The ballad is set in the ancient Greek polis of Syracuse. After a failed attempt by Moerus to kill the tyrant Dionysius, he is sentenced to death but is granted a delay to give his sister to her designated husband. His friend remains with Dionysius to guarantee Moerus' return. To the astonishment of Dionysius, after many obstacles, Moerus returns to save his friend. Ashamed by this deed, Dionysius admits the moral value of fidelity and asks to be considered as a friend in their midst.
In the original version, written in 1798 and published in 1799, the main character is named Moerus. In 1804 Schiller re-worked the ballad and changed the name of Moerus to Damon. It was translated into English in 1902.
In the late 1930s, Berthold Brecht wrote a verse commentary Über Schillers Gedicht "Die Bürgschaft", ironically praising the Golden Age in which contract had such moral force that the tyrant realizes that he is hardly needed. This has been set to music by Hans Eisler.
Franz Schubert set it to music twice: first as a song in 1815, and then as an opera in 1816 but left off work on the latter the middle of the third act.
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- Die Bürgschaft as a spoken version (help·info) (4.36 MB, OGG)
- The same at Project Gutenberg
- A very recent translation
- "Die Bürgschaft", song by Franz Schubert: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- mp3 recording of Franz Schubert's song, legal and free download