Friday, October 30, 2015

Schubert: Some Longer Songs

You get some interesting perspectives when you listen your way through these big boxes of CDs devoted to single composers that the record companies are issuing these days. One of the reasons I've been writing a lot about Schubert lately is the availability of this collection at a very reasonable price:

As you can see, it contains sixty-nine CDs of the music of Schubert. This is far from complete, however! But it does have all the symphonies. Here is the breakdown:
  • 4 CDs of all eight symphonies
  • 14 CDs of chamber music
  • 7 CDs of piano sonatas
  • 14 CDs of other piano music
  • 6 CDs of sacred music: masses, offertories, etc.
  • 6 CDs of opera and other theater music
  • 18 CDs of songs including polyphonic songs, song cycles and individual songs
I'm not quite finished the songs, but I'm near the end--and I haven't even started on the operas!

As I was saying, you get some interesting perspectives, not only an overall sense of a composer's style based not just on a few popular pieces, but a sense as to where he invested most of his compositional energy. For example, I was surprised to learn from the excellent DG box The Debussy Edition, that most of the discs therein are of songs and other vocal music (7 CDs) followed by piano music (6 CDs) with just 3 CDs of orchestral music and only one of chamber music! But we are barely aware of all those songs (called "mélodies") by Debussy. We are not surprised to see all those discs of Schubert songs, though, as so much of his renown is based on them.

Here is something that will surprise you, though. Nearly all of Schubert's songs, and certainly all those in the song cycles and all the well-known ones are, as most songs even today are, between two minutes and seven minutes in length. That is also true of the Beatles. Some of their earlier songs are only two minutes long and the longest, "Hey Jude" is about seven minutes long. So let me introduce to you three songs by Schubert that are a bit longer. The first is in a genre that Schubert was particularly known for during his life, but that we are barely aware exists today: songs for male choir. This one is on a poem by Goethe titled "Gesang der Geister über den Wassern," D714. The performers are Nikolaus Harnoncourt / Concentus Musicus Vienna / Arnold Schönberg Choir:

Here is the beginning of the choral part:

Click to enlarge

What a magnificent, rich sonority. It is scored for string orchestra, four tenors and four basses. I'm sorry, I can't easily find a translation of the text. This song is a little under eleven minutes long. But that is nothing. My next two examples are both on texts by Friedrich Schiller, who also wrote the poem that Beethoven used in the last movement of his Symphony No. 9. The first song is "Die Bürgschaft", D246, dating from 1815. The title means "The Pledge":

And here is the opening:

That score goes on for eighteen pages, where most songs are two or three! The duration is about seventeen minutes. Apparently Schubert also attempted an opera on the same theme, but it remains a mere fragment.

My last example is the longest of all: "Der Taucher," D111 ("The Diver"), also a ballad by Schiller, comes in at nearly twenty-five minutes long! Wikipedia has a synopsis of the text:
A king throws a golden beaker in an abyss and promises that the one who can recover it can also keep it. But none of his knights and knaves wants to do it. So the king has to ask three times before a Edelknecht (squire) finds his courage. He deposits his sword and his coat and commends his life to god and jumps in a suitable moment into the intimidating sea. Everyone at the shore frightens that the boy will not return. After a while he emerges with the beaker in his hand. His terrifying report intrigues the king and he wants him to dive again and promises him a precious ring. The king's daughter tries to convince her father to stop with his cruel demands. Yet the king throws the beaker in the sea again and promises now, that the Edelknecht become a knight and will marry his daughter, if he recovers the beaker again. The boy has a look at the girl and wants her to become his bride, so he jumps into the deep and does not return.
This song, which Schubert wrote in two versions for bass and piano, dates from 1815 as well. Here is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by Karl Engel:

Here is the beginning of the score (you can find the complete scores at IMSLP):

So that's my little survey of longer Schubert songs.

No comments: