Memories of Schubert's Music
Remembering a Schubertiade, November 9, 2009
Basking in the glow of strings spinning out lovely melodies of Schubert's “Unfinished” Symphony at the recent Symphonicity Concert led me to think of my childhood in the mountains of West Virginia. At Kroger grocery store they had a display of long-playing records and the first volume of a set of great classical music had this Schubert on side A and two movements of Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto on side B. To hear the other two movements you had to buy Volume 2. I could talk my grandmother into a dollar for volume 1 but $4 for other volumes was out of reach. This was my first recording of classical music.
At Sandler Center I closed my eyes and heard the music as an accompaniment to sunrise. The deep richness of cellos to open brought me into the world of this little-understood man who wrote music of great intimacy and unique depth. In the time since this late February, 2011 concert I have recalled a more authentic than usual Schubertiade from November 9, 2009 presented by the Norfolk Chamber Consort in the Chapel at Ohef Sholom Temple. We gathered filling the room to overflowing. So many of us were packed - in that we found seats near the piano, to the left of the small space for the performers. The intimacy added to the feeling of being part of a Schubert musical evening – a Schubertiade. The idea was to recreate an evening like one Schubert and his friends might have experienced back in Vienna in the 1820's.
Schubert songs are still popular but the ones we hear are the ones considered to be the best of the 600 he wrote, the same with his instrumental chamber works. In actuality, when Schubert and his friends gathered in coffee houses, taverns or drawing rooms they would have played and sung and listened and drunk to his new pieces as well as some older favorites.
Let me introduce the performers by full name once and then by first name only after that. Allen Shaffer was pianist for soprano Amy Cofield Willamson singing Laura am Klavier D. 388, a song new to me, followed by another new one, Berta's Lied in der Nacht, D. 653. Here the singer was mezzo-soprano Lisa Relaford Coston. In Laura at the Spinet we have a schmaltzy text by Fredrich von Schiller set dramatically. You hear the water ripple in the piano notes and the voice declaring passionately about life and death, wind and water, seraphim, creation and more. Berta's Song in the Night was serious, a sort of lullaby soothing the lovelorn with text by Schubert's friend Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872).
For a change of pace Bonnie Kim played flute and Oksana Lutsyshyn played piano in Introduction and Variations on Trockne Blumen, (Withered Flowers) D. 802, (1824). I wondered if his friends commented “Franz, its a nice theme but does it really need so many variations?” Which is to say that after a while my attention waned. Like several other German composers Schubert sometimes offers more variations than I care to hear. The playing was first rate.
Back to lieder with Allen at the piano, tenor Scott Williamson offered the third song of the evening which was new to us, Geheimnis (Secret), D. 491. The poem is by Johann Mayrhofer (1787-1836). The song asks “tell us who teaches you these songs...they call to mind a heaven [away] from the troubled present.” With wonderfully clear diction Scott delivered the text with power. Baritone Christopher Mooney then sang the very familiar Ganymed D. 544 (1817). His hearty delivery of the text “Would that I could clasp you in these arms!” and the great power in the ending ascent into the bosom of an “all-loving Father!” left me breathless.
Here is a good place to unscramble some of the mystery of Schubert's life and his circle of friends. A man's love for a beautiful younger man has deep roots in Greek mythology. In the song Ganymed the love object is spring personified but the language is of erotic love. In this most dramatic and sensual setting he chose the story of Ganymede who was stolen by Zeus to be his cup-bearer because Zeus had fallen in love with him. After Schubert stopped teaching he became part of a close circle of artists, musicians and literary figures that included poets Grillparzer and Mayrhofer whose text we just heard. Baritone Johann Vogel was some thirty years older and nearing the end of a distinguished operatic career. He introduced Ganymed and many other of his friend's songs to the public. Dilettante Franz von Shober was a close friend who offered financial and emotional support.
“For more than a century fictionalized biographies presented Schubert as a jolly, plump, nearsighted, happy-go-lucky fellow who was too shy to pursue girls,” to quote William Livingstone from a May, 1997 Stereo Review article on the occasion of Schubert's bicentennial. He then tells about biographer Maynard Solomon who researched letters and diaries of this circle of friends and concluded that they were a group of highly creative homosexual men who were forced by a hostile society to keep their private lives secret. Schubert was gay and at age 25 contracted syphilis and poured out his physical and emotional pain into some of the most sublime music ever written. He died at age 31.
The peak of the evening (of many evenings) was “Notturno,” the Trio in E-flat for violin, cello and piano in a performance imbued with sacred fire that blended the energy of violinist Pavel Ilyashov, cellist Peter Greydanus and pianist Andrey Kasparov in a marvelous balance and fusion of creative intensity. They filled the room with such love and beauty that it defies description. They dug deep into the essence of this music to develop a richness that is only suggested in other performances. As the piece ended the audience exploded into applause to relieve the tension created. Bravo!
Another aspect of Schubert's life that must have influenced his songs was serving as a boy soprano at the Imperial Chapel beginning at age eleven. He understood what works for the voice. Next we heard Ellens Gesang I D. 837 (Ellen's First Song), a setting of poetry by Sir Walter Scott from his Lady of the Lake. This is the first of three settings from the poem and Ellens Gesang III, D. 839 we know as Schubert's famous Ave Maria! Lisa sang with Andrey at the piano. The gallop of horses hooves is in the piano as the soldier rides toward battle, thinking of how if he is killed he will die remembering his beloved, or if he lives, the joy of their wedding day. Our reality proved to be harsher since this was one of the last songs we heard sung by Lisa Relaford Coston.
While Schubert was a student at the Imperial Seminary he met Joseph Spaun who remained a close friend all his life. Amy sang Herrn Joseph Spaun, Assessor in Linz with Andrey at the piano. Spaun took a job as assessor in Linz. When Schubert wrote to him and got no reply Spaun's cousin Matthäus von Collin, one of Schubert's circle, wrote this poem parodying Spaun's apparent faithlessness as a recitative and aria. Schubert set it as a send-up of Italian opera style. We should note that Rossini was all the rage in Vienna in this period. Frankly, I did not know Schubert had it in him. It was a tour-de-force with Amy's glorious, sweet voice with all those high notes in an intense piano setting.
With Allen at the piano Chris sang Adelaide, D. 95, an early Schubert song on a text also set by Beethoven two years before Schubert was born. This was followed by Normans Gesang, D. 846 sung by Scott. The text, like Ellen's First Song and Ave Maria were from Lady of the Lake. Singer and pianist made a convincing case for this unknown song.
Invencia Piano Duo played Eight Variations on an Original Theme in A flat, D. 813 (1824). This piece for piano four hands was played by Andrey and Oksana who are also artistic directors for Norfolk Chamber Consort. The opening theme and variations were restful, later ones gained in intensity. They played ardently throughout.
The finale was Her Hochzeitbraten (Wedding Roast), D. 930 comic trio for soprano Amy, tenor Scott and bass Chris with Allen at the piano. It is a tale by Schubert's friend Shobert. The bride-to-be begs her fiance not to go into the woods on this, their wedding day. “Rabbit in the morning tastes better than Fresh Market” is Scott's reply as he leaves to go poaching. Game warden Chris catches him and refuses a bribe and is about to haul him off to jail when the charming Amy snares the warden's attention and they celebrate with a near yodel of “la, la, la's.” It is a bit of period stiff German humor of a certain era but but very much a part of a gay man's life circa 1828. It seems to have been written for a private wedding.
The ten performers took a bow for a most appreciative audience. There may be Schubertiades with more great music but none with more period authenticity.
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