Once again, we find ourselves with another composer’s birthday, which I find to be excellent occasions to feature an examination of that composer’s body of work. I never tire of this, because the results can be so edifying. Such is the case with the great Franz Schubert, whose January 31, 1797 birthday we celebrate today. It is hard for me to find another composer with Schubert’s sense of lyricism – he was truly an under-appreciated genius in his day whose brilliance was tragically cut short at the young age of 31.
We begin tonight’s show with Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810, subtitled Der Tod und das Mädchen, one of the highlights of his catalog, a piece considered to be one of the staples of the string quartet repertoire. He wrote it in 1824, having been suffering from a severe illness which is now believed to have been tertiary stage syphilis. He believed that he was dying (and, in fact, would pass away in 1828), but his creativity was undiminished, and he in fact would write some of the most extraordinary music during this period of his life. It was first performed in a private home in 1826, while the composer was living in Vienna. He wrote the quartet in the key of D minor, which was popularly associated with Death (the “key of Doom” in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and in Requiem Mass – which we heard last week; the key of his own Gretchen am Spinnrade; also used by Beethoven in his Piano Sonata 17, Op. 31 No. 2). He had actually stopped writing quartets for an extended period of time, almost 8 years, but in the trying times that he was experiencing, according to Walter Willson Cobbett (yes, that is spelled right!), “the string quartet had now also become a vehicle for conveying to the world his inner struggles.”
Schubert based the string quartet on a lied that he had written in 1817, Op. 7 No. 3 (D.531), also using the same subtitle, which we have also heard tonight. Schubert set the piece to text written by the North German poet Matthias Claudius. The piece, illustrating the encounter between the “savage skeleton” Death and the “young and tender” Maiden, was so successful that he published it in 1821, one of a select few compositions that achieved any measure of public notoriety during his lifetime. As with the string quartet, the song is written in D minor, and is notably difficult for the female voice to sing, requiring significant range in the lower end of the female vocal spectrum during the second of the song’s two verses (called “strophes”), where the singer sings the role of Death:
The Young Girl: Pass by! Oh, pass by! Go, savage skeleton! I am still young, go, dear! And do not touch me. Death: Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender thing! I am a friend, and do not come to punish. Be cheerful! I am not savage! You shall sleep softly in my arms.
As with all of Schubert’s songs (referred to in German as lied, or lieder), the piano is no simple accompaniment to the voice. Rather, the voice and the piano are equal partners, carrying equal heft and equal importance in the overall impact of the song. This is something that was somewhat unique in Schubert’s day, and as a result Schubert helped revolutionize the art of the song, even if that recognition was late in coming to him.
Consider the following clip of the great mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig singing Der Tod und das Mädchen. At the end, where the music calls for her to drop all the way to a low D, she goes an octave higher. That’s how hard it is to handle the song. There are a number of vocalists who handle the range very well, most recently Jessye Norman (who is noted for her extraordinary vocal range). I expect that this would be a trait common among Wagnerian sopranos, which requires an expanded vocal range than other vocal types.
After our two Death and the Maiden pieces, we then heard Schubert’s well-known Piano Quintet in A, Op. 114, D. 667, subtitled “The Trout”. The Trout is written with somewhat unusual instrumentation, piano, violin, viola, cello and double-bass (most string quartets use two violins, viola and cello, and most piano quintets would just add a piano to that). It is theorized that another composer, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, had written a quintet with similar instrumentation, and Schubert had written this for a group of musicians coming together to play the Hummel work. As with Death and the Maiden, Schubert based the quintet on another song of his, Die Forelle (The Trout), with the memorable Fourth Movement serving as a set of variations based on the song. The piece is considered notable for its original and innovative use of harmony and chromaticism, yet another of Schubert’s work that has charmed generations of composers, musicians and listeners.
We close out the show with a fine sampling of Schubert’s genius for piano composition, his Impromptus, Op. 90. Tonight’s selection is one of two separate sets of Impromptus that he wrote in 1827 (all written together, Op. 90 was published that year, while the second set was published after his death as Op. 142) . These piano pieces are considered to be an important break away from the piano sonata form that had dominated piano composition in the preceding years. Rather than pieces that come in four movements, Schubert presents here pieces that are compact, highly organized, and highly lyrical, each of which could easily stand on its own as a great piece of music, while at the same time working well as a unit. Bernard Shaw referred to the first of our Impromptus as “a noble piece of rhetoric”. Just as with the other pieces of music we have heard this evening, what we have heard here has a place among some of the great pieces of art in the annals of music composition.