Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Music of Franz Schubert, Part 2

I said in the post a few days ago that Schubert was not easy to understand or categorize. He was born in the final years of the 18th century, but his whole career was in the early 19th century. He was the only one of the great Viennese composers (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert) to be actually a Viennese native. A lot of his earlier works closely emulate those of Mozart and Beethoven, but his later ones strike out into new territory. His most important music was completely unknown to his contemporaries.

A lot of the current thinking on Schubert, as exemplified in the thoughtful discussion by Richard Taruskin in volume 3 of the Oxford History of Western Music: Music in the Nineteenth Century, revolves around the idea of romanticism and its focus on the authenticity of the individual, private vision of "truth". This kind of romanticism, as a movement, had little effect on public politics as it turned inward. Another kind of romanticism, centered on a collective "we", did however, but that is another story.

A great deal of romanticism in music was oriented around domestic music-making. This was the era when middle-class families owned pianos and held musical evenings with settings of lyric poems to music that did not require virtuosity to perform. The most striking and expressive instances of these are the over six hundred songs of Schubert. But he also wrote reams and reams of music for piano both for two hands and four hands at one instrument.

Here are "34 Valses sentimentale," D779, a kaleidoscope of very brief waltzes that are both lyric and touching:

As soon as I heard these pieces, I immediately thought of the huge repertoire of pieces for guitar and piano composed in Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries. They are obvious descendants of these charming pieces. Charm aside, this music is highly conventional, hewing strictly to eight measure phrases and rhythmically trite accompaniments.

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Here we see one tendency in 19th century music: to iron out the witty irregularities of phrasing that were typical of the music of Haydn and Mozart.

One thing Taruskin talks about with respect to the early romantic composers is their evocation of a kind of stasis in time. Sometimes called "aria time" from the tendency in opera for an expressive aria to stop the progress of the narrative, composers developed harmonic and rhythmic effects to try and expand this technique. One characteristic harmonic device was the use of the flat submediant. In the key of C major, this would be the chord or key of A flat. The locus classicus of this is the use of the flat submediant in the beklemmt passage of Beethoven's String Quartet in B flat major, op. 130. Taruskin says that the use of this device "marked a kind of boundary between inner and outer experience."

Schubert went even further, making simultaneous use both of the flat submediant (the chord on the flattened sixth degree of the scale) and the parallel minor. Indeed, the fluctuation between the major and minor modes is inherent in Schubert's harmonic style. In his Impromptu in E flat, op. 90 no. 2, he modulates from the tonic, E flat, to the parallel minor of the flat submediant, that is to B minor, which is the enharmonic equivalent of the parallel minor of C flat major, the flat submediant of E flat major. Ok, I promise, no more of what G. B. Shaw used to call the "Mesopotamian manner", that is, the use of technical musical vocabulary. But honestly, this is the only vocabulary suited to describe what is going on. Here is that section of the Impromptu:

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UPDATE: Just one more thing: notice how he gets from E flat major to B minor? In the fourth measure of the top system in the above example, he just starts an E flat scale, inflected to the minor with the G flats, and continues it until he gets to G flat (in octaves). Then he just fills out the G flat chord. Which happens to be exactly the same notes (enharmonically) as an F sharp chord, which is the dominant of B minor. Then he just continues in B minor. Simple!

And here is the piece in a performance by Daniel Barenboim. Notice how around the 25 second mark he shifts into E flat minor. The section notated above begins around the 1:15 mark:

With Schubert's music you do often feel as if you are entering a private, inner world where you lose track of time. One remarkable example is one of his "6 Grandes marches, D819", the fifth, in E flat minor for piano four hands. Even in a march, what one would think would be an unlikely place to wander off into a romantic trance, Schubert loses track of time and the march goes on for an astonishing eighteen minutes! Here is how it begins:

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These pieces are almost completely forgotten these days. I can't even find a recording on YouTube. The only march from this set that is available is the much shorter No. 3 in B minor. But even it is nine minutes long! The only version available is with Artur and Ulrich Schnabel, recorded in 1937:

That is a bit of an exploration of some of Schubert's piano music intended for domestic performance. In future posts we will look at his songs, also intended for private, or at least, salon performance and, of course, his concert music, more familiar to us today.

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