Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing


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Haiku Wednesday: Schubert, Snow, and Gray Hair

Stick figure with gray snowflakes falling on his head

Snow fell on my hair
Making it a shiny white.
I thought I’d turned gray.

And I was happy
To be close to journey’s end;
But it did not last,

For soon the snow thawed.
My black hair made me despair.
How far must I go?

From night until dawn
Many a head will turn gray,
But, sadly, not mine.

The above haiku is a paraphrase of Wilhelm Müller’s poem Der Greise Kopf, set to music by Franz Schubert.  It is part of Schubert’s epic song cycle Winterreise.  The song immediately precedes The Crow, previously described here.  The wanderer, having left his lover and the comforts of home, wanders through an inhospitable winter landscape. Here he seems to find the coating of snow making his hair gray ironic; he wishes he were old, and that his journey, that is, his wandering and his life, were closer to an end.  For him, bitterly, it is not to be.

Here is Der Greise Kopf performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Murray Perahia.

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Image attribution: Stick figure in snow by C. Gallant, 2017.


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Schubert and Andras Schiff

Portrait of Franz Schubert, around 1827

Franz Schubert c. 1827.

In my wanderings through the Internet, I came across a documentary on the life of Schubert presented by pianist András Schiff.  I enjoyed hearing Schiff’s perspectives on Schubert’s life and works, which to me lifted it from the realm of typical documentary fare. Schiff’s illustrative playing on a rather wonderful Bösendorfer make it that much better.

The Royal College of Music has made three of Schiff’s master classes available on their YouTube channel.  The classes are on Schumann, Schubert, and Haydn.

And now here is Schiff playing the Andantino from Schubert’s Sonata in A Major, D. 959.


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Haiku Wednesday: Time

Recursive clocks in a snail-shell pattern. Photo Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11

Photo: TIme Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11 (Flickr.com/Creative Commons).

How long is that note?
Tell me the tempo you want,
That’s the way I’ll know.

“’55 – too fast!”
“’81 is too damn slow!”
Glenn Gould played with time.

Album leaf- so brief,
Symphony – heavenly length,
Grosse Fuge – vast.

How much time is left?
When will we reach the coda?
Carpe musicam.

I’ve been thinking about time a lot lately.  Probably because there are some important deadlines on my horizon, and the clock is ticking very loudly.  Also because it’s one of my children’s birthday, and how can they be that age already?

As we say in linguistics, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana” (and yes, there really is a Wikipedia entry for this).

In music, time can be a very fluid thing.  While a note has a fixed duration relative to other notes in a given piece of music, its absolute duration is quite malleable.

So how fast is allegro?  And exactly how much rubato can you get away with (they do call it “stealing time” after all) before people start to raise their eyebrows at you?

It’s fuzzy–except when it’s not.  I’m thinking of the famous disagreement between Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein on the tempi of a Brahms concerto.  Gould insisted on stunningly slow tempi for certain portions of the concerto, and Bernstein felt it necessary to make an announcement before the piece began to make the audience aware that this would be a…unique…interpretation.

Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge was deemed too vast to be the last movement of the Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130.  But some have recorded the quartet with the fugue, leaving it to the listener to make up their own mind.

Schumann described Schubert’s ninth symphony using the word’s “heavenly length”; the phrase is now more typically applied to Schubert’s late sonatas. Both Schubert’s and Beethoven’s late sonatas seem worlds unto themselves, time stretching out infinitely.

But while it seems to extend endlessly, time can also be too short.  Monday’s featured artist, Jacqueline du Pré, was forced by illness to stop performing at age 27.  Schubert died at 31, having already produced over 600 songs, nine symphonies (and he had started a tenth).  What if he had lived to 80?  What would a Schubert who lived to the time of Brahms, Bruckner, San-Saëns, and Liszt write?

Alas, we will never know.

Minutes tick by, never to return.  You can blaze through Chopin’s Minute Waltz, sure, but after listening to many feats of pianistic wizardry, I have to go with Rubinstein’s less-blazing performance.  Each note is clear, distinct, and it becomes a small jewel.

 

So today, let us make the most of our notes, and make the best music we can, in any way that we can.  For there is but one certainty regarding time:

I am definitely going to be late to choir practice…again.

Carpe musicam!

 


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Haiku Wednesday: Schubert’s “The Crow” from Winterreise

Crow

Driven out of town,
A lone crow travels with me
On my long journey.

It flies o’er my head,
Follows me from tree to tree,
Faithful companion.

Crow, wondrous creature,
Will you never forsake me,
Always by my side?

Or, Crow, is it that
I am to be your next meal
Soon as I am dead?

It won’t be long now;
Wand’ring with my walking stick
Will soon reach its end.

So, Crow, let me see
One who’s faithful to the grave;
That I’ve never seen.

The above haiku is a recasting of Wilhelm Müller’s poem Die Krähe [The Crow] that Franz Schubert set to music in his 1827 song cycle Winterreise.

Winterreise is a masterpiece among song cycles, one in which pianist and singer play equal roles, painting pictures with words and notes, creating a universe filled with fiery emotions and frosty, unforgiving landscapes.

Winterreise’s 24 songs chronicle the despair and descent of a man who has left his love, and who travels out into the bleak winter landscape, never to return.  In this song, the crow, which at first seems friendly, is transformed into a malevolent shadow, constantly following, ready to prey upon the wanderer.

Singer Elena Gerhardt said, “You have to be haunted by this cycle to be able to sing it.”1  It is certainly one of those pieces of music that, once heard, is not easily forgotten.  Here is an account of the first time Winterreise was played and sung, by Schubert himself, before a stunned audience:

“Come to Schober’s today and I will play you a cycle of terrifying songs; they have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs.” He then, with a voice full of feeling, sang the entire Winterreise for us. We were altogether dumbfounded by the sombre mood of these songs, and Schober said that one song only, “Der Lindenbaum”, had pleased him. Thereupon Schubert leaped up and replied: “These songs please me more than all the rest, and in time they will please you as well.”2

There are many wonderful performances of WinterreiseHere is Christoph Prégardien performing Die Krähe with an instrumental ensemble.

Favorites of mine include the recording of Winterreise by Mark Padmore and Paul Lewis and Ian Bostridge’s intense video performance of Winterreise with Julius Drake.  Your favorite streaming service will have dozens of recordings to choose from, from the deep baritone Thomas Quasthoff to the mezzo soprano Christa Ludwig, and the unforgettable idiosyncratic performance of Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten.  I have enjoyed all of them; I hope in time they will please you as well.

References

  1. Schubert Winterreise, Sleeve notes HMV ALPS 1298/9 (Gramophone Co. Ltd 1955).
  2. Haywood, Ernest. “Terrifying Songs,” Radio Times, 20 January 1939.
  3. Ian Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of An Obsession. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
  4. Youens, Susan, Retracing a Winter’s Journey: Schubert’s Winterreise.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

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Image attribution:  Crow, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corvus#/media/File:Corvus-brachyrhynchos-001.jpg.


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Haiku Wednesday: Schubert’s Serenade

Portrait of Franz Schubert, around 1827

Franz Schubert, around 1827.

My songs call to you
Through the night in this still grove;
Come, my beloved.

Leaves rustle softly
In the moonlight; do not fear
A betraying spy.

The nightingales’ call
Beckons you sweetly to come,
Come, my love, to me.

They know of longing,
Love’s pain; they soothe each faint heart
With silvery singing.

Let your heart be stirred,
Hear me, trembling I await.
Come, make me happy.

One Sunday, during the summer of 1826, Schubert with several friends was returning from Potzleinsdorf to the city, and on strolling along through Währing, he saw his friend Tieze sitting at a table in the garden of the “Zum Biersack.” The whole party determined on a halt in their journey. Tieze had a book lying open before him, and Schubert soon began to turn over the leaves. Suddenly he stopped, and pointing to a poem, exclaimed, “such a delicious melody has just come into my head, if I but had a sheet of music paper with me.” Herr Doppler drew a few music lines on the back of a bill of fare, and in the midst of a genuine Sunday hubbub, with fiddlers, skittle players, and waiters running about in different directions with orders, Schubert wrote that lovely song.1

And so the beauty of the stillness of night and a lover’s longing were captured in music.  And a sweet serenade was composed amidst clinking glasses, crashing bowling pins, loud music, and chatter.  Amazing.

Schubert’s Ständchen (Serenade) is one of his later songs, published posthumously as part of the collection Swanengesang (Swan Song). Ständchen is a setting of a poem by Ludwig Rellstab.  The haiku above is a recasting of Rellstab’s poem.

You can find the German lyrics and an English translation hereA score is hereArrangements for various ensembles (and Liszt’s piano solo arrangement) may be found at the link.

It is pointless for me to say anything more about this beautiful song; just listen.

Here is Ständchen performed by tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Antonio Pappano.

If you’d like to hear a purely instrumental version, here is a lovely performance by violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Rohan de Silva.

References

  1. Von Hellborn, Kreissle, The Life of Franz Schubert Vol. 2, trans. by Arthur Duke Coleridge. London:  Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869, P 75-76.

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Image attribution: Portrait of Franz Schubert by Franz Eybl, attributed to Anton Depauly, previously thought to be Joseph Mähler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFranz_Schubert_c1827.jpg


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Free Concerts To Stream from Wigmore Hall

Rows of chair backs at Wigmore Hall appear to be a wavy stream of water

This wavy stream is actually the chair backs of Wigmore Hall

To celebrate its 115th anniversary, Wigmore Hall live-streamed a number of concerts.  They have been fantastic.

If you missed them, they are now available for viewing at your leisure.  Wigmore Hall has also made available the programs for each concert.

You can find the concerts at http://wigmore-hall.org.uk/wigmore-hall-live/past-live-streams.

The concerts include works by Bach (JS and JC), Schubert, Berg, Machaut, Gesualdo, and a number of today’s composers.  One specialty concert is Irish Culture in Britain.  In another, the lively JACK Quartet highlights the ancient and the modern in music (including two premiere performances).

Enjoy!


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Musical Time Travel: Where Would You Go?

Recursive clocks in a snail-shell pattern. Photo Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11

Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5 by CityGypsy11

If you could travel in time and visit any musical moment, where would you go?

Would you go to the contentious premiere of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring?

Or sit quietly in a salon while Chopin played nocturnes?

Would you sip wine in a Paris café with Les Six?

Or listen to the fiery playing of Paganini?

Perhaps you’d prefer the soulful notes of Marin Marais.

Or maybe you would sit quietly in a chapel while Bach played improvisations now lost to time.

Where (when) would you go?  I invite all of you to tell us your choice in the comments section.

While there are any number of places I can think of, unmissable moments in music, there is only one I could not resist.

Vienna.  The night Schubert played and sang Winterreise to a stunned group of friends.

“Come to Schober’s today and I will play you a cycle of terrifying songs; they have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs.” He then, with a voice full of feeling, sang the entire Winterreise for us. We were altogether dumbfounded by the sombre mood of these songs, and Schober said that one song only, “Der Lindenbaum”, had pleased him. Thereupon Schubert leaped up and replied: “These songs please me more than all the rest, and in time they will please you as well.”1

Indeed, they have affected me more than has ever been the case with any other songs.  I have listened to many performances.  While I have my personal favorite, I have always wondered who comes closest to Schubert’s intent.  To whom would Schubert say, “Genauso” [just like that].

Until we work out that time travel issue, we will never know.  In the meantime, I will present the last in that cycle of terrifying songs.  Here is Ian Bostridge’s unblinking performance of Der Leiermann.  Julius Drake is the pianist.

So where would you go?

References

  1. Haywood, Ernest. “Terrifying Songs,” Radio Times 20 January 1939.
  2. Franz Schubert Winterreise. Directed by David Alden. Performed by Ian Bostridge, tenor, and Julius Drake, pianist.  Kultur, NVC Arts, 1997. DVD.
  3. Ian Bostridge, Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of An Obsession. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015
  4. Youens, Susan, Retracing a Winter’s Journey: Schubert’s Winterreise.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1991.

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Image attribution: Time Travel Haikus 5-7-5. Photo by CityGypsy11 (Flickr.com/Creative Commons [CC BY-NC 2.0]) https://www.flickr.com/photos/25477528@N00/5181143856/in/photolist-8TQHyu-hzjSsg-rnkinA-phbtD3-omuB6T-5nu51g-nAyCSs-D3F8Aw-ehGYAB-5MaEoD-7CLMwW-twrMR-9i2NH2-5sLQsK-Em3Ezy-4b2uGW-o3RkA5-qpfnRs-a6Woxh-fdnVtx-qvBRUA-d3ckfN-8NXsDq-a4ZqqF-g8aN2n-bpJg2C-6muSk3-6FyvTe-aFaciq-4BWGJX-fMfuAx-8vFqzY-8Mnujs-2kDgvu-fUX9xG-9CPXwY-qC4G4o-dtoDRV-9CM3bg-7k8Cct-7kcvW7-7k8Cqp-9K9Nae-dQQ2dN-dbLfZe-dofPjp-98XpL3-eZeLcs-pEQzsw-8vzJUx


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Haiku Wednesday: Schubert Online

Franz_Schubert_by_Wilhelm_August_Rieder

Schubert Online has
Manuscripts, letters, and more
Now all in one place.

Schubert Online is a website that has collected digitized scans of Schubert documents from a number of European libraries.  The website describes itself as “the world’s largest collection of Schubert music manuscripts, first and early editions.”  And let’s not forget the letters and other documents.  I find it fascinating to see the composer’s own handwriting, both in scores and in letters, and to see some of the topics that concerned him.  This is from Schubert’s diary:

Schubert diary entry about first composition for pay

Schubert diary entry courtesy of schubert-online.at and the Vienna City and State Library Music Collection.

17 June 1816

Today I composed for money for the first time, namely a cantata for the name day celebration of Professor Wattrot von Dräxler.  The honorarium is 100 florins, Vienna currency.

I thought it was interesting that Schubert’s handwriting was somewhat neater when he penned a letter to the king.

Excerpt of handwritten Schubert letter to emperor

Schubert letter excerpt courtesy of schubert-online.at and the Vienna City and State Library Music Collection.

7 April 1826

Your Majesty!
Most gracious Emperor!

In deepest reverence the undersigned makes the humble request to be most graciously granted the vacant position of Vice-Kapellmeister, and supports this request with the following grounds…

I would be remiss if I didn’t include some music.  Here is one of my favorite sections from Schubert’s Mass in E-flat major D 950, Et incarnatus est and a performance so you can hear it.  Schubert combines gentle beauty, the weaving of three voices together, with something akin to terror in the middle before returning to the beauty of the initial passage.  So Schubert. Pleasant sunshower, thunderstorm, rainbow.  Major-minor-major. Light and shadow.  I like this recording, but please note that they have decided to use “German Latin,” that is, Latin pronounced as if it were German.  So “sancto” becomes “zancto”.  The tenor solo is the second staff from the bottom.

Manuscript of Et incarnatus est from Schubert's Mass in E-flat Major D950

Image courtesy of schubert-online.at and the Berlin State Library Prussian Cultural Heritage [collection]

Manuscript of Et incarnatus est from Schubert's Mass in E-flat Major, D950

Image courtesy of schubert-online.at and the Berlin State Library Prussian Cultural Heritage [collection]

 

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Image attribution: Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AFranz_Schubert_by_Wilhelm_August_Rieder.jpeg


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Mozart, I saw what you did there: Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman

MozartYesterday, I gave the example of Mozart’s variations on the French tune Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman (K. 265) as a way to ease into listening for patterns in music.  Everyone knows the tune:  it is Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Baa Baa Black Sheep and The Alphabet Song.  Mozart plays the melody (the Theme) and then gradually soups it up more and more.  It’s still recognizable, yet different.

So what did he actually do?  I’m going to put the video here again, and below is an explanation so you can follow along.

First he plays (states) the Theme, nothing fancy or devious here.  The tune is in ordinary quarter notes.  And it’s in the simplest key of all, C major, all white notes on the piano.

Variation 1: He keeps the melody in the right hand, but decorates it using faster sixteenth notes.  The left hand remains pretty much the same as in the theme.

Variation 2:   The melody stays in the right hand, but now the left hand gets fancy with faster sixteenth notes.

Variation 3: The melody is in the right hand, but this time Mozart uses a series of triplets to decorate the melody.  Left hand goes back to its original note lengths (no longer sixteenths as in Variation 2).

Variation 4:  Keeping the melody in the right hand, he goes back to a simple exposition.  Now the triplets are in the left hand.

Got it so far?  He does something different in the right hand, then does it again in the left hand in the next variation.  It would sound great in headphones.  Moving on…

Variation 5: Mozart uses syncopation (it’s not just for jazz) to offset the two hands.

Variation 6: Since he already offset both hands, now for something different.  The melody now appears as chords.  But to keep it lively, the left hand now has those sixteenth notes again.

Variation 7: The melody is still in the right hand, but now he turns it into a scale.

Variation 8: The music takes a sinister turn.  Suddenly the melody is in a minor key (C minor).  There is an echo effect as the right hand plays a phrase which is then repeated in the left hand.

Variation 9:  This is a jaunty tune, we can’t stay minor for long!  So back to C major.  Now the notes are played staccato instead of flowing.

Variation 10:  Let’s see, now what will he do?  The melody merrily chases from one hand to another with sixteenth notes, triplets, and pizzazz.  The works.  The hands even cross (see video).

Variation 11:  Ok, heading toward home, let’s slow down the tempo and make the melody sweet, lulling us into the comfort of returning home.  Does a little bit of Mozart’s Austria work its way into this French tune?  I think I can hear it.

Variation 12:  Fooled you!  Suddenly the tempo zips along with breakneck notes in the left hand and a disjointed melody in the right.  Ta-da!

Wow.  And that’s how you do a theme and variations.  Well, that’s one way.  If it were Bach, the melody might have been turned upside down, backwards, shifted up a few notes, and woven into a four-part fugue.  Beethoven would have broken it down into its essential bits and scrutinized it from every possible angle.  Schubert would have worked it over with a lead pipe until the melody, alternating between major and minor, burrowed its way into your skull…but in an elegant way (just kidding; I love Franz–don’t get me started…).

Want to hear more theme and variations?  I’d suggest Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations for a start.  In fact if you really want to start something, contrast Glenn Gould’s 1955 and 1981 recordings of the Goldberg Variations.  Same music, different planets.  Then set the cat amongst the pigeons with your musical friends by offhandedly saying “so whaddaya think… ’55 or ’81?”  People always seem to have a favorite.  Ask them why.  Actually, you probably won’t even have to ask…


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Throwback Thursday Quote — Artur Schnabel

“Mozart is a garden; Schubert is a forest — in sunlight and shadow; Beethoven is a mountain range.”

Artur Schnabel

Artur Schnabel (1882-1951) was one of the great pianists of the early 20th century.  He is particularly known for his performances of Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven.  He was also a composer and teacher.

Here is Schnabel playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 1 in F Minor, Op. 2 No 1.