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The Art of Song

SCHUBERT & SCHUBERTIADES, Le Salon de Musiques, February 8, 2015 

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In only 16 years of actual composing, Franz Schubert created more than a thousand works of music. It’s an astonishing feat and his output has continued to influence every generation of musicians that followed him. Yet, despite this amazing achievement, Schubert’s life in his home town played out as a woeful tune, full of melancholy and misery. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and other composers enjoyed the patronage of aristocrats and royalty in their adopted city of Vienna. Schubert, who was born there in 1797, could only rely on the support of his friends; when money was scarce, they paid for his wine and gave him a few florins to buy tobacco for his pipe. His mother and schoolteacher father were barely able to care for their eleven children only four of whom survived past infancy. Franz was taught piano and violin at home, clearly showing a spark of talent. After excelling in the church choir, he won a scholarship to Vienna’s Imperial College at age eleven where he was tutored by Antonio Salieri.

During the next five years, the short, homely, stammering, near-sighted Franz wrote music at an unbelievably fast rate: five symphonies, six operas and about 300 songs. He would write another 300 songs (lieder) and hundreds more works–symphonies, sonatas, duets, trios, quartets, overtures, fantasias – before his always poor health began to fail. In March, 1828, Schubert held a public concert of his music in Vienna. It was profitable for him but, with his usual bad luck, not a single critic showed up. Typhoid and syphilis ended his life a few months later, in November; he was only 31 years old. He was buried near the grave of Beethoven, his idol. Another century elapsed before scholars began to search old trunks and dusty attics where they discovered some of Schubert’s missing symphonies and other major compositions.

The same fate did not obscure Schubert’s lieder and the song cycles. Musicologist Julius Reder Carlson, in his introduction to the February 8th Le Salon de Musiques concert, explained “German songs were essential to Schubert’s life; he made his living by writing them and selling the sheet music. He was pretty successful and widely known for the songs but rarely so for his symphonic works.” German lieder has its roots in the folk songs of medieval troubadours, in poems celebrating nature and love. Schubert was inspired by Goethe’s “Faust”, which he read when he was 17. That led to his first lyrical masterpiece, “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel. Instead of merely accompanying the singer, Schubert’s piano became an equal partner and musically “illustrated” the words. A young girl spinning yarn speaks of her absent boyfriend; the more she remembers the touch of his hand and his kiss, the faster she spins: “My poor head is in a whirl, my poor wits distracted”. The piano music grows more frantic as the girl pays less attention to her work. When the wheel crashes to the floor, the music comes to an immediate stop. Another famous song is “Die Forelle”, The Trout. A fisherman can’t quite catch a frisky trout (i.e., girlfriend ) because the clear water in the lake twinkles in the sunlight. The piano music imitates the darting of the clever fish until the man loses patience and muddies the water. Soon enough, “the rod jerked and the little fish was writhing on it; my blood was stirred as I beheld the victim of deceit.” (For the record, Goethe was not amused when Schubert scored music to his words. He felt the songs interfered with the poetry.)

We were lucky at Le Salon to hear these two songs, along with five others, performed by a youthful, experienced baritone, David Castillo, who currently performs with the L. A. Opera as well as the Master Chorale. His eye contact with the audience was effective on “Des Fischers Liebesgluck”, The Fisherman’s Bliss, another melancholy love song about a couple drifting in a boat on a lake. The woman seated next to me at this concert recently heard Castillo sing at the Steinway showroom in Pasadena; she was deeply impressed by his performance of another Schubert masterpiece—”Winterreise”, a song cycle to poems by Wilhelm Muller.

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The founder and artistic director of Le Salon, Francois Chouchan, was very busy at this concert. After his opening remarks—“Schubert is the most impressive of composers; it is more than just music, it is a spirit!”—he accompanied Mr. Castillo with the lieder. He is an excellent, sensitive pianist and was especially supportive on the harmonies of “Am Meer”, By the Sea, a sad song. On “Auf dem Wasser zu singen”, To be sung on the Water, Chouchan’s playing of Schubert’s chords seemed to cradle the words as they were sung. (In the Q. & A. session that followed this concert, someone asked why a baritone would be singing one or two of these songs that were clearly written from the point of view of a woman. Couchan’s answer was: “It’s so beautiful… why not?”)

The “Arpeggione” sonata for cello and piano in A minor (D 821) is something of an oddity. It is played on a cello—“The cello sings!”, said Chouchan who played the piano part—although it was written for an instrument called an arpeggione. Co-director of Le Salon John Walz, who is also principal cellist with the L.A. Opera, believes this Schubert work may be the ONLY piece ever composed for the arpeggione. The instrument, also known as the “guitare d’amour”, is a guitar-shaped 6-stringed violincello with a fretted fingerboard, played with a bow. It was invented by a G. Staufer in 1823, just in time for Schubert to write his sonata in 1824. Although written for the arpeggione, a rather unwieldy instrument, the parts in this sonata have been transcribed for not only cello, but also viola.

Walz’s cello has an especially warm tone in its low notes—exactly what’s needed in the sonata’s first movement. Surrounded by piano notes both romantic and wistful, happy and bittersweet, this work is pure Schubert. The second movement is in a reflective mood, with some long, single bowed notes on the cello, repeated patterns of plucked strings with the piano in support. My guess is that everyone left the 1824 concert humming the sweet melodies in this sonata.

The program’s final selection was the even more hummable piano quintet in A major, D 667, “The Trout”. Schubert sometimes borrowed pieces of his own music and turned them into new works. In this case, he took a theme or two from his song “Die Forelle” – which was sung earlier -wrote some variations and created the popular five-movement quintet. The double bass was relatively new during this period and Schubert’s addition of it to his famous composition adds a deep, rich bottom to his sound. (In person, this depth is even more apparent than on records or CD’s.) In addition to Chouchan on piano and Walz on cello, three more musicians were added to round out the quintet. The double bass player was Timothy Eckert who is also a composer and teacher. He, too, plays with the L. A. Opera Orchestra, and the Master Chorale. Violinist Jessica Guideri, who is an old hand at Le Salon concerts, keeps busy playing all over Los Angeles and made her solo debut at Carnegie Hall. Playing viola was Meredith Crawford, an Oberlin graduate and the Assistant Principal Violist with the Pacific Symphony.

In the first movement of “The Trout”, the wisdom of scoring for a double bass was immediately apparent; the long-held, bowed, single notes free up the cello to play in higher registers. And the additional “voice” allows more freedom for viola and violin, sometimes playing in unison and, at other times, going their separate ways. The whole effect sounded like ten musicians playing the jaunty melodies, not just five. In the andante second movement, violin, viola, then cello repeat what is almost a percussive effect — done by sort of tapping the strings. (Sitting as close as humanly possible to the musicians is an expected pleasure at Le Salon concerts. Aside from hearing every note perfectly, one can see the most minute movement of each player. We were about 6 ft. behind the violinist’s sheet music…so only 4 ft. behind Ms. Guideri herself.)

The scherzo movement of “The Trout” opens with a definite trot. Then, after a pause, a wealth of different themes in different meters are heard. Schubert seems to have had as much fun writing this music as we did while listening to it. In the fourth movement, the piano takes the lead, playing rapid runs up and down the keys while the strings twitter, bird-like. That morphs into all four strings in busy, complicated parts, this time with the piano under. Then, the reverse again. There are constant surprises throughout, with themes and variations getting more complex and faster. The final movement is marked “allegro giusto” meaning neither too fast or too slow. There is a dance-like pace and one or two false endings before this delicious piece of music comes to an end. It’s worth noting that “Trout”, the song, was written when Schubert was only 17. And “Trout”, the marvelous quintet, was penned when he was only 22.

In his opening remarks, Carlson briefly discussed “Schubertiade”- the warm spirit of comaraderie among Schubert’s circle of intimate friends. These musicians would gather around their resident genius and share evenings together in one of Vienna’s cafes–smoking their pipes, drinking wine or coffee, discussing politics and the day’s events. Franz would get another idea and grab a menu or a scrap of newspaper, scribble on it, then show the others. Some of the men had their violins with them or there might be a piano in the room so they could play the passage of music. The pleasure they had was in simply being with one another…and being with Franz, who never stopped writing until his early death.

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Comments

  1. Timothy Eckert says:

    For the record, in the past I’ve had the occasion to sub with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, however I do not currently play with them. The program for Le Salon unfortunately contained this error. I am a member of the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra, Thanks,

    -Timothy Eckert

  2. Thanks for the information Timothy. The post has been updated to reflect the correct information.

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