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Posts Tagged ‘Schubert’

The knotty relationship between text and music has beguiled musicians for centuries, nay millennia. Augustine articulated this conflict early on when he expressed concern that the sumptuousness of music would distract listeners from the meaning of the sacred texts. Qualms like this raise an important question, one that has been vociferously debated over the years and (delightfully) never settled: how should music behave vis-a-vis text? (Or in the language of the Monteverdi/Artusi kerfuffle, just who is the handmaiden and who is the master?)

The nineteenth century brought new perspectives into this ever-changing debate. Consonant with the Romantic concept of Innigkeit (musical inwardness), composers began to highlight the textual difference between “objective” reality and lived, “subjective” experience. Music, rather than just representing a text, could be used as a medium of literary analysis. To this cohort, music was not the handmaiden to the text, but rather its equal (or superior), capable of contradicting the words, ironically commenting upon them, and reinterpreting them entirely. The best of the lieder composers excelled at this sort of creative play, eschewing the “objective” reality of a text-space to explore its subjective resonance.

To illustrate this, let’s return to our composer du jour, Schubert, in his setting of Erlkönig (“The Elf King”). Goethe’s mysterious, macabre little poem touches upon many a Romantic preoccupation, from nature to the supernatural to death. It opens onto a father riding through the night with his sick child. The boy keeps seeing things in the dark mist of the forest, or so his father thinks. In reality (the boy’s consciousness), the Elf King waits in the woods, luring him with promises of games, bright flowers, and daughters with whom to dance. The Elf King’s seductions become increasingly strident; the boy’s fear grows, although the father still thinks he’s imagining things. Finally, when they arrive at their destination, the father finds that the child is dead.

The urgency of the situation is communicated with a quickly pulsating, relentless rhythm in the right hand, presumably representing the galloping horse. There is a sense of great fear as the narrator sets the scene, an effect of musical horror that is carried over when father speaks to his stricken child, and the boy speaks of the supernatural forces haunting him. But when the Elf King himself enters the texture to deliver his sweet, fatal siren’s song (first at 1:32), the tone modulates entirely into an innocent major key. He seems to beckon, entreat. This is not a terrifying monster, but a friendly, avuncular spirit, albeit a creepy one. Although the boy protests, he is simultaneously allured. When the Elf King enters, the furious gallop fades into the background, as if “objective” reality dissolves for a moment. The effect is electrifying: Schubert plays at the ambiguous interstices of dream and reality.

RT writes (in relation to Gretchen am Spinnrade as well):

In both cases, consciousness of the “objective” surroundings (spinning wheel, hoofbeats) recedes as the “subjective” vision grows more vivid. The representation of “inwardness” as it interacts and triumphs over the perception of external reality is the true romantic dimension here, the source of the music’s uncanny power. “Objective” representation, whether of spinning wheels or horses’ hooves, was old hat, esthetically uninteresting in itself; its “subjective” manipulation is the startling new effect, prompted in Schubert’s imagination by those “inward” aspects of the poem to which he was uniquely attentive.  (III, 152)

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Last Thursday I attended a complete performance of Schubert’s twenty-song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, one of the headlining events at this year’s Oregon Bach Festival here in Eugene. The piece was beautifully and dynamically delivered by Thomas Quasthoff, a world-renowned interpreter of Romantic lieder, and accompanied by Robert Levin, who literally saved the evening by filling in for Jeffrey Kahane at the last minute. (Kahane, after holding out hope till the last minute, canceled that morning. Levin performed with only three rehearsals, and gave a Hinkle Distinguished Lecture earlier in the day!)

The performance was a special treat for me, given that our reading and posting on the TC has recently centered on Schubert and the lied. The performance was a solo recital (Müllerin was the only thing on the program) in the largest hall available in the Hult Center, due to Quasthoff’s popularity. (He is a favorite at the OBF, where he had his U.S. debut in 1995.) I was a bit skeptical about how such an intimate genre would come off in such a large hall. After all this is the same space where they stage opera, musicals, and symphony performances. But any skepticism I had melted away not long after the music started.

In fact, it melted precisely at the start of the second stanza of the sixth song, “Der Neugierige” (Curiosity), when the miller asks the brook whether or not the mill-boss’s daughter indeed loves him:

O brooklet of my love,
Why are you so quiet today?
I want to know just one thing—
One little word again and again.

The one little word is “Yes”;
The other is “No”
Both these little words
Make up the entire world to me.

O brooklet of my love,
Why are you so strange?
I’ll surely not repeat it;
Tell me, o brooklet, does she love me?

Suddenly, Quasthoff was singing con sordino, with such hope and naïvete. I was seated a couple hundred feet away from him, but in that moment I felt that Quasthoff was whispering the words right next to me. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

Taruskin spends a lot of time talking about the “music trance,” giving mainly a harmonic rationale for such a phenomenon (via the use of the flat submediant, etc.). But this concert reminded me yet again of the huge dependence music has on performance. Music is always better (speaking for myself here now) when it is temporal, being shared/communicated from one person to another. Unfortunately, I think the gentleman sitting behind me during the concert missed out on this great transaction. I heard measured, audible breathing—tell-tale signs of a quite different type of “musical trance.” His loss.

I couldn’t find a video of Quasthoff singing this exact song, so I urge you to seek out the recording (available on iTunes and elsewhere). But to hold you over until you have the chance, here he is interpreting Schubert’s “Leiermann,” from Wintereisse, with Daniel Barenboim accompanying.

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Once Schubert took ahold of the Lied (German song with keyboard accompaniment), it was never the same. He vested what was mainly a domestic genre with the power to express a Romantic aesthetic, one that fused ideals of Romantic poets with a growing analogous trend in music: a drive toward Innigkeit (“innerness”) as a new and more complete way of experiencing reality. The harmonic language that Schubert developed to express Innigkeit was the extensive topic of Taruskin’s second chapter of vol. III, where he explicates all the harmonic inner workings in some detail (cf. Zach’s recent post). In short, Schubert accomplished a dislodging of time—and thus entrance into what Taruskin calls the “music trance”—through particular use of the flat submediant and modal mixture.

In his Lied, “Am Meer” (“By the Sea”), Schubert also utilized modal mixture. In particular, the opening piano chords oscillate between major and minor triads in direct juxtaposition, to express the pathetic (that is, infused with pathos) and, more to the point of this post, the sublime. It is musical foreshadowing of love once tasted, becoming fatally poisonous, a fate that, when finally proclaimed by the poet at the end of the Lied, we realize has loomed all along. Having asked the question of how harmony expresses the sublime, Taruskin pushes the question one step further: does the harmonic expressivity and evocation transfer into his instrumental works? The answer is yes, and the evidence is Schubert’s incomparable String Quintet in C Major. Taruskin connects the dots, so to speak, between “Am Meer” and the quintet, noting that both open with modal mixture. Is it mere coincidence? Not likely:

Without the eccentric context provided by the poem, one thinks, such a progression could have no meaning at all. But then one hears the very opening of the Quintet in C Major, composed the same year as “Am Meer,” and one has to think again. The same kind of uncanny juxtaposition materializes […]. Yet it materializes in an imaginatively open-ended context, all the more arcane for its being wordless. (III, 138-139)

Taruskin, immediately connects another dot that is surely pressing on the musicologist’s mind as she follows the argument:

In which context did such arcane eloquence originate? Impossible—tantalizingly, blessedly impossible—to say. The combination of an extreme subjective expressive immediacy and an unspecified or “objectless” context is what gave rise to the sublime romantic notion of “absolute music”—one of the most potent, but also one of the most widely misunderstood, of all romantic concepts.

Naturally, the misunderstood concept that Taruskin refers to is “absolute music,” hotly debated to this very day among musicologists. But there is another term in Taruskin’s last sentence that could be “widely misunderstood”—if not by specialists, then at least by the general reader. That is the notion of the sublime, an equal or perhaps more important concept than absolute music, when talking about Schubert and his Romantic comrades. And that will be the subject of my next post, the second in this two-part series.

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It’s fairly mind-boggling to ponder what Franz Schubert managed to accomplish in his scant 31 years of life. As is typically (and tragically) the case, the composer’s music was not fully recognized until years after his death, when later symphonists began to realize the sui generis force of his harmonic language. Rimsky-Korsakov, for instance, acknowledged Schubert’s profound influence on modern harmony, indicating that he was “the first composer in whom one can meet such bold and unexpected modulations” (III, 105). These sentiments are echoed heartily by RT in what is perhaps the book’s most theoretical passage yet (pages 87-113). Although the flat submediant was not new to Schubert, he utilized it to such an electrifying effect as to cement this piquant sound henceforth in the Romantic vocabulary of musical Innigkeit. Rather than simply an approach to the dominant, Schubert uses the flat 6 as a pivot chord to all sorts of far-flung harmonic regions. Further, embedded in this harmony is the interval of the MA3, the implication of which Schubert explored in such depths as to generate some of the earliest examples of blatant whole-tone usage in the Western tradition.

What RT does not discuss in this exceptionally rich passage, however, is Schubert’s brilliant, mercurial rhythmic sensibilities. There are rhythmic passages in Schubert of such a buoyant, playful, and overwhelmingly sophisticated nature as to make one forget the “music trance”-inducing harmonies and just marvel at the sheer rhythmic invention. For example, take the third movement to his 4th “Tragic” Symphony of 1816:

(You can download the score to the movement here. It helps to see what’s going on.) From the second the starting gun goes off, we’re thrown into a deeply ambiguous metric dissonance. The first note sounds like the downbeat of a measure of triple meter: phrases are arranged in symmetrical patterns that correspond to such a reading. But wait. The movement actually starts with a pickup, and for the entire exposition we have to run to catch up. The movement is “off” from the very beginning.

Playing at the edge of this hyper-chromatic unison is an implied 2 against 3; regular syncopations accentuate the underlying duple. Only at select moments does this rhythmic dissonance boil to the surface – for example, at 0:51 (7 measures before the repeat in the score). This eccentric rhythmic gambit structures the whole section. It’s a stunningly original design, and one’s jaw has to drop when we remember that the composer was a lad of 19 when he wrote it. The symphony’s title (“Tragic”), which was given to the work by Schubert himself, is all too apt a word when contemplating everything that this firefly of a composer might have accomplished had he lived as long as Richard Strauss or Stravinsky. Tragic indeed.

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