Saturday, July 19, 2014

Summermusic 2014: Schumann and Schubert's Piano Trio

Sirotin, Chang & Lee
The second performance of this season's Summermusic programs is Sunday afternoon at 4pm at Market Square Church and consists of two works – another work by Franz Schubert, whose String Trio of 1816 was included in Friday night's concert, and the only appearance in this series by Robert Schumann who, as a young man, was much attracted to Schubert's music at a time when it was not well known.

Ya-Ting Chang will be the pianist, joining Peter Sirotin and Cheng-Hou Lee for the Schubert Piano Trio. Stuart Malina will be the pianist, adding violinist Leonid Ferents and violist Michael Stepniak to the mix, for the Schumann Quintet.

(You can read my post about the Schumann, here, as well as earlier posts about the program of string trios by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, here.)

Schubert in 1827
Schubert's Piano Trio in E-flat was written in 1827 in the months following Beethoven's death; Schumann's Piano Quintet, also in E-flat, was only part of an amazing concentration of works composed in the “Chamber Music Year” of 1843.

Schubert was not yet 31; Schumann was 33.

Schubert would die the following year; Schumann attempted suicide when he was 43 and would die alone in an asylum not long after his 46th birthday.

When Schumann was a 16-year-old law student in Leipzig, he had discovered Schubert's music and would improvise every day and even began composing a piano concerto in F minor. The following year, he noted he was probably more enthusiastic about Schubert's music than Beethoven's, and even wrote Schubert a fan letter (“not sent”).

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Pianist Dmitri Vinnik, violinist Sviatoslav Moroz, and the legendary cellist Natalia Gutman perform the 1st Movement of Schubert's Trio in E-flat, recorded in the Kremlin in 2009:

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Schumann as a boy
In mid-August of 1828 – during the time Schubert was beginning the C Major Quintet and finishing a number of songs which would become Schwannengesang – Schumann, now 18, wrote about Schubert's “Wanderer Fantasy” (D. 760, November 1822) that “Schubert would like, in this work, to condense the whole orchestra into two hands, and the enthusiastic beginning is a seraphic hymn to the Godhead; you see the angels pray; the Adagio is a gentle meditation on life and takes the veil from off it; then [in the finale] fugues thunder forth a song of endless humanity and music.”

Despite promising his mother he would focus on his law studies, he improvised or composed every day and rarely (if ever) attended any lectures. That autumn, he began taking piano lessons with Friederich Wieck who had a daughter named Clara.

When he learned of Schubert's death that November, a friend noted that Schumann's sobbing could be heard throughout the night.

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Vinnik, Moroz and Gutman continue with the 2nd Movement of Schubert's Piano Trio in E-flat:

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He started the next year by beginning a “Schubertian” Piano Quartet in C Minor (which he called his Op. 5 though in fact it would never be published).

Then Schumann essentially “transferred” to another law university – this time in Heidelberg – where he continued to study music on his own, writing to Wieck that he was working on a Hummel sonata and asking him to send him all of the two-hand waltzes by Schubert he could find (“there are 10-12 sets of them,” he suggested).

In April the following year, having begun (but never finished) several symphonies, he also composed a series of waltzes clearly inspired by Schubert's.

Schumann's father, who'd died in 1826, had been a book-seller and publisher (as well as an author) and of all the major composers, Schumann was always the most literary-minded. In 1831, he began fashioning ideas for a novel of his own called Die Wunderkinder (“The Prodigies”) with characters like “Zilia” (based on Clara Wieck), her teacher “Master Raro” (on her father, Friederich Wieck) with himself as “Florestan the improviser” and in which Paganini (under a pseudonym) would play a major role.

He also began a series of “Sehnsucht” Waltzes initially called “Variations on a theme by Schubert” which he never finished but which supplied the opening material for “Carnival” which he began in 1833, finished two years later and published in 1837.

Meanwhile, there were more connections made with Schubert's music.

In 1836, he and Mendelssohn were listening to Schubert's “Hungarian Divertissement” for piano duet (D.818) when Mendelssohn “stamped his feet impatiently” at the repetitions. This was one of the few instrumental works of Schubert's available then, a piece which gave rise to numerous negative reactions to his music. An uneven work, it was only intended as an evening's entertainment for the daughters of his summer employer, Count Esterhazy at Zseliz in Hungary, a poor relation of the Princes who graced Haydn's life in earlier generations. It is hardly a masterpiece but it met the publisher's needs for the amateur market and for it, Schubert received 300 florins.

(Not sure by which currency standard this was as in 1811, during the French wars and the bankruptcy of the Austrian state, there was a currency devaluation that wreaked havoc on Beethoven precarious financial state, on his benefactors and the stipend three of them had guaranteed him: if these are “old” florins, it would be almost as much money as he earned from his benefit concert in March, 1828 – 320 florins – which made him feel quite flush, for a change.)

This would be like a future generation judging Beethoven, ignorant of everything else he had composed, solely on one work, Wellington's Victory (which also, by the way, made Beethoven feel quite flush, for a change, as well, following the recent financial devaluations).

Then in 1838: the Grand Duo, the name given the Sonata in C for Piano Duet (D.812, June 1824, in Zseliz), was published (and re-titled) by Diabelli  – “Sonata” being an unwelcome term in Vienna by then, scaring away the amateur market as being too learned, technical and old-fashioned – which the publisher dedicated to the pianist Clara Wieck (not yet Mrs. Schumann) and which prompted Schumann to see in it a “hidden symphony” (he would later call Brahms' first piano sonatas “veiled symphonies”). He was convinced it was Schubert's lost symphony from Gmunden-Gastein (which was probably the first sketches for the Great C Major Symphony which he returned to by March 1828 and completed that summer). Subsequently, Diabelli gave Clara the original MS which clearly indicated it was a duet sonata for piano four-hands but that didn't stop Schumann from thinking that Schubert still thought of it “in his own mind” as a symphony!

Schumann in 1839
By the time Diabelli finally decided to bring out Schubert's last three piano sonatas – all written one after the other in September, 1828 (these three incredible masterpieces all written in less than one month!) – ten years had passed (even though they'd been engraved as early as 1831) and Schubert's intended dedicatee, Johann Nepomuck Hummel (a piano student of Mozart's and the greatest pianist of the age), had died. So instead, Diabelli published them with a dedication to Robert Schumann.

This was probably more a marketing if not political move than an artistic one, given Schumann the influential critic and Schubert fan who would no doubt write favorably about them and boost their sales: otherwise, there wasn't much call for a largely unknown composer's virtuosic sonatas among the amateur market.

Also in 1838, Schumann wrote about the Piano Trio in E-flat (D.929, Op.100) in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (or the New Journal for Music): “It is about ten years since a trio by Schubert passed, like the portent of a stormy sky, over the disturbances of the contemporary musical scene.” This trio he finds “more stirring, virile and dramatic” than the B-flat Trio: in the E-flat Trio's 1st movement he saw a “deep indignation and a limitless nostalgia;” in the Andante with its march-like accompaniment and aching cello melody at the opening, there were “sighs that would rise and spread until they swell into the heart's anguish.” He felt Schubert was at his finest in the finale.

(Remember that: I'll get back to this, later...)

While I've not been able to find the original article, the biographer who quoted this tidbit didn't mention the scherzo which, again very Haydnesque, is built on a sprightly canonic theme, not that one would normally associate canons with sprightliness, something that would have been one of Papa Haydn's little jokes, too.

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The Beaux Arts Trio - Menaham Pressler, Daniel Guilet, Bernard Greenhouse - with the 3rd Movement of Schubert's E-flat Piano Trio:

(the illustration for these last two clips is an illustration inspired by the collection of folk tales known as Des Knabens Wunderhorn or 'The Youth's Magic Horn' - it's by Moritz von Schwind, a close friend of Schubert's)
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When Schumann was in Vienna in 1839, he made a point of finding Schubert's older brother, Ferdinand, usually described as a teacher and amateur violinist who looked after his little brother throughout his life, but especially in his final illness. Shortly after Franz's death, Ferdinand tried to locate as many of the manuscripts that his brother had left in other locations – with his friend (and frequent roommate) Franz Schober, with other members of the family and from the home they'd grown up in. Realizing Schumann was the great music critic who'd written glowingly about Franz's music, Ferdinand gave Schumann a box of manuscripts which included, among other things, the “Great” C Major Symphony which Mendelssohn then premiered the following year (players objected to the great length and especially the tiring repetitions in the finale).

(Again, remember this, as well...)

As a composer, then, these are just some of the connections between Robert Schumann and the music of Franz Schubert. Whatever inspired Schumann to compose and however he developed his own voice, Schubert was one of his “favorite composers” and had a direct influence on several of Schumann's early works.

We don't need to fast-forward much, now – to 1843 when Robert has finally been able to marry Clara (that in itself is worth a novel) and he has decided to write some chamber music.

I've written about that amazing summer when Schumann wrote three string quartets one after the other, followed by the Piano Quintet and the Piano Quartet (both in E-flat), all within the space of a few months – you can read a separate post about it, here.

Suffice it to say, Schumann who was considered “manic-depressive” when that term was in vogue – for that matter, the term might also apply to Schubert following his first bout with syphilis in 1825 (around the time he was working on the B Minor Symphony and the “Wanderer Fantasy,” speaking of material for a novel) and he had been experiencing another severe bout of depression when he'd completed this Trio and resumed work on his song cycle, Winterreise. Anyway, Schumann set about preparing for his own string quartets while in one of his "up" periods by studying the quartets of Mozart and Haydn. But was Schubert's music far from his mind? It's quite likely echoes of at least the E-flat Trio could still be buzzing around in his head, more than just the coincidence of the Piano Quartet and Quintet being in the same key.

Listening to these pieces today, I cannot help but think of Schumann the 33-year-old composer who'd written a fan letter to Franz Schubert when he was 18 but which he never sent... He, like many of us in similar situations, might have assumed there would be plenty of time to get in touch with his favorite composer in the future: after all, the man was only 31...

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Remember what I'd said earlier about Schubert's long-windedness (something he and I have in common)?

Even friends of Schubert thought the E-flat Trio's finale was too long, too repetitive, too diffuse.

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The Beaux Arts Trio plays the finale from Schubert's Trio in E-flat (I'm not sure which edition they're using but it feels like the original...)

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“The finale, however, is the weakest movement” was a comment frequently lodged at Schubert's large-scale works, from piano sonatas to symphonies. Was he conscious his finales were “weak”? He was clearly trying to expand the form along the lines of Beethoven just as Beethoven himself was expanding his ideas on form and content with what we call the “Late Period” which began around 1818.

But if so many people thought that at the time, how did Schumann think otherwise?

In most of the “classical era” (the time of Mozart and Haydn as well as early-Beethoven and Schubert), the original idea of a symphony was a sonata movement to begin (usually with a slow introduction), the clear weight of the entire work resting in the intellectual drama of its structure (the material's exposition, development and its resolution in the recapitulation) followed by a slow movement followed by a light-hearted dance movement, a courtly minuet befitting the aristocratic audience for whom these works were composed, in the days before public concerts and which Beethoven replaced with a more down-to-earth scherzo, literally a “joke,” which would be more appealing to the middle-class concert-goer. As slow introductions became less common, the feeling grew that the form needed a more conclusive finale: Haydn added a rondo, still on the lighter side, to conclude. For some reason, Mozart, in writing his last symphony, the “Jupiter,” wrote a finale of intellectual virtuosity that still maintains the high spirits felt necessary for a “happy ending.”

Beethoven, certainly, changed that as he expanded his movements in the first place, especially the finale and specifically with his Third Symphony, the Eroica – the Harrisburg Symphony plays this at their first concert in the newly renovated Forum this fall – and then used the finale to resolve the drama of the first movement in his 5th. Certainly, by the time he got to his 9th Symphony, the massive “Choral” Symphony, in 1825, the finale was the clear goal of the entire piece, even though he had no idea what shape and scope his finale would take when he began work on the opening movement!

Schubert was still in the more Haydn-like mode of an entertaining, light finale often using child-like themes not unlike some of Mozart's last piano concertos – and the Divertimento in E-flat heard Friday night, also. After a dancing third movement (either minuet or scherzo) with a middle trio which often included some of Schubert's most pristine if not sublime moments, his finales were usually Haydn-like rondos that seemed to go on forever with more and more episodes going further and further afield, tonally. And they're also beastly difficult to make sound compelling enough to listen to: I've heard too many performances where it was just “I don't know what's going on here, but let's try to have fun, shall we?”

Only Michael Brown's performance of Schubert's D Major Sonata (D. 850 of 1825) captured (for me) the intimacy and playfulness – and above all the commitment – that made this music compelling and worth listening to. (You can read my comments about that Market Square Performance, here.) If he can do it, why can't other performers? Well, that's what interpretation is all about (ah, sweet mystery of art...).

But that is not something that Schubert should be blamed for, just because we now think the symphony or the sonata is what Brahms and later composers made of Beethoven's model.

Still, in comparison to those first two movements, the last two movements of almost any large-scale Schubert work might seem – in our hindsight – less significant, less intense, even inferior.

Schumann wrote of Schubert's “heavenly lengths” – his reaction to the repetition of Schubert's themes and especially the long, often rambling finales – considering most Germans took issue with these last movements. It might be comparable to people nowadays having issues with minimalism... Certainly in the 19th Century, it went against the general Romantic grid whether it's Mendelssohn's or Wagner's. When Mendelssohn took the “Great” C Major Symphony to London, the orchestra rebelled and refused to play it, as well, and so Mendelssohn retaliated by taking his own eagerly-anticipated music off the program.

So, here was Schubert planning to use one of these two piano trios he had recently completed – we assume the B-flat was written first (even Schubert suggested Op.99 for the B-flat and Op.100 for the E-flat despite when they were actually published years following his death) – and being told by his friends the last movement was too long (something people sometimes tell me about my blog posts, by the way). They'd now had a chance to hear the E-flat Trio twice, once at a December concert at the Musikverein (which for all its high-sounding German means only “Music Club”) and again at a party celebrating his friend Spaun's engagement to be married.

On top of that, his violinist friend Josef Slawjk had recently premiered his new “Fantasy in C” for violin and piano (D. 934) which also went on “forever” and at the end of an already long program, several people walked out of the hall. It turns out Slawjk's technique wasn't up to the piece and it was probably not being well played (frankly, I have heard few performances that kept my interest – even great musicians like Isaac Stern – and more than one violinist friend of mine refuse to play the piece).

Whether it was Slawjk's fault or the composer's, Schubert wanted to avoid having people walking out of his own concert, so he agreed to make cuts. Most sources say he cut 99 measures, others less. The problem comes when Probst of Leipzig published the parts (but not the score) with Schubert's cuts – and still people thought it too long – and then, in 1886, another publisher issued the score with most of the cuts restored. Apparently it was years later when Schubert's original intentions were finally published.

So, apparently, Schumann knew this long finale from the “cut version,” not the original version we're more familiar with today.

But even so, this creates nightmares when gathering musicians together to perform the piece. Peter Sirotin and Ya-Ting Chang, as members of the Mendelssohn Trio, used the “complete” edition, but when inviting Cheng-Hou Lee to join them for this performance, they discovered he uses one of the “not-quite complete” editions which makes it almost like learning a new piece since one player is used to this passage leading to that passage but, wait a minute, what's this?

Chamber Music, you see, is not all fun and games...

And by the way, I made several cuts to the first draft of this post – over 1,000 words – so, there...

Dick Strawser

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