piece. Schubert, who started his piece in g minor decides to change the key to b minor which is not a closely related key. The most common way to create a key change is to go to a key that is close to the one you start with, but by going to a distant key, Schubert creates a more dramatic change in his piece. Furthermore, it is typical for a composer to start off the key change with the I chord, but this is - to say the least - not what Schubert does. Instead, the first chord after the key change is a vii°/V. This creates an even more dramatic feel to the piece and takes you to a place you did not expect. The reason for doing this is that during these phrases, the lyrics states that he is breaking under the weight of the world. This is a climactic part and contains a very high pitch that is held on for a long period of time.
After only five measures of the piece being in b minor Schubert changes the key again. Similarly to the first key change, this goes to a distant key - B Major. This is the B part of the piece and changes the feel of the piece completely. Additionally to changing to a distant key, Schubert changes the accompaniment from dramatic, full and low sounding, to cheerful and waltz sounding. In this part, the lyrics is suitably about how his heart wanted to be eternally happy and the harmonic rhythm is much slower than the previously which gives us as listeners a less stressful sensation. Schubert chooses to stay with the I chord for the majority of the B major section of the song and when he goes to another chord, he goes to places that you expect him to go. To top it all off, he finishes this part with a perfect authentic cadence as to give the listener a sort of relaxation.
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