Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summermusic 2014: Two C Major Quintets - Part 2: Schubert

Schubert in 1825
As Peter Sirotin posted on Facebook today, "Any day which includes [a] performance of  the Schubert Quintet is a good day."

And he gets to perform this work - which he admits is one of his "Top 3" favorite pieces - on the final program of this season's Summermusic, Wednesday at 6pm at Harrisburg's Civic Club.

(You can read more about this concert in general, here, and about the Mozart that opens the concert, here. For information about parking in the area which might seem rather daunting to out-of-towners, check this post.)

Most of this post is a biography of Schubert's last year and especially the time he composed his Quintet in C Major.

But since the premise behind these three concerts has been "inspiration," how composers found inspiration in works by other composers, I want to point out some obvious similarities despite the fact Schubert's work never seems like an imitation, is never derivative and might not even strike the listener as a tribute to a favorite composer.

But Schubert clearly had Mozart's C Major Quintet (K.515) in his mind, directly or indirectly. when he was 19 and heard a Mozart quintet live at a musicale he was also performing at, he described it as a "life-changing experience," more or less ("a day that will stay [with me] forever" as he wrote in his journal. There's no proof (as far as I can tell) that that particular quintet was the C Major, but regardless, it would have ignited a love of Mozart already burning to the point he would study the scores of all the quintets - if not all the works of Mozart - he could get his hands on.

The most obvious fact - though by no means the most significant - is that they're in the same key. But listen to the an excerpt from each first movement:

Mozart's Quintet, the first movement only, with violinist Joseph Swenson and friends. Before you click on "play," please scroll down to make sure you can see the illustration just below the video clip.

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opening of Mozart's K.515
Here's the score of the opening page of the Mozart Quintet. Even those who can't "read" music might notice the rising line of short notes (daaah... bup búp bup bup bup búp bup) in the cello and, in the fourth and fifth measures, the sustained line in the 1st violin, complete with a little figure we call a "turn." Keep those two "gestures" in mind.

Now, to the Schubert (below).

In this historic recording with the legendary Pablo Casals in a live recording made at a summer music festival in 1961, my primary interest is following the performance with the score embedded in the video: again, even if you don't "read" music, try following along (they manage to turn the pages for you). Though it may sound presumptuous to mention the performance is a bit old-fashioned, especially with the use of portamento, the sliding (or slurping) between notes, but it is Casals and a traditional sense of interpretation. Be that as it may...

In the very opening, you'll see a long sustained melodic line (is it a melody?) which looks very similar to the violin part of the Mozart, even down to the "turn." This turn becomes a major element of Schubert's first movement - we'll hear it everywhere.
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While you might be thinking, "so?" So what? Lots of composers can write a line with a "turn" in it and write in the key of C Major.

If you don't have time to listen to the first ten minutes, then, scoot ahead to 9:17. Structurally, this is a very dramatic moment, the return of the opening "theme" in the Recapitulation. But Schubert doesn't just copy out the opening as you'd first heard it. No, he fills it out a little. With what?

Notice the violin part. What was the long sustained note with the turn (the "melody") is in the cello now - it had been in the violin, first time - but what's happening in the violin? A rising line of short notes. Look at the opening cello line in the first measure of the Mozart. Then at 9:40, he switches the parts so the sustained note and the turn are in the 1st violin and the rising short notes are in the cello, just as they are in the Mozart.

Eh? Coincidence? Hmmm...

Anyway, let that suffice as merely one aspect of connection between a specific work by Mozart (written in 1787) and one of Schubert's greatest and most original works (when all is said and done) written in 1828.

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There are so many things that continue to amaze me no matter how many times I hear Schubert’s Quintet.

People have said there must have been a rush to complete as much music as he could before he died, not that anyone would know how much time they have left in one’s life, especially when you’re in your early-30s like Franz Schubert in the 21 months following the death of Beethoven. But that’s the way Schubert was most of his life, writing as much music as he could possible get down on paper: how else do you end up with nearly a thousand pieces in your catalogue in just 18 years?

From November, 1827, to his death a year later, Schubert wrote (if not completed) 36 works, according to Otto Deutsch’s catalogue, including
- Piano Trio in E-flat (D.929, published as Op.100) which we heard on Sunday's concert with this season's Summermusic - November ‘27 (the B-flat Trio had been written the month before)
- Fantasy in C for Violin & Piano (D.934) based on the song “Sei mir gegrüsst”) - December ‘27
- Four Impromptus for Piano (D.935, published as Op.142) - December ‘27
- Fantasy in F Minor for Piano Duet (D.940) - January-April ‘28
- “Auf dem Strom” (D.943), song for tenor, horn & piano - March ‘28
- Symphony in C Major The Great” (D.944) – though it was probably composed two years earlier, there had been evidence it was begun (or more likely, revised) in March ‘28
- Three Impromptus for piano (D.946) often called more generically “Drei Klavierstücke” - May ‘28
- Mass in E-flat (D.950) - begun June ‘28
- Quintet in C for Strings (D.956) - sometime in August-September ‘28
- Fourteen Songs known asSchwanengesang” (D.957) - finished between August & October ‘28
- Piano Sonata in C Minor (D.958) – September ‘28
- Piano Sonata in A Major (D.959) – September ‘28
- Piano Sonata in B-flat Major (D.960) – last page dated 26th September ‘28
- Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (“Shepherd on the Rock”) (D.965) October ‘28

Whether you’d consider them all “masterpieces” or not, this list of fourteen works (really 27, since you should count the songs of Schwanengesang individually as it’s not really a single work per se) does not include nine other songs (two or three written earlier that could’ve fit into the set of “Swan-Songs”), eleven part songs and short choral works (including a setting of Psalm 92 in Hebrew, written for a specific temple’s Sabbath service), four other “miscellaneous” works for piano solo or duet and - oh yes – two large-scale unfinished works, a symphony in D Major (D.936a) and an opera, The Count of Gleichen, listed as D.918 because it was begun the previous summer. And one should also include some “homework assignment” for his counterpoint lessons, which I’ll get to, later.

Look at those works completed if not all written in September 1828, the three last piano sonatas, the C Major Quintet and several of the Swan-Songs (only the first and last are actually dated). While there are sketches that exist for material that ended up in the piano sonatas from earlier that summer, most of the work was done in a matter of three weeks.

But the original manuscript of the quintet has vanished and with it any preliminary sketches, though Schubert rarely “sketched,” his inspiration traditionally described as being “at white-heat” that even if he dropped a page on the floor (so the wives’-tale goes) he would prefer to start over on a new page rather than waste the time to pick it up. Was the quintet a product of “white-heat?” Was it really composed, as several biographers seem to conclude, in two weeks’ time? In addition to the sonatas he was either composing or copying over in final form to send off to publishers, that is one very intense month!

And in less than eight weeks, he died ten weeks shy of his 32nd birthday.

It’s not that he knew he was dying. His health had not been good, off and on, especially after 1822 when, at the age of 25, he began showing the first symptoms of syphilis, presumably in November, not long after he finished... or rather, left unfinished the B Minor Symphony (“The Unfinished Symphony”), the score dated October 30th, 1822, and the virtuosic Fantasy in C, a piano solo known as “The Wanderer Fantasy,” also one of his most dramatic, violent and, at times, pessimistic pieces. Signs of illness may not explain the despair of the fantasy or even why he never completed the rest of the symphony (he had started the third movement but stopped after nine measures), since we normally think of works of art being unhampered by reality, but the chronology is difficult to ignore.

It was at the end of August, 1828, that Schubert, on the advice of his doctor, moved out of his friend Schober’s house in downtown Vienna to take a room in his brother’s new suburban home just outside the city, since the air – and no doubt the quieter life – would be better for his health. And then in the next few weeks he wrote the string quintet and three sonatas. Could there be some correlation between his health and his inspiration? Certainly, the quintet is one of the loftiest works anyone has ever written under any circumstances.

Today, a composer could brag he (or she) doesn’t write anything unless it’s commissioned or would at least have a performance of it already lined up. We’ve lost that romantic notion of the struggling artist writing for the sheer pleasure of creating art, the product of pure inspiration.

To say Schubert was famous may not be entirely accurate but statements about his being unknown are not exactly truthful, either. His music did not bring him a great deal of money, though his short dance pieces for piano were popular and his songs were well-known, probably circulating more in manuscript copies, the early-19th Century answer to ipods and illegal downloads. By a small group of music lovers, he was certainly respected, but he had difficulties getting his works performed, mostly because he was writing things that were not practical for Vienna in the 1820s: keep in mind, things had gotten tough enough, economically, that even Beethoven threatened to leave for new financial possibilities in Paris or London.

Ironically, the first public, largely professional concert of Schubert’s music was also his last. It took place on March 26th, 1828, the first anniversary of Beethoven’s death as it turned out, and included the E-flat Piano Trio, several songs and part-songs including “Auf dem Strom,” after opening with a movement of (presumably) the not-yet-performed G Major String Quartet. The attendance was good, the response, since it was mostly of Schubert’s many friends and acquaintances, enthusiastic, but there was no critical mention of it in the press because all of Vienna (in fact, all of Germany, apparently) was taken up with the five concerts being given by the then-all-the-rage violinist Nicolo Paganini, performances which brought in about 5600 florins per concert. While I have no idea what a florin in 1828 might be worth today, it’s enough to mention that Schubert’s concert brought in 320 florins total, less than 6% of Paganini’s box-office take. For him, he thought he’d done fairly well – not enough as he’d’ve liked, but he was feeling flush enough to plan a couple of summer vacations. Unfortunately, these never came about.

Schubert was convinced that the path to monetary success and artistic recognition was through the operatic stage. For a composer who could write such intensely dramatic songs and telling psychological miniature portraits in his songs (you only need to point out Gretchen am Spinnrad, written when he was 17, to prove that), he couldn’t write a theatrically successful opera if, not to press the analogy, his life depended on it, but he persisted. Even at the end of his life, he continued working on The Count of Gleichen with its lame, cliché-ridden plot and badly written libretto by one of his closest friends. He filled 36 large pages and 52 smaller-sized sheets with sketches and completed sections but it didn’t seem to matter the censors had already rejected the story – shockingly, it included a benign view of a bigamous hero – so even if he might manage to finish it, it wasn’t going to be taken up by any theater in Vienna.

The unfinished D Major Symphony, usually numbered the tenth – there’s no room here for the story of why there had been no 7th Symphony for so long and why the “Great C Major” has appeared as the 9th, 7th and sometimes the 8th – apparently was begun in October ‘28, fragments of three large-scale movements sketched in a “short score” format (like a reduction playable at the piano, but with occasional orchestrational cues written in). The 2nd movement was the “most complete” section but the 3rd movement, labeled a “scherzo” which would imply there would be a 4th movement finale, seems to have morphed into a combination scherzo-and-finale with several large patches of fugal writing, very unusual for Schubert.

Which brings me back to those “counterpoint lessons” Schubert had set up just before he died. When he was working on the Mass in E-flat earlier that year, he had been studying Handel oratorios: Messiah, he’d said, was one of his favorite works. A few months before his death, Schubert told friends about these Handel scores, realizing “Now for the first time, I see what I lack.” He arranged to take lessons with organist Simon Sechter to “make good the omission.”

What was it that Schubert, at the age of 31 and who’d been composing since before he was 13, lacked?


Usually, this is assumed to mean “the writing of fugues,” something that by 1828 was pretty old-fashioned already. Composers might insert “a fugal section” to show that they know how to do something academic, that they’ve learned their craft. It might not always sound natural, given the flow of things: Beethoven aside (who at least admitted he approached it “with some license”), I often feel like we should do The Wave whenever a 19th Century composer breaks into a “learnéd” fugue midstream (there’s one in Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony of 1885 that usually reduces me to a puddle of giggles).

It's possible the "writing of fugues" was what concerned him, though. In 1826, he had applied for (and not gotten) a post as assistant court composer for church music and had, no doubt, written the Mass in E-flat as an audition piece. But he was passed over for a more senior and more professionally successful composer, Josef Weigl, primarily an opera composer. Perhaps they figured "Schubert - he's what, 29 years old? Let him try again next time..."

When I listen to Schubert’s quintet, it amazes me that he felt so insecure that he had to go study counterpoint. I’m not familiar with his masses – at least the last two “mature” ones – and I’ve heard the Unfinished D Major Symphony (No. 10, D.936a) once or twice on the radio, enough to remember there’s a lot of fugal writing going on in that last movement (though how much of it is what Schubert sketched and how much is part of Brian Newbould’s realization of it, I couldn’t say), but fugues aside, the art of writing melodically and rhythmically independent lines that are interdependent harmonically – a broader definition of counterpoint – is not something Schubert was lacking!

All you have to do is listen to the opening of the second movement.

Here's a live performance with Pinchas Zukerman and friends recorded in Germany in 2006:
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Long slow notes in two- and three-part harmony in the inner voices (as they’d be called, regardless of the fact they’re instruments), with rhythmic filagree-like patterns in the 1st violin that remind me of birdsong, and one cello plucking along on what sounds like the downbeat with the harmonic underpinning. These are three fully defined layers of easily identifiable ‘sound’ – the long slow notes actually turn out to be the melodic layer – that becomes clearer the second time around, about 2½ minutes later, when the “bird-calls” of the 1st violin are replaced by plucked chords answering the cello’s bass line. Then, having taken about 5 minutes to run twice through this theme – speaking of expansive – there’s a sudden change of mood: the violins now have the decidedly more dramatic theme, here, the cellos’ bass-line now more insistent, turning back over on itself, and the middle voices now playing an agitated pattern, filling in the harmony but completely separate, rhythmically, from the outer parts, a far cry from the relaxed contemplation of the first theme.

Why would anybody who could create passages like that feel that insecure about needing to study counterpoint?

Unfortunately, we’ll never know what impact those lessons with Simon Sechter would have on Schubert’s later music. He only took one lesson – on November 4th, 1828. He had already complained of feeling sick the week before but managed to walk the four or five miles to the church where his brother Ferdinand’s Requiem was being performed, not counting a three-hour walk they and the choirmaster took afterwards before walking home (no public transportation to the suburbs in those days). Complaining of feeling tired, understandably, Schubert still felt well enough to walk the mile-or-so to and from his teacher’s house for the counterpoint lesson the next day. That weekend, Schubert attended a friend’s dinner party where much wine was drunk and everybody thought he was feeling pretty good (in any number of ways). By Tuesday of that week, then, he “took to his bed,” did not make it to the next lesson - in fact, never left the house again.

Another friend showed up with a copy of his setting of Psalm 23 which needed some corrections. There was no real anxiety – he had been ill before and had recovered before – and Schubert himself complained only of feeling tired, not of any pain. A few days later, he sat up in bed to make corrections on the publisher’s proofs for the second half of the Winterreise songs – keeping in mind the final song, “Der Leiermann” (“The Hurdy-Gurdy Man”), one of the most desolate songs in the repertoire. He wrote to his friend Schober, asking if he could borrow any books by American author James Fennimore Cooper which he hadn’t read yet.

Two days later there was, as they say, “a turn for the worse,” presumably after friends came and played Beethoven’s C-sharp Minor Quartet, Op.131, for him at his request. By the end of the performance, he had become so excited and his condition had deteriorated so rapidly, they put him back in bed. His friend the librettist of The Count of Gleichen came by to visit the next day or so: Schubert had continued to work on it up until that week, and they even talked about another collaboration once he finished this one. Apparently, in these first two weeks of November, he also worked on the sketch for the slow movement of the D Major Symphony, before things got so bad, he was unable to work at all. A few more days passed: on the 18th, Ferdinand wrote later, Schubert began hallucinating, then died the following day. As his friend, the poet Grillparzer wrote for the epitaph, “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but far fairer hopes.”

So it is impossible – for me, at least – to listen to this quintet and not dwell on things deeper than the acquisition of contrapuntal skills or on the expansion of harmonic and structural techniques to create a work that lasts between 50 and 60 minutes. Schumann, who didn’t know the quintet existed then, wrote about the “heavenly lengths” of the Great C Major Symphony which Ferdinand showed to him during a visit in 1839. The Quintet, equally heavenly, somehow didn’t surface until 1850. Like the symphony, it was just too long – for the audience but also for the players – and both were first performed in heavily cut, shortened versions.

Igor Stravinsky was never one to mince words about other composers (of Benjamin Britten, he said, “He’s an excellent accompanist”), but when someone asked him if he weren’t “sent to sleep by the prolixities of Schubert,” he replied, “What does it matter if, when I awake, it seems to me that I am in paradise?”

- Dick Strawser

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