Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Franz Schubert's "Death & the Maiden" Quartet: Up Close & Personal

This weekend, Brooklyn Rider will be performing a concert of new, very new and old music at their Market Square Concerts performance, Saturday evening at 8pm in the Market Square Presbyterian Church in downtown Harrisburg. You can read earlier posts about the ensemble and about Lisa Bielawa's Graffiti dell'amante which will be given its world premiere at this concert. This post is about the “old” music on the program: Schubert's String Quartet in D Minor, D.810.

It's called the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet not because of any specific story being told in its music but because Schubert used part of his song, “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (“Death and the Maiden,” D.531, written in February 1817 when he was 20 years old) as the basis for the variations movement in his D Minor String Quartet (D.810, written mostly in March 1824 when he was 27).

He had ocassionally taken material from some works and used them in a few other works, most famously the song “Die Forelle” (“The Trout”) in the Quintet in A Major for Piano and Strings generally called “The Trout Quintet” and, less well-known, the song “Sei mir gegrüßt” (“I greet you”) which he used for the variations embedded in the Fantasy in C for Violin and Piano. A phrase from his song, “Der Wanderer” (D.493), has a prominent if largely overlooked role in the second movement of the Fantasy in C Minor for Piano, known as the “Wanderer Fantasy.” A theme from his incidental music for the disastrous play, “Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus,” also became the basis for variations in the D Minor Quartet's companion, the A Minor String Quartet he'd finished the previous month, and so it also is usually known as the “Rosamunde Quartet.” Recycling, you see, is not necessarily a new concept.

While I'm convinced the quotation in the “Wanderer Fantasy” has some personal significance to the composer (see below), the appearance of “Die Forelle” in the quintet was a request from the amateur musician who asked him to write the work, since it was his favorite of Schubert's songs and he thought it would lend itself to a marvelous set of variations. That logic may perhaps be what's behind the selection of the themes used in these two quartets rather than any deeper, psychological reason.


The D Minor String Quartet, however, is more than just its variation movement, just as the Trout Quintet is more than that one famous movement. But let me begin by describing the song which he'd written just days after he'd left his teen-aged years behind him.

First of all, Schubert is regarded as one of the greatest composers of songs or specifically of the German Lied (pronounced “leed”) - keeping in mind that “song” means a setting of a text to be performed with voice and (generally) piano and not in the sense many people use it today to describe any musical composition. When Schubert composed piano pieces, his models were Beethoven or Mozart; when he wrote symphonies and overtures, his models may have been Haydn and Mozart or, more likely, the many contemporary composers who followed the same style but are largely forgotten today. But there really were no role models for a composer of songs: though Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven all wrote some, they did not have the depth of emotion and character that was more in style during the early decades of the 19th Century.

While many of Schubert's early piano and orchestral works strike us as derivative, he could be more daring in his songs. It was here that he found his own voice (no pun intended) and it may be why we are surprised to discover, by comparison to the instrumental works he wrote at the same time, these were written by someone so young. Perhaps his most famous songs, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (“Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel,” D.118) and “Der Erlkönig” (“The Erl-King”, D. 328), written when he was 17 and 18, sound like a much more mature composer than the Symphony No. 6 in C Major (known as the “Little C Major”) which he finished shortly after his 21st birthday.

Another curious thing about the songs is how many of them are so assuredly dramatic and yet Schubert, who wanted more than anything to succeed at writing an opera (it's where a composer's fortune could be made, in those days), could not sustain a sense of drama over a longer span of time. Of all the operas he composed (and many were left incomplete), none has as much drama or character insight in them as a song of a only a few minutes' length like “Gretchen am Spinnrade” or “Der Tod und das Mädchen.”

“Death and the Maiden” is a short poem in two parts. The first is the anguished cry of a young girl, anxious at the thought of dying. The second part is sung by Death itself, by contrast serene and welcoming, not to be feared.

Here is a “video” of a recording made with the legendary American alto, Marian Anderson, accompanied at the piano by Franz Rupp, in Schubert's song, “Der Tod und das Mädchen.” I'm not sure when it was recorded: some time in the 1940s, I think.

(That final note she sings, by the way, is a Low D – almost a full octave below Middle C, far lower than female voices can usually manage, in fact a note often considered “low” for tenors!)

It is the second half of this song – Death's consoling serenade – that Schubert uses in the second movement of his String Quartet in D Minor which then gives it the nickname “The Death and the Maiden” Quartet. Here is the variation movement, performed by the Borromeo Quartet.

Here's a fairly literal (and unpoetic) translation of the text of this passage Schubert used in the Quartet:

Give me your hand, you beautiful and sweet image:
I am a friend and do not come to give you pain.
Be of good cheer. I am not harsh.
In my arms you shall gently sleep.

Now, we might think Schubert chose this “melody” (it's hardly much of a tune) because of its potential for variation or because he liked it and it was a popular song of his, no doubt helping with recognition and marketing (things he did, incidentally, keep in mind at times).

But I'm not so sure there isn't more to it.

Schubert had first exhibited the symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as syphilis when he was 25 in the autumn of 1822. He had begun the dark and brooding B Minor Symphony (which for some reason he left unfinished after two incredible movements) and then, in the weeks after starting the symphony's full score, he composed the anguished “Wanderer” Fantasy. The music he used from his song “Der Wanderer” is a fragment setting lines in which the wanderer describes the sun as cold, blossoms withered, life old and he himself a stranger everywhere.

Considering this is not a memorable melody or even something that might catch your attention as fodder for variations, what is the implication of the text, given what was going on in Schubert's life at the moment he was writing this?

Whatever the dangers may be of mixing psychology and creativity, knowing what the text was to the music he used here changed the “meaning” of the piece for me: I no longer hear it as simply virtuosic piano-writing but a deeply personal, dramatic catharsis.

Perhaps there is something of that in the Unfinished Symphony as well, written in these gloomy months when it looked like his life would be changed forever, if he would survive at all. Perhaps that might explain why he abandoned the symphony after trying to write a light-hearted scherzo after those two intense movements? Conjecture, of course, since we have no proof anywhere that that was what he said or thought. But how could a young man of 25, given the sentimental age he lived in, not be affected by these thoughts, the Romantic idea of the suffering artist that also plagued his contemporary Beethoven who spent much of his life dealing with his deafness?

While it might be simplistic to say that Schubert “recovered,” his health had seemed more on the mend a year later, in the fall of 1823. Friends wrote that he was more himself, was seen more often (once again) in the company of his friends but usually accompanied by a Dr. Bernhardt, hired by Schubert's friend Spaun to make sure Schubert didn't “over-do it.” The “dratted doctor” (as Schubert described him in a letter) was also an amateur poet who had submitted an opera libretto to him for his consideration. Schubert, having dealt with the debacle of “Rosamunde” that same season (the amateur poet Helmine von Chezy's play was universally reviled though some critics thought to mention the music was nice) and his on-going failure to get not one but two of his recent operas staged, rejected it, no doubt having had enough of the theater and of amateur poets for a while.

But not long after New Year's Day, 1824, and his 27th birthday party (which saw Schubert unconscious before it broke up around 2:30am), he became ill again. Dr. Bernhardt prescribed a strict diet of cutlets one day and a pastry made of flavored bread and water the next, all washed down with vast quantities of tea. It was during the following month he composed the Octet in F and the first two of what he had planned as a trio of string quartets: the two he finished were the ones in A Minor and D Minor. 

The A Minor Quartet was played soon after it was finished by Ignaz Schuppanzigh (see right) and his quartet at a concert for the Society of the Friends of Music, while Schubert continued working on the D Minor Quartet. It's also interesting to note that Schupannzigh, a friend and champion of Beethoven, had premiered the Razumovsky Quartets in 1808 and had arranged for another Russian nobleman, Prince Nikolai Galitsin, to commission some new string quartets from Beethoven in 1823. It was in 1824 that Beethoven would begin composing the Quartet Op.127, the first of his "Late Quartets."

But during this time, Schubert's state of mind appears to have verged on what was until recently called “manic-depression.” In a letter written on March 31st, 1824, to a friend then staying in Rome, he writes,

“I feel myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again and who in their despair over this ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have come to nothing, to whom the joy of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain, at best, whose enthusiasm (at least of the stimulating kind) for all things beautiful threatens to vanish, and ask yourself, is he not a miserable, unhappy being?”

He then quotes a line of poetry:

“My peace is gone, my heart is sore; I shall never find peace again, never again.”

That is a famous line from Goethe's poem, “Gretchen am Spinnrade” which he used as a refrain, setting it to music ten years earlier.

He concludes this paragraph with

“I may well sing [this] every day now, for each night, I go to bed hoping never to wake again, and each morning only tells me of yesterday's grief.”

While the letter goes on with news that “I have tried my hand at several instrumental works... two quartets... an Octet and I want to write another Quartet; in fact that is how I want to work my way towards composing a grand symphony.” (By that, he meant a large-scale symphony: no mention of the B Minor he had left unfinished...)

His plans are hardly those of one who expects to die any day now, but still, it is difficult to read some of this without wondering how it affected the music he was composing at the same time, especially the reason he may have chosen the consoling words of a comforting Death as the basis for his current quartet's slow movement. The whole quartet is certainly a dark and dramatic work from beginning to end, but it is the balance Schubert finds between his pain and his hope that keeps the tragedy from becoming unbearable.

It should also be noted that the recipient of that March 31st letter wrote to his fiancé and summed it up by saying “Poor old Schubert complains to me that he is ill again,” and leaves it at that.

Here is a “video” posted at YouTube of the Alban Berg Quartet's recording of Schubert's String Quartet in D Minor, the quartet known as “Death and the Maiden.”

How much of the quartet was finished in that first month of March 1824, we don't know. The Otto Deutsch catalogue (which lists Schubert's music with the letter D and a number: for example, D.810) lists the work as composed between March 1824 and January 1826, then adds it "was finished or revised in January 1826."

Schubert usually composed very quickly, so any work left unfinished would probably never be returned to, given his past history. We should also notice the letter I'd quoted above, written on March 31st, 1824, that said "I have tried my hand at several instrumental works... two quartets... an Octet..." which would imply that by then these two quartets were already complete.

We know he attended rehearsals for the quartet on January 19th and 30th, 1826, so the possibility of some revisions would make more sense than his coming back to finish the work at that time.

The quartet was given its first performance on February 1st in a private concert at the home of tenor Josef Barth, a member of the Court chapel choir (he lived in an apartment in Prince Schwarzenberg's winter palace) but an old friend of Schubert's. A little later, the work was given another private performance, this time at the home of composer Franz Lachner, another old friend from Schubert's school days, and now conductor of one of the major theaters in Vienna. (Presumably, the quartet was not performed by Schuppanzigh, this time: his name would certainly have been mentioned if it had been.) The first public performance of the quartet, however, didn't take place until five years after Schubert's death.

About some of the  pictures: The header photo is a famous watercolor portrait of Schubert by his friend, August Wilhelm Rieder, painted in May, 1825, about a year after he began the D Minor Quartet. The story goes that Rieder lived in a house once lived in by the great composer, Christoph Willibald von Gluck and Schubert told his friend how inspiring it would be to be able to compose there. Unfortunately, Rieder did not own a piano. So he went and "hired" a new square piano and put it in one of the rooms, telling Schubert if he came by and saw a particular window's curtains open, he could come in without knocking and go straight to the piano; if the curtains were closed, Rieder was busy painting and did not wish to be disturbed.

The two images of "Death and the Maiden" are from different eras: Hans Schwarz's woodcut dates from 1520, and Marianne Stokes' lunette from 1900.

- Dr. Dick

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lisa Bielawa's Graffiti dell'amante: A World Premiere in Harrisburg

The string quartet that calls itself “Brooklyn Rider” will be performing a program this weekend at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg ranging from the 1820s to the newest of the new, the world premiere of a work commissioned by Market Square Concerts just for this occasion. Philip Glass's 2nd String Quartet (“Company”) from 1984 adds to a program that includes “Achilles' Heel” by the ensemble's second violinist, Colin Jacobsen, and “Lachrymosa” by the Uzbek-born composer Dmitri Yanov Yanovsky.

The program concludes with one of the great quartets from the 19th Century, the Quartet in D Minor by Franz Schubert, known as the “Death and the Maiden” Quartet because it quotes from one of his songs as the basis of a set of variations in the slow movement.

To give you a little information about the world premiere – Graffiti dell'amante by Lisa Bielawa – I'll just quote from Ellen Hughes' press release about the concert.

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Composer and vocalist Lisa Bielawa’s Graffiti dell’amante will receive its world premiere in a concert by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider with Ms. Bielawa as vocal soloist at 8 pm on Saturday, February 20, 2010 presented by Market Square Concerts at Market Square Church (20 S. 2nd St., Harrisburg, PA).

Written in Rome, where stories of love echo across centuries of art and poetry, Graffiti dell’amante is an open-ended song cycle for string quartet and soprano, in which the segments (called “Figures”) that are performed at each concert are selected by the audience members.

Ms. Bielawa explains, “Originally inspired by Roland Barthes’ playful yet poignant collection of poems A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, the piece uses various declarations of romantic Love to enact what Barthes calls the “Figures” of the Lover (“Absence,” “Devotion,” “Ravishment,” “Remembering,” etc.). The poems describe a great variety of subjects and narrators: male poet writes to a female Beloved; male poet writes a love poem from a woman’s point of view; female novelist (with a male pseudonym) writes dialogue for a male character in love; male poet secretly writes taboo love poetry to another man. The Lover declares him/herself to, from, and through so many faces!”

Each performance of Graffiti dell’amante can include a different subset and arrangement of the Figures, resulting in a different piece every time – which might be any length, containing any combination of possible predicaments in any order.

Because the audience selects the Figures to be performed, the piece will become a portrait of that group’s combined attitude toward love at that moment.

Lisa Bielawa is a 2009 Rome Prize winner in Musical Composition and is based at the American Academy in Rome until August 2010. Ms. Bielawa has written numerous works for voice, including her piece Chance Encounter, conceived with the soprano Susan Narucki, for twelve migrating instrumentalists and singer. Chance Encounter uses overheard speech and is meant to be performed in public places. It was premiered by Ms. Narucki and The Knights in Manhattan’s Seward Park, and was performed again at the Whitney Museum in February. The work has been recorded by Grammy Award-winning producer Adam Abeshouse for release on the Orange Mountain Music label.

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Ms. Bielawa has also been blogging from Rome - Lend Me Your Ears - not entirely about the composition we'll be hearing but her wide range of topics and interests will give you an insight into the time she was writing it and experiencing life in the Eternal City. The posts are at the WQXR website but they don't have a single link to the entire blog, so here are the four posts, listed in chronological order:

When in Rouen (November 16, 2009)
Extravagant Stories (November 30, 2009)
Voices from Above and Beyond (December 18, 2009)
Musicians Without Borders (January 25, 2010)

Okay, you might be thinking "that's not a lot of blogging," but after all she was living in Rome and supposed to be spending most of her time composing!

Brooklyn Rider: Commuting to Harrisburg

This weekend – which according to the weatherguessers looks like it might be snow-free - a string quartet called “Brooklyn Rider” comes to town. They'll be performing at the Market Square Church this Saturday at 8pm. An added bonus is the OPEN REHEARSAL, free and open to anyone, between 1:30 and 3:30 at the church that afternoon!

They'll be performing some very new works – including one so new it's the World Premiere, a work commissioned by Market Square Concerts. I'll be telling you more about Lisa Bielawa's Graffiti dell'amante in a separate post. In addition to works by quartet violinist Colin Jacobsen and a Silk-Road colleague, Dmitri Yanov Yanovsky, there's Philip Glass's 2nd String Quartet  ("Company," written in 1984) and one of the great quartets by Franz Schubert, the one known as “Death and the Maiden” which will also be the subject of a subsequent post.

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Considering it's probably the first thing an audience gets to know about a new ensemble, a group's name is a very important part of its identity.

It used to be easy to name yourself after your location or home-base (the Budapest or Tokyo Quartets) or after a famous violin maker (the Guarneri Quartet), perhaps a favorite composer who was a feature of your repertoire (the Beethoven or the Amadeus Quartets), a benefactor (the Juilliard Quartet, founded by and in residence at the school of music) or, less commonly in these days of greater equality, after the quartet's first violinist (the Busch Quartet).

But once many of the best or most obvious names have already been taken, then you need to go a little further afield. The Emerson Quartet chose the New England poet because of a common bond with his transcendental aesthetic.

More recently, the Daedalus Quartet took its name from the inventor in Greek mythology who fashioned wings that allowed him to fly and thus obtain his freedom, so it's a good metaphor for an artist looking to soar through this wonderful creation we call art (on the other hand, I don't believe anyone has ever called themselves the Icarus Quartet).

The Enso Quartet takes its name from a Japanese zen painting of a circle “that represents... perfection as well as imperfection, the moment of chaos that is creation, the emptiness of the void, the endless circle of life, and the fullness of the spirit.”

Names, then, become a kind of mission statement. Many of them create a sense of mystery (“I wonder what that means?”), something hopefully catchy in this age of intense marketing and box-office accountability.

The string quartet calling itself “Brooklyn Rider” (and not, at least officially, the “Brooklyn Rider String Quartet”) combines the obvious and the metaphysical. Yes, they're from Brooklyn but even if “The Brooklyn Quartet” wasn't already taken, it didn't really seem to cut it with a group that had its roots in Yo-Yo Ma's “Silk Road Project.” Their repertoire spans all styles and centuries of the quartet's legacy, standard and otherwise, infused with a sense of world music and international guests they'd worked with on “the road.” And since “Musicians Without Borders” already belongs to another organization, they had to find some middle-ground between the historical context from the 18th and 19th Century string quartet to its present-day relevance in the 21st Century.

So, is the “Rider” in deference to a Haydn quartet by that nickname? Not exactly. Is it evocative of the New York City subway system because they are frequent commuters between home and performance venues (as most musicians in New York City are)? No. Despite the fact it makes it sound like an Indie Rock Group, it's actually updating an early 20th Century interdisciplinary concept promoted by a Munich-based group of eclectic artists who combined painting and music, calling themselves “The Blue Rider” or “Der Blaue Reiter” which in turn took its name from a 1903 painting by Wassily Kandinsky. One composer associated with them was Arnold Schoenberg, who was both composer and painter (later, you can read my post about his ground-breaking 2nd String Quartet and its relationship to paintings as well as his not-exactly-suitable-for-Valentine's-Day personal life).

In this spirit, Brooklyn Rider has created an art gallery on their website showcasing the work of some of their friends in which the proceeds are used to support new commissioning projects.

While more traditional quartets might add a pianist for the Brahms Piano Quintet or another cellist for the Schubert C Major String Quintet, “Brooklyn Rider” is more likely to add one of their colleagues from “The Silk Road Project,” like the Chinese pipa virtuoso, Wu Man or the Persian composer and kamancheh player, Kayhan Kalhor. They also draw inspiration from the exploding array of cultures and artistic energy found in the borough of Brooklyn in New York City, a place they also call home.

I hope you'll be able to join us for the wonderful, wide-ranging program Saturday at 8pm at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg. And please consider taking advantage of that open rehearsal – it's free, too – especially considering it gives you the opportunity to become a little better acquainted with brand new and very likely unfamiliar repertoire.

Dr. Dick

Monday, February 8, 2010

Zuill Bailey's New Bach CD - A Party in Harrisburg! POSTPWND


Given the impending forecast for the possibility of another foot of snow by Wednesday evening, Ellen Hughes sent out this e-mail this morning:
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Dear Friends -

After speaking to many of you, it's clear that the prudent decision is to reschedule tomorrow's CD release party in light of the forecast. Although there is no date in mind for the moment, we're talking about sometime in the spring.

Many thanks to all of you for all of your good advice and willingness to help. It's too bad that the weather is the only element that has not cooperated.

I'll be in touch as soon as we can settle on another date, with the hopes that it will fit in to everyone's schedule.


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Given the recent snowfall in Central Pennsylvania, I thought this particularly spring-like photograph of Zuill Bailey would not only remind us it's only 41 Days till the Spring Equinox, Zuill's new CD Release Party is just days away - Wednesday, Feb. 10th, beginning at 6pm. POSTPONED (2-09-2010) NEW DATE TBA...

Zuill's new CD is a Telarc recording released just last week of the six Suites for Solo Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach, a major accomplishment in any cellist's repertoire.

The party will be held at the new location of the Mid-Town Scholar Book Store at 3rd and Verbeke (Broad) Streets in Harrisburg, across from the Broad Street Farmers Market.

Presented by Market Square Concerts in collaboration with HACC-Midtown, it begins at 6:00 and Zuill will start playing some excerpts from the Bach Suites at 6:30.

A $5 donation is requested. Hors d’oeuvres prepared by HACC’s culinary students and liquid refreshments will be available.

As refreshments for the soul, Zuill will play selections from the Bach Suites. He comes to Harrisburg from other CD release parties in San Francisco and New York, then goes on to Baltimore and other hopefully less snow-challenged locations.

After his November recital here, we're very lucky to have him back in Central Pennsylvania again and especially honored that he chose to have the CD-Party here. His new Bach CD will be available for purchase on the night of the party.

These six suites, some of the most significant repertoire for a cellist, were recorded each in one sitting over a period of one week at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City, following years of preparation by Mr. Bailey. He calls the process of recording these suites “such a personal journey for me.”

While Valentine's Day is around the corner and it's only 42 days till Bach's Birthday, don't forget the next concert with Market Square Concerts will be the first appearance in Central PA of Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet who'll be playing Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" Quartet, Philip Glass' 2nd String Quartet ("Company") among other new works including the world premiere of a piece written by Lisa Bielawa. She's been in Rome as a winner of last year's Rome Prize writing a new work commissioned by Market Square Concerts. You can hear this exciting concert on Saturday, February 20th at 8pm at Market Square Church. There will be an open rehearsal between 1:30 and 3:30 that afternoon.

I'll be posting more about that concert in the near future.

- Dr. Dick