Sunday, October 4, 2015

Schubert: Trio No. 2 in E flat major, D. 929

At some point I am going to do a series of posts on Schubert who I am exploring in some depth right now. On the New York Times list of the Ten Greatest Composers, he comes fourth, right after Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. He was the shortest lived of any of those, dying at only thirty-one, but still managing to write an enormous body of wonderful music. I'm just going to pick out one tiny example today, the Andante from his second and last piano trio. This was one of the last pieces he composed and certainly one of the last he had an opportunity to hear. It was given in a private performance in November 1827 with Ignaz Schuppanzigh on violin, the first violin in the quartet that premiered most of Beethoven's quartets.

One of Schubert's great gifts as a composer was the ability to write beautiful, haunting melodies. Of all the great composers he was the most gifted song writer (he wrote some six hundred!). I suspect that the melody of the Andante will seem familiar as it has been used in a host of movie soundtracks including Barry Lyndon by Stanley Kubrick. Here is that melody:

Click to enlarge

One characteristic structural device that Schubert uses, though he was certainly not the only one, is the restatement of the theme, originally in minor, in major. The drifting between major and minor is a typical feature of Schubert's harmony. Here is a performance of the Andante:


Christine Lacroix said...

That is so beautiful Bryan. Thanks. I'd heard it in Barry Lyndon but didn't know it was Schubert. Unfortunately for me music seems to become irretrievably associated with the images from the movies it was used in, the horrific violence in a Clockwork Orange, the cartoon images in Fantasia. There should be a warning at the beginning: This movie may ruin Beethoven for you for the rest of your life.....

As an unsophisticated listener, a haunting melody helps, especially when it's repeated. Schubert keeps it interesting (I never thought I'd use that word to describe music, you've brainwashed me).
Have you heard Benedictus by Karl Jenkins? One of my friends finds it too repetitious but I quite like it.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, isn't it!! Nobody like Schubert. Yeah, music has a kind of chameleon aspect: it can be used in so many different ways. A Clockwork Orange did Beethoven an enormous injustice. I don't think I have ever quite forgiven Kubrick, whom I used to like. On the other hand, the way Peter Weir uses music seems to honor it, not trash it.

Not brainwashed, I hope? But perhaps offered some other perspectives on how to listen?

Don't know Jenkins, I'm afraid!

Christine Lacroix said...

I included a link to the Jenkins piece but you'd have to put up with your favorite duo again!
Here's Benedictus:
I'm guessing you won't find it 'interesting'. But maybe that's something only great composers can do, take a lovely melody, repeat it, and still make it interesting?

Yes, you have given me some other perspectives on how to listen. I guess my neo cortex hasn't participated much in the process up until now. If you could do a brain scan of your brain and the average listeners while listening I'm sure a whole lot more areas would light up in yours.

Bryan Townsend said...

After reading the Wikipedia article on Karl Jenkins, I'm surprised I haven't heard of him. Listening to the Benedictus now. There seem to be a lot of British composers successfully working in a zone between commercial music and "art" music. In North America I don't think that zone exists to much extent. One comment I might make is that it is not an unalloyed aesthetic good if a piece of music is only pretty all the way through. This is the problem with new age music. It is like sleeping on a bed of marshmallows from a compositional point of view. Just too squishy!

My composition teacher has remarked to me that in order for a piece of music to be art music it must contain some kind of internal tension. In Shostakovich, for example, we find beautiful passages contrasted with biting ones, and I think that gives greater substance to the work.