Happy New Year! Like a lot of other people—maybe like you—part of my 2011 was spent reading Walter Isaacson’s monumental Steve Jobs. What a story. It got me thinking about genius, about the marketplace, about how the two sometimes interact to define an era.
By coincidence, the marketplace delivered a load of new Schubert recordings late in the year, and that got me thinking too. Here’s one small thought: if (for Apple and for us) Steve Jobs was a sort of Beethoven, then Steve Wozniak was a sort of Schubert.
The two Viennese composers complemented each other, functionally and psychologically, just as the two Steves formed a yin-and-yang duo who together created the culture in which so many innovative devices were developed.
One was irascible, impossible to please, famously rude and aggressive. He was not a great inventor of melodies, and he stole (sorry, adapted) his formal structures from the existing inventory (sonatas, scherzos, variations, etc.). But by tweaking endlessly, by exerting enormous personal effort and micro-managing his performances, publishers, and patrons, he was able to bring out a handful of groundbreaking works that changed people’s attitudes about music. Nobody actually knew they needed or wanted an Eroica Symphony before they had heard it. Afterwards? There was no going back.
Today let’s talk about the other guy, the one content to sit in a cubicle and write code. The one who didn’t manage much beyond that, leaving everything else—his performances, his checkbook, even what little social activity he enjoyed—largely in the hands of others. His name survives only because what he wrote in that cubicle transformed the creative lives of every musician who followed him. His radical expansion of the craft of harmony was less like programming, more like coming up with a whole new programming language.
This was Franz Schubert (1797–1828). Sooner or later the analogy breaks down, of course. Schubert was much younger than Beethoven, and he idolized the older man without ever getting to know him. Beethoven lived to about the same age as Steve Jobs, but Schubert died tragically young. To some extent he made his mark in genres other than those conquered by his hero. And a significant amount of his music was never heard in his own lifetime.
Yet many scholars would argue that Schubert deserves the lion’s share of credit for developing the musical apparatus of the Romantic Era. In his recent five-volume Oxford History of Western Music (talk about monumental!), Richard Taruskin reminds us that the Romantics gradually displaced the old Enlightenment idea of truth as something external, objective, and knowable through reason and observation, with a new vision of many truths—of truth as something internal, subjective, and knowable through personal intuition and introspection.
To that end, nineteenth-century music listeners began to cultivate moments in a musical performance that led them inward, just as the newly popular literary genres of biography, memoir, and diary allowed readers access to the private lives of the writers. Likewise a profusion of more intimate, accessible musical genres—the short character piece for piano, the “lyric” for voice—satisfied consumers’ desires for music that could be performed at home, stimulating reverie within the security of a familiar domestic space.
Much of Schubert’s considerable output was meant for such uses. He wrote many individual songs and two song cycles, Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, to be performed at “Schubertiads” organized in the homes of his friends and supporters. The salon, or large domestic room, and the drawing room (short for “withdrawing room,” Taruskin explains) balanced the need for a sizable space in which semi-public performances could be held yet maintain some intimacy, to make a “public display of privacy” in which Romantics could paradoxically enact “a vast exercise in shared solitude” (this via Taruskin from historian Peter Gay).
The Germans came up with a word for it: Innigkeit. It denotes intimacy and sincerity (authenticity), but it also connotes deep ardor mingled with a welcoming, familiar quality. For each listener, it’s that listener’s most real, most private self. Alone with ourselves, we may experience a sensation that the flow of time has stopped, or at least slowed considerably. We may also seize the opportunity to revisit former selves or explore other identities.
At least I think that’s what happens to me these days with Die schöne Müllerin. When I first studied this great song cycle, about a naïve young man who meets a miller’s daughter in his travels, attempts to woo her, and loses out to a bolder fellow, I was that naïve young man. I walked with him, sang with him, wept with him when his timidity and innocence proved his undoing. Wasn’t that the proper way to appreciate these songs?
Only if you are a teenager, it turns out. Anyone over the age of twenty-five or so will see that the protagonist of Wilhelm Müller’s poems, set by Schubert in 1823, is dysfunctionally passive and withdrawn, given to solipsism and fantasy. We may feel sadness at his fate, but we cannot pretend that the world has been unfairly (or even unusually) cruel to him. In short, he is not a Romantic hero of the sort that Beethoven or Berlioz routinely offered up. Yet this does not necessarily make him any less engaging. As grownups, we learn to hear Die schöne Müllerin with heightened sensitivity toward its hero’s frailty: rather than being swept away by a vicarious experience of infatuation, we are now touched by our memory of youthful enthusiasms.
Perhaps that’s how Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, the grand master of German song interpreters, approached it when he sang it in later years, as in this YouTube clip:
You don’t really need a translation here. At some length the poet tells us what a fine thing it is to go wandering through the countryside, how pretty the brook sounds, and so forth. Soon enough things get darker, yet the music retains its folk-like character to the end. (Besides Innigkeit, the other dominating trait of early German Romanticism was its embrace of Volkstümlichkeit, i.e., the popular and national.) You will have noticed, for example, how many of the songs are cast in simple strophic form: second verse, same as the first, at least musically. That’s very volkstümlich.
But I meant to talk about Schubert as a harmonic radical. When musicians discuss harmony, they’re referring to how a sequence of chords (i.e., a chord progression) can be crafted that not only flows naturally but also employs tension/release and chord “colors” to represent specific emotions. Even single chords can do this, but chord progressions do it better. To illustrate, here’s a clever cartoon that illustrates feelings engendered by the chords in one movement of the Mozart Requiem. Each chord gets its own roman-numeral signifier:
That little cartoon probably puts too much emphasis on the character of individual chords, but I like the way it shows that these musical phrases and their chord progressions take on an inexorable quality, driving home an expressive message that cannot be ignored.
Now imagine a progression or series of progressions that, instead of fulfilling our expectations and driving home a discrete “message,” veers off into another neighborhood. That would be Schubert. I’m not saying the effect is unpleasant. Because Schubert tends to exploit mediant tonalities (moving up or down a third, e.g., C-to-E, C-to-A, to III or to VI), which contain some of the same notes or chords, the music may sound somehow refreshed rather than strange. It may encourage Innigkeit. This happens in Schubert’s song “Die Sterne” (translation here). Listen for the harmonies in the third line of each stanza.
Wie blitzen die Sterne so hell durch die Nacht!
Bin oft schon darüber vom Schlummer erwacht.
Doch schelt’ ich die lichten Gebilde drum nicht,
Sie üben im Stillen manch heilsame Pflicht.
Sie wallen hoch oben in Engelgestalt,
Sie leuchten dem Pilger durch Heiden und Wald.
Sie schweben als Boten der Liebe umher,
Und tragen oft Küsse weit über das Meer.
Each verse begins with the same music in the same tonality/key (E-flat), but in the third line, the tonality shifts—to C in the first verse, to C-flat in the second. (Third and fourth verses follow the same pattern.) These are mediant shifts; the use of the more radical “flat VI,” as in the second verse, was one of Schubert’s favorite devices.
We are listening to selections from a new recording by tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Paul Lewis. Having recorded Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise previously (the latter scoring especially high marks from critics), they turned their attention in 2010 to a third Schubert “cycle,” this one assembled posthumously by his publisher and brought out as Schwanengesang. In spite of its origin Schwanengesang demonstrates a certain coherence, and the quality of its individual songs is very high indeed. Written in Schubert’s last year of life, these songs also frequently reveal his interest in harmonic experiment. Here are the end of “Die Stadt” (The Town) and the beginning of “Am Meer” (By the Sea), the 11th and 12th songs in the cycle. Notice that “Die Stadt” ends on a discord—a ghostly diminished chord, left unresolved—and “Am Meer” begins with a dissonance—an unprepared augmented-sixth chord. Thus does Schubert represent, on the one hand, a city barely visible through the ocean mists that nevertheless holds painful memories, and on the other, the deceptive calm surrounding a tragic parting of lovers, crushed by an unspeakable burden. (The poetry, by Heinrich Heine, is so Romantic as to border on the bizarre.)
Altogether this is a wonderful release from Padmore and Lewis. It also includes “Auf dem Strom” for tenor, piano, and horn, another late work but in a more conservative vein. Recording and production are also first-rate.
Having performed and recorded most of Beethoven’s piano music in the last few years, Lewis has lately turned back to Schubert, encouraged perhaps by his remarkably successful collaboration with Padmore on the songs. Lewis’ new double disc includes the Piano Sonatas, D. 840 (“Reliquie”), 850, and 894 (“Fantaisie”), the four Impromptus, D. 899, and the three Klavierstücke, D. 946. I had intended to use this recording to become better acquainted with Schubert’s sonatas, but I found myself returning again and again to the Impromptus. As with Schwanengesang, the title was bestowed upon them by a publisher, and it is not especially apt. These four pieces are anything but fluffy sketches, the product of an afternoon’s improvisation or whatever.
Consider the opening moments of Impromptu No. 1. It’s a march. Perhaps a funeral march, given its harmonic twists, but the tempo marking, like the harmonic language, seems odd: Allegro molto moderato. The first, loud note offers no hint of the music’s modality (is it major? minor?) or key center. Only toward the end of the initial phrase do we get a note—a single note, E flat—that implies this music is in C minor. So the first note must have been the tension-filled dominant (V) of that key. I have color-coded the first two lines of the score here so that you can see for yourself just how subtly Schubert works the harmonies. Despite that E flat in measure 3 (the red note), he introduces modally ambiguous pitches in measures 4 and 7 (more red notes) as the tune is repeated (and as we get the E flat again, in m. 7). The next phrase (pickup to m. 10) swings implicitly into the mediant key, E-flat major (maybe those notes should be green!), but reverts to C minor with the same few (red) tones that muddied the waters before. Sour, then sweet, then sour again. Listen:
Schubert continues this little balancing act—minor vs. relative major, I vs. III, the mediant—through nearly 40 bars, and then pulls a bigger switch by shifting abruptly, but at greater length, into A flat (another mediant key, the VI) with a significantly altered version of the tune. You can hear this happen beginning at 1’31” of this excerpt:
This piece, incidentally, has ancestors. It seems especially reminiscent of the second-movement funeral march in Beethoven’s Eroica, partly because Beethoven also employed a mediant key relationship (C minor and E-flat major) and similar themes in suggesting (private) memories in the midst of (public) mourning. Innigkeit. What creates a sharper sense of intimacy in Schubert’s piece is not only the medium—solo piano—but also the quicksilver nature of the harmonic shifts: one can be thrust into another dimension, another temporal plane, at any moment.
Schubert could keep this sort of thing up all night long. The second of the Impromptus, for example, begins with a fine display of right-hand technique in E-flat major, but that novelty is soon exhausted; the piece switches without pause into E-flat minor (0’22”), launching a whole series of modulations (key changes) that “prepare” us for a dramatic switch of tonality to—wait for it—the flat VI, C-flat minor (1’17”). And on it goes. Here is Lewis again:
I like Paul Lewis’ relatively straightforward interpretations of these works, and of the sonatas, but I wish the recorded piano sound were fuller, less treble-tipped and harsh at climaxes. It sent me back to my reference discs, a Schubert series recorded by Mitsuko Uchida in the late ‘90s. Philips consistently gave her a warm, substantial piano timbre, slightly artificial perhaps but very gratifying. Her interpretations were more individual, however, and not everyone approved.
On the other hand, I can’t imagine audiophiles anywhere not rejoicing over the sonics and interpretations in the newest release from the Tokyo String Quartet, namely their rendition of Schubert’s Quintet in C, D. 956, for which cellist David Watkin joins them. Like the Schwanengesang, the Quintet was written in the last months of Schubert’s life. (The D. 899 Impromptus date from the year before.) Like those works, the Quintet abounds in emotional ambiguities, in the channeling of light and dark into unexpected corners—here the extra cello is a big help. This is unquestionably Schubert’s masterwork of chamber music, more profound and personal than either the Octet or the “Trout” Quintet, which long enjoyed greater popularity. Just hear the opening section and some of the second theme area:
Given this incomparable musical narrative, it may seem beside the point to note that its initial dissonances bear uncanny resemblance to those that begin “Am Meer.” Or that Schubert is once again playing with mediant relationships: uneasy C-major/C-minor dialogues in the opening that give way to E flat and a serenely flowing second theme, which then glides in and out of C several times before venturing even further afield. How promiscuous, and how sublime! Time does nearly cease its restless forward journey. Welcome to 2012. Here is your antidote.
Featured Recordings, all Schubert
Schwanengesang, D. 957. w/ “Auf dem Strom,” “Die Sterne.” Mark Padmore, tenor; Paul Lewis, piano. Harmonia Mundi HMU 907520. CD, 2011. Robina Young, producer; Brad Michel, engineer.
Piano Sonatas, D. 840, 850, & 894. Impromptus, D. 899. Klavierstücke, D. 946. Paul Lewis, piano. Harmonia Mundi HMC 902115.16. CD, 2011. Martin Sauer, producer; René Möller, engineer.
String Quintet in C, D. 956. Quartettsatz, D. 703. Tokyo String Quartet; David Watkin, cello. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807427. CD/SACD, 2011. Robina Young, producer; Brad Michel, engineer.
Other Schubert Recordings You May Enjoy
Die schöne Müllerin, D. 795. Ian Bostridge, tenor; Graham Johnson, piano; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, reader. Hyperion CDJ33025. CD, 1996. Mark Brown, producer; Antony Howell and Julian Millard, engineers. Part of the label’s lavish Hyperion Schubert Edition and well worth seeking out. Bostridge’s youthful timbre is perfect, Johnson contributed exhaustive essays on the songs and their background, and Fischer-Dieskau recited the Müller poems that Schubert didn’t set.
Winterreise, D. 911. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, baritone; Gerald Moore, piano. EMI Classics Great Artists of the Century 62787. CD, 2004; originally released in 1962. This was Fischer-Dieskau’s second EMI recording of this cycle with Moore, and probably their best. The singer managed to deliver an expressive performance without descending into mannerism, but some listeners will find Moore’s accompaniment far too understated. For a more “involved” accompanist-collaborator, consider Alfred Brendel with Matthias Goerne on Decca. Padmore and Lewis on Hyperion have also been well received, especially in Great Britain.
Mitsuko Uchida Plays Schubert. Sonatas, Impromptus, Moments musicaux, other works. Decca 000410402, 2005. Uchida’s collected Schubert recordings, 1996–2001. Earlier releases of single CDs may still be available. Originally produced by Erik Smith and recorded at Vienna’s Musikverein by Philips. Deeply felt performances captured in a vibrant space by the people who went on to found Polyhymnia.
Piano Quintet in A (“Trout”), D. 667. Variations on “Trockne Blumen,” D. 802. Piano Trio in E flat, D 897. Martin Helmchen, piano; Christian Tetzlaff, violin; others. Pentatone Classics PTC 5186 334. CD/SACD, 2009. Job Maarse, producer; Jean-Marie Geijsen, Ientje Mooij, and Roger de Schot, engineers (Polyhymnia). Highly recommended. Performance and recording both top-notch.
Octet in F, D. 803. The Gaudier Ensemble. Hyperion CDA 67339. CD, 2003. Mark Brown, producer; Tony Faulkner, engineer. A personal favorite, one I used for years to audition equipment. It’s not easy to capture the spectrum of timbres and ranges produced by these eight instrumentalists or to play back that spectrum convincingly. This is a lovely performance of ingratiating music, “easy listening” but not without drama and poetry. If you prefer multichannel SACD, try the excellent version from Berlin’s Scharoun Ensemble, Tudor CD 7114.
String Quintet in C, D. 956. Alban Berg Quartet; Heinrich Schiff, cello. EMI Classics Great Recordings of the Century CDU 7243 5 66942 2 4. CD, 1998. Originally recorded in 1983. Gerd Berg, producer; Johann Nikolaus Matthes, engineer. Whereas the Tokyo Quartet goes for flat-out pathos, the Berg opts for a chillier, more “objective” approach. This pays a dividend especially in the Adagio, which in their hands becomes charged with tension and a greater sense of dread.
Complete Overtures. Prague Sinfonia; Christian Benda, conductor. Naxos NBD0019. Blu-Ray, 2011. DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround and PCM stereo (24/96); originally recorded in 2006. Jiří Gemrot, producer; Karel Soulenik and Václav Roubal, engineers. Newly remastered symphonic Schubert. Energetic, sensitive performances of music made under the influence of Rossini, bearing witness to Schubert’s many attempts to launch himself as an opera composer. Nicely recorded.