Program Notes: Concert 4

Music of Franz Schubert

If fertility be a distinguishing mark of genius, then Franz Schubert is a genius of the highest order. Not much over thirty when he died, he wrote an astonishing quantity of things, about half of which, perhaps, have been published; a part of these, only, are widely known, while a still greater part will never, or not for a long time, attain publicity. Among his first-mentioned works, his songs obtained the quickest and widest celebrity; he would have gradually set the whole German literature to music; he was the man for Telemann, who claimed that “a good composer should be able to set wall advertisements to music.”  Whatever he felt, flowed forth in music; Æschylus, Klopstock, so stiff in composition, yielded under his hand, while he added a deeper sense to the light lyrics of Müller and others. Then what a multitude of instrumental works of every form and kind; trios, quartettes, sonatas, rondos, dances, variations, for two and four hands, large and small, full of wonderful, rare beauties………. He should have lived to see how he is idolized today; it would have inspired him to do his best and highest. Now that he has long lain at rest, we carefully endeavor to collect and examine all that he left behind him.

– writings by Robert Schumann from his collection of essays “Music and Musicians”, translated by Fanny Raymond Ritter.

Franz Schubert was born and raised in Vienna making him the only master of the Classical Era who was a native of the place.  The city was brimming with music making: public concerts, parties, musicales, and a thriving market for published musical scores for use by a well-educated middle class.  His father, a schoolmaster, taught him to play the violin, but his son quickly surpassed him.  At age nine, Franz began studies in violin, piano, organ, singing, and harmony with Michael Holzer, a parish organist.  Holzer said of his student, “If I wished to instruct him in anything fresh, he already knew it.  Consequently, I gave him no actual tuition but merely conversed with him and watched him with silent astonishment.”

In 1808, Schubert became a choirboy in the imperial court chapel.  As a member of the choir, he was admitted with a scholarship to the Royal City College, a boarding school for commoners that was both a grammar school and university.  Choristers were automatically enrolled in the music curriculum.  At age eleven, Schubert was already concertmaster of the student orchestra and occasionally conducted rehearsal. We know for sure he was composing significant pieces by 1810.

When his mother died in 1812, he was able to remain in the school for only one more year before family financial woes made it necessary for him to start contributing an income.  He entered a training program for elementary teachers and began teaching at his father’s school in 1814.  Although he was a capable teacher, he was not particularly well suited to the job.  In 1815, a wealthy young friend, Franz von Schober, started encouraging Schubert to devote himself full time to composing.  Finally, in 1818, he took that step and officially became a freelance musician and composer.

Freelancing hasn’t changed much in two hundred years.  Success depends on getting commissions to write music.  You need to have your works published so a greater public can discover them, and you can realize some royalty income.  If you are a performer, you give public concerts of your music.  You can teach music. The only way possible to put all your energy into your work without distraction is to have a generous patron who pays for everything.

The reality of Schubert’s professional life is that he was never very successful.  He was a distracted teacher known for abandoning students in mid-lesson to go write down an idea that flashed into his head.  Commissions were infrequent.  He did not perform a public concert until late in his life.  And then there were the struggles to get music published.  Only a fraction of his music made it into print during his lifetime: about ¼ of the songs, ¼ of the dances for solo piano, less than half of his piano four-hands music, and a tiny fraction of his chamber music.  Despite being one of the most extraordinary talents of all time, Schubert would not have survived without the support of friends and family who housed him, loaned him money, and championed his music.

Franz Schubert started writing string quartets in 1810 and produced eleven full works and a number of fragments over the next six years as a teenager.  After a hiatus, he returned to writing for the ensemble in 1824 and produced three more quartets which are considered masterworks of the genre. Toward the end of that early bout of quartet writing, he turned his hand to the string trio: the combination of violin, viola, and cello.  He started the first Trio in B-flat Major in 1814 but never finished that one.  In 1816 he began another using the same key, this time finishing an Allegro movement and leaving some fragments of two other movements.  In 1817, he began another, also in the key of B-flat Major.  This time he finished the work, String Trio in B-flat major D. 581, but he was wrestling with fully realizing his musical ideas with this three-voice ensemble.  We know this because he left two versions, something very rare for him.  Both were published in the 1981edition of the Complete Works.

The revisions made for the second version of the trio are all very subtle. Changes include refashioning some melodies, redistributing material among the instruments, and smoothing out some transitions between sections.  We are playing his second version.

The first movement, Allegro moderato, is full of little touches we have come to expect from the mature Schubert: melodic chromatic surprises, sudden harmonic shifts when developing material, and lots of elegant ornamental touches in the melodies.  The second movement is graceful yet humorous and ends with a dramatic flourish.  The Minuet melody is delivered by the violin supported by the other instruments but, in the trio section, the viola gets to lead the dance. The final movement, Rondo, begins as a gentle but cheery romp.  Dramatic bouts are interspersed between repetitions of the rondo theme yet these have a quality of mock seriousness. The piece ends in a whisper.

Schubert’s first song masterpiece, Gretchen am Spinnrade, a setting of a text by Goethe, was written when he was just seventeen.  Before Schubert, art songs tended to imitate folk styles and follow the formula of verse/chorus we know so well from popular music.  In Schubert’s hands, the expressive potential of the genre exploded.  His use of dramatic texts, a more expansive harmonic language, and the imaginative use of piano figurations to sonically illustrate elements of the story being told were completely original.  The three songs we offer tonight are wonderful examples of this gift for interpreting and reimagining poetry as music.

Suleika I was written in 1821, and the text is from a poem collection written jointly by Goethe and his friend/lover Marianne von Willemer. In the poem, Suleika imagines the East wind carrying messages from her absent lover and is both gladdened and left full of longing.

The song begins with a sensual five-measure piano introduction.  Each of the first five verses becomes more agitated as the song progresses.  The pulsing piano provides a sense of inevitability and forward motion under the soaring vocal lines.  The song’s endless yearning is eased by the quietly ecstatic final verse.

Im Frühling (In Spring) was composed in 1826.  The poem is by Ernst Schulze and one of ten Schubert was to set to music.  In the poem, the poet describes the beauty of springtime reigniting memories of lost love.  Sudden shifts in key create an unsettled feeling throughout the song.  The last verse shifts between Major and minor, one of Schubert’s favorite devices.    

Die Forelle (“The Trout”) is an earlier song written in 1817.  The poem is by Christian Schubart and tells the story of a trout getting caught.  The full poem ends with a stanza warning young women to be wary of young men.  Schubert chose to omit that verse which changed the song’s focus and allowed it to be sung by either male or female singers.  It is a three-part structure in which the first two verses are almost identical.  The third changes considerably to allow a musical depiction of the catching of the trout.  Throughout the piece, the main rhythmic and melodic gesture in the piano depicts the movement of the fish in the water.  The moment the fish is caught, the music flips from Major to minor, the piano gesture becomes darker, and the vocal line becomes breathless.

The song was extremely popular with contemporary audiences.  In 1819, when Sylvester Paumgartner, a wealthy music lover and amateur cellist, commissioned Schubert to write a piece for the combination of violin, viola, cello, bass, and piano, he specifically requested that a set of variations on Die Forelle be included.  Musicologist Alfred Einstein described the piece as music “we cannot help but love.”  The quintet uses original and innovative harmonies and interesting chromaticism.  The piece has a unique sonority.  The addition of the bass deepens the string resonance, and Schubert writes extended sections in which the piano is played in octaves in the highest register.

The first of the Quintet’s five movements is richly lyrical and expansive. The Andante is a sort of extended song in two large stanzas. After the delightful Scherzo comes the set of variations on Die Forelle for which the piece is named.   The fifth and final movement, Allegro giusto, is an extremely satisfying romp full of Gypsy like tunes.