Monday, October 26, 2015

Schubert: Winterreise, Part 2

I was saying to a friend the other day how music students tend to come out of university with a degree and they still don't know much of the basic repertoire. Sure, there are "literature" courses that try to fill that need, but it is a peripheral requirement at best. I know that I did two degrees (Bachelor of Music in Performance and Concert Diploma, the equivalent of a Master's degree in performance) plus all the course requirements for a third (PhD in Musicology) at a very good university and still came out with huge gaps in my knowledge. By huge gaps I mean that there were great expanses of repertoire that I had not even listened to once! And despite several years of theory courses, it is remarkable how little of the repertoire I actually knew.

Some examples of repertoire that were never discussed in any detail: the Beethoven piano sonatas, his string quartets, none of the symphonies other than numbers 5 and 9, none of the Haydn symphonies, only one of his string quartets, and, more à propos to today's topic, only a couple of the songs (called in German, lieder) by Schubert. I haven't listened very extensively to Schubert lieder until quite recently.

As a student I had more exposure to Schubert lieder than most music students because of two courses, Vocal Techniques, in which I had to sing some, in public, and German Literature, in which the teacher introduced us to the songs of Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1752 - 1814), a musical collaborator of Goethe, who wrote many poems that others set to music. The lieder is one of the few musical forms that actually originated in German-speaking lands, unlike most of the others, such as the symphony, concerto and opera, all of which originated in Italy.

In the Oxford History, Taruskin talks about two sides of the Romantic lied: it functions as the expression of the "volk", the people, or as he puts it, the "We". It was one ideal for song composers to write in a way that captures the wisdom of the folk in its simplicity. This is why the songs, not only of Reichert, but of his successors including Schubert and Schumann, are simply set with no elaborate vocal fireworks. One note to a syllable is the general rule, with no fancy ornaments.

I mentioned the "We", the way in which lieder expressed the collective through folk-tales and ballads. But there is also the "I", the expression of the feelings, especially the suffering, of the individual. A good song could try and unite the two by enlisting the sympathy of the listener in the tribulations of the singer/composer/poet. This began with Beethoven's cycle An die ferne Geliebte which expresses the profound loneliness of the composer.

Schubert took this a great deal further as for him, unlike in the case of Beethoven, the song cycle was no minor genre, but one of central importance. Schubert made use of extreme harmonic gestures to underline the subjectivity and irony of a text. A really good example is a song from Schwanengesang called "Am Meer" that begins, begins!, with an unprepared augmented sixth chord. Here is the opening in Schubert's manuscript:

Click to enlarge

So you don't go blind trying to read that, here is the same passage in an early edition:


In a piece in C major, no-one before Schubert, not even Beethoven, would be found beginning with this chord. It is called an augmented sixth chord because of the interval A flat to F sharp that spans an augmented sixth. The normal use for this chord is as a pre-dominant. It strengthens the dominant by approaching it by chromatic step from two directions. But its use here, as a chromatic decoration to the tonic, is very unusual. Here is a performance by Fischer-Dieskau with the score. He does it in A major, not C major as would be normal for a low voice.


While Schubert does tend to stick to the ideal of simplicity in the voice part, he does not hesitate to assert the subjectivity, the "I", that can be evoked by the use of extreme harmonies like this chord and the flat submediant I mentioned earlier--and, of course, the switching of modes from major to minor and vice versa.

For an example from Winterreise let's look at the first song, which has a beautiful and characteristic example of the major/minor shift. The cycle begins with this song, whose despair lurks just under the surface. It begins in D minor:


Towards the end of the song the poet says he will creep softly out without disturbing his beloved, and leave a note saying farewell. This whole last section is in D major.  Then the piano returns to minor for a coda to end the song. Somehow this turn to the major is even more heart-rending than the minor was!


Let's listen to the song. This is Thomas Quasthoff accompanied by Daniel Barenboim.


It seems that that is all I have time for this morning! We will talk more about Winterreise in a future post.

2 comments:

Ken Fasano said...

Thank you for this series on Schubert - a composer I should know much more about! I need to get that final Taruskin volume, on the century I've almost completely ignored (the 19th). (I spent too much time in the electronic music studio.)

Bryan Townsend said...

You are very welcome, Ken. I am doing it because I feel the same: Schubert is a compose I should know much more about. The fattest volume in the Oxford History is the one on the 19th century. A very complex time in which many of the elements of our current situation had their origins. I also recommend the book by Carl Dahlhaus, Nineteenth Century Music for a different perspective.