The blossoming of the salon in 19th Century Europe is a great example of creating social circles in support of art in general and various composers and musicians in particular. Art, poetry, and music lovers would host social gatherings in their home salons and invite a large mix of arts supporters and artists. For the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828), these evenings dedicated to the sharing of his music became known as Schubertiades. Each Schubertiade usually featured a combination of chamber music, music for solo piano and, of course, songs (or lieder) — lots and lots of lieder. Schubert himself often played the piano at these gatherings. Being an incredibly gifted and prolific composer of lieder, Schubert redefined the genre into one which not only extolled the powerful marriage of poetry and music, but also the relationship between singer and piano. His ability to highlight the meaning of the text by creating uniquely illustrative piano accompaniments (or word painting) was revolutionary. The Schubertiade became a primary means of disseminating Schubert’s music, creating a supportive community around him and his music. These gatherings also became a place for discussion and debate among more “free-thinking” members of the artist and cognoscenti classes in early 19th-Century Vienna.
With the Human Voice being the thematic core of the 9th Chania Chamber Music Festival, we highlight some exceptional moments of Schubert’s oeuvre. Song is the principal element in all these moments, no matter of their instrumentation.
Schubert - Selected Lieder (Songs)
- Fantasia for violin and piano, D934
- Impromptu op.90 nr.1, nr.3
- Trout quintet, D667
Selected Lieder (Songs)
Der Tod und das Mädchen
The same man, who today is considered (and rightly so) one of the greatest composers of all time, in his time was simply a rather timid and fragile young man, who wrote beautiful songs effortlessly. Despite his premature death at the age of 31, he managed to compose over 600 songs, many of which were very successful in Vienna's salons in the first two decades of the 19th century and later.
These songs proved to be so successful that, in fact, overshadow most of the composer’s works. The songs presented in the 2021 Chania Chamber Music Festival are among Schubert’s most popular and were written from 1815 (Elf King) to 1828 (The Doppelganger), the year of his death. Their virtues are immediately present: music becomes the musical "mirror" of poetry, in the sense that both the meaning of the text or the requirements of the German prosody are translated either with changes in dynamics or with subtle harmonic clashes and surprises in the phrasing.
The most impressive thing, however, is that all the above are implemented with inconceivable natural purity, as if they obey a non-negotiable and obvious law. The listener feels that the music evolves effortlessly and reacts naturally to the poetic text. The composer explores different moods, colors and sonorities, in a refined, sensitive and even sensual vocal world. In his songs, Schubert emerges as one of the most ingenious manipulators of music ‘contrast’ ever born. Not because he uses several "bright" means to create psychological contrasts, but on the contrary, because he uses the least possible, achieving the maximum possible efficiency. This wide range of contrasts is born through a unique use of harmony. Although harmonic modulations are present, there are times that the harmonic environment remains steady. This is not a matter of embarrassment or result of lack of inspiration but a conscious way to make musical content and poetry interact with the harmonic frame.
Fantasia for violin and piano, D934
The list of instrumental masterworks composed by Franz Schubert in his short life – he was not yet 32 when the end came- is remarkable, especially considering his reputation as perhaps the greatest composer of songs.
The “mature” works of his late period include, among others, the last string quartets, piano sonatas and trios, and masterpieces for piano duo, as well as symphonies. The genre of the violin sonata did not figure significantly in his catalog, but one work for the combination of violin and piano stands above the others for several reasons. The late works of Schubert find him exploring new harmonic, sonic, and emotional territory, and that is certainly true of the Fantasy D. 934 for violin and piano.
The very title is one we find in just a few of Schubert’s compositions, such as the “Wanderer” Fantasy (D. 760) for solo piano and the Fantasy in F minor (D. 940) for piano four-hands. As with D. 760, Schubert employs thematic material from one of his many songs, in this case “Sei mir gegrüsst!” (D. 741). The text is by Friedrich Rückert, best known as the source of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder and the Five Rückert Songs, one of which is the extraordinary “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (I am lost to the world). Although the Schubert setting whose tune is used in the middle section of this Fantasy may seem sentimental and gushing (“Be greeted by me; be kissed by me…”), the more someone listens to the Fantasia, the more he realizes that the piece is far more epic and tragic.
From the opening, hushed and delicate in its ‘tremolando’ way, Schubert moves into lyrical and virtuosic territory by turns, fully justifying the work’s designation as a Fantasy. The composer probably hadn’t realized that his masterpiece would create huge technical and musical challenges for both the violinist and the pianist from the first till the last moment. Through the variations on the song Sei mir gegrüßt, Schubert makes a prolonged and poignant meditation on one of his most affecting melodies. Within this musical world of color and melodic beauty is a powerful undertow of mystery, of light and dark, of profundity beyond the years of a young genius, who even during his last moments of his short life, seems to be fighting for light and hope.
I. Andante molto - Allegro vivace
III. Allegro presto
Impromptu op.90 nr.1, nr.3
Schubert did not himself invent the title "Impromptu"; the Bohemian composer Jan Vorisek had published the first set of works called Impromptus in 1822 in Vienna, works which Schubert certainly knew. Written in the lighter and less demanding style popular at the time, Vorisek's Impromptus proved both popular and, in their simple ternary structure and less virtuosic piano writing, capable of imitation.
The first Impromptu, Op. 90, No. 1, (D. 899.1) in C minor is in ternary form with a harsh and march-like theme in the outer sections in C minor alternating with a warmer and more flowing theme in A flat major in the central section. Schubert expands the work's ternary structure with a large-scale development after the central section and he enlarges the harmonic scheme with modulations to keys as distant as the flat dominant major and the flat supertonic minor. Through this structural expansion and harmonic nuances, Schubert intensifies the C minor Impromptu's emotional content almost to the point of being unbearable. The work's long coda's alternation between the tonic major and minor closes in the major, but it is a major so compromised by the minor that the final cadence seems more resigned than consoled.
The third of Schubert's first set of Impromptus, in G flat major, Op. 90, No. 3 (D. 899/3), is a flowing song without words that seems almost hymn-like in the serene peace of its melody. The melody floats above the gently rippling accompaniment with a slow-moving and solemn bass line treading softly far below. The intensifications of the melody are accomplished by modulations through keys rather than through any increases in the work's tempo or pace. The occasional expansion of the bass line into a countermelody during these intensifications brings an added pathos to the music. The piece is a classic example of Schubert's outstanding lyrical facility, as well as his penchant for long melodic lines. However, it’s a lot more than that. Τhe 3rd impromptu behind its sweetest melody hides -in a unique way -the tragedy and mourning of a man that knew the end wasn’t far away.
No.1 Allegro molto Moderato
No 3 Andante
Trout quintet, D667
The genesis of the Trout Quintet is a charming story. It was the summer of 1819 in Vienna. The young Schubert, only 22, was desperately trying to make a name for himself. The famous opera baritone, Johann Vogl, an early admirer of Schubert’s, invited him as his guest for a summer in Steyr, the picturesque art colony nestled in the Austrian Alps. The grandeur of the mountain countryside alone was dazzling to Schubert who had never been outside of Vienna. But most promising were the weekly musical salons, sponsored by the wealthy patron Sylvester Paumgartner, where the young composer soon became the center of attention.
It was perhaps the most enriching and enchanting summer of his life, and when Schubert returned to Vienna, he wrote the Trout Quintet as a thank you gift for Paumgartner, an amateur cellist.There are several remarkable qualities to the Trout Quintet: it has five movements instead of the traditional four; the entire work was completed in less than one week; and most musically fortuitous is Schubert’s addition of a string bass to the instrumentation instead of an additional violin or viola to complete the quintet. With the addition of the bass, Schubert had the freedom to explore more combinations of sonorities.
The nickname of the work comes from its signature fourth movement, in which Schubert quotes his own 1817 song “Die Forelle” (The Trout), and then adds five variations on the song. The original song for voice and piano is also presented at this year’s Chania Chamber Music Festival. What is most enduringly remarkably about this lovely piece is the vitality and lightness of spirit in the entire work. Every movement tingles with an infectious cordiality – a snapshot, no doubt, of Schubert’s blissful experiences in Steyr.
The Trout Quintet has become one of the most cherished and recognizable chamber pieces ever written, for, despite its length, there is rarely a moment without something splendidly effervescent to hear. Ironically, however, the work (despite its excellence and generous intentions) overestimated Paumgartner’s playing abilities and was shelved after its first read through and remained unpublished until well after Schubert’s death.
I. Allegro vivace
III. Scherzo: Presto
IV. Andantino – Allegretto
V. Allegro giusto