Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Schubert and the Social World of the Piano Duet

Schubert in 1825
Join us Sunday at 4:00 at Market Square Church for the first concert of the new season with the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duo playing music by Mendelssohn, Schubert, Falla, Gavrilin, and Gershwin. 

If you're just joining us, you can read the first post in this series here, where you can also hear video-clips of a live performance of the Mendelssohn Allegro brillante that opens Sunday's program and a recording of Gershwin's An American in Paris which closes it. (“Really, do I need to hear the Gershwin, it's so familiar,” you might wonder, but then it's from a piano roll made by the composer himself, playing his own four-hand arrangement – all four hands – for the rarified world of the player piano.) For the post about Valery Gavrilin's Anyuta on the first half of the program, check out this third post in the series.

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As you scan over the program for an up-coming concert, does your mind react in a certain way when you see familiar composers' names on the list – and then pull up with a mental question-mark when you see someone you've never heard of before? For many of us, that can point out the possibility of adventure, the excitement of discovery; for others, there's a sense of fear at the unknown.

Now, you don't have to be a Grade-A Classical Music Expert to realize names like Bach, Beethoven or Mozart – or, considering this Sunday's program with the Varshavski-Shapiro Piano Duet, Mendelssohn, Schubert and perhaps even Manuel de Falla – to realize you're dealing with some of the standard names in classical music. If you're like most concert-goers, certainly Mendelssohn and Schubert are up there with the Most-Familiar-and-therefore-Most-Satisfying-Names-in-the-Business (Schubert particularly ranks high on most “Favorite Composer” Lists).

But who is Gavrilin and what is Anyuta?

Well, I'll get to that in a separate post. First, the familiar: Schubert.

Schubert's original "fair copy," a page from the secondo part of the Fantasy in F Minor's finale
And not just any Schubert. The “Fantasy in F Minor” for Piano Duet – listed as D.940 in the list of Schubert's works – was written between January and March of 1828 and was intended for the only public concert of his music he ever gave (outside the private homes of his friends and fans) but he was unable to have it copied out in time. Instead, a few weeks later, he played at a friend's home along with the composer Franz Lachner when it was well-received. Who knew, that May 9th, that in six months and ten days, Schubert would die at the age of 31?

It's been called one of Schubert's finest works and certainly one of the greatest works for piano duet, elevating the usually mundane mode associated with “salon music” to a level of artistry and sophistication, and indeed seriousness, rarely achieved in the medium since.

While there might be greater performances to offer you, I've chosen this live performance of the Fantasy primarily because, of those videos with varying levels of musicianship available, I wanted you to see how performers interact. They are the Dutch brothers, Lucas and Arthur Jussen, recorded at a 2014 concert in Korea when Lucas was 21 and Arthur, 18 (yes, they do the whole “twin” thing very well, don't they?). I think Lucas is playing primo to Arthur's secondo, or is it the other way around...? Anyway, this is music from another world, far removed from the sociable salons of 19th-Century Vienna and even most concert halls around the world.

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My favorite performance available on-line is an audio file only but I highly recommend it, with the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter and the English composer Benjamin Britten, recorded live at Britten's Aldeburgh Festival in 1965.

Some might call Richter and Britten's performance “too classical” compared to the Jussens whom others could call “too romantic” – but then Schubert is definitely on the boundaries of both as was Beethoven, whatever such boundaries mean for such composers. It is also worth noting that, when Schubert composed this, it was almost a year after he had been a pall-bearer at Beethoven's funeral in March of 1827, speaking of “deep thoughts”...

Though we associate “fantasy” with something free-wheeling and formless, synonymous with “rhapsody,” Schubert's fantasies are usually large-scale four-movement works. Why didn't he call them Sonatas? Because a sonata meant a specific pattern of movements with particular expectations (one might call it “baggage”) as to how the musical material was to be handled. In that sense, these fantasies are freer in form but still multi-movement sonata-like works all the same: consider the “Wanderer” Fantasy and the C Major Fantasy for Violin and Piano, both of which quote phrases from his own songs.

The F Minor Fantasy opens with this seemingly unassuming phrase that builds through varieties of contrasts to clearly emotional depths (and heights) all without those clear-cut lines between what is one movement or another. Moments of dramatic outbursts, of lyrical outpourings, of light-hearted nostalgia (perhaps) all come full circle when at the end we return to the opening - and he turns that one lyrical theme into, of all things, an old-fashioned but immensely powerful fugue. Curiously, Schubert is often criticized for the weakness of his finales – a common problem in “multi-movement-forms 101” – but in this instance he captures something beyond the usual living-room performance of a piano duet with its amateur players and audiences waiting to be entertained. We are left, after that final cadence, to ponder where art can lead us and what, in the context of our daily lives, music can mean.

The Mozart Family

Speaking of “family acts,” while Mozart and his sister Nanerl (as she is always known, though her name was officially Maria Anna) frequently played music for two pianos as well as four-hand duets – documented in this 1780-ish family portrait of Nanerl and Wolfgang at the keyboard with their father, violinist Leopold Mozart and their late mother, Anna Maria, included through her portrait – Mozart, as well as Haydn and Beethoven, composed little for the piano duet format.

Part of this, you can see, has to do with the size of the pianos in those days, which did not comfortably accommodate two players like a modern instrument with 88 keys. Even later, one could argue that women's fashion did not always bode well for the piano duet: witness this photograph of a Victorian wife playing a piano in the family parlor. (On the other hand, we can marvel at the fact that Nanerl Mozart's hair is almost as voluminous as our anonymous Victorian wife's skirt...)

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An anonymous piano duet
Technically, a “piano duo” is a pair of pianists and we usually think of them playing one piano each and there, Mozart did compose several works, including concertos, for two pianos. But when we use the term “piano duet,” this is the “two-on-a-bench” kind of thing where they both share a single piano. While there are examples of such pieces before 1764 when an 8-year-old Mozart appeared in London playing keyboard duets with his older sister – their father claimed “no one has ever written a four-hand sonata before” – it did not become popular as either a musical format or a social phenomenon until considerably later. “Schubert was the one great composer to write extensively for the medium,” as Grove's Dictionary puts it. But then, during Schubert's lifetime, no one considered him a “great composer.” He was merely trying to make a living and he enjoyed writing often convivial music for his friends to play at social gatherings whether they were called Schubertiads or not.

"A Schubert-Evening at Joseph von Spaun's" by Moritz von Schwind

One of the ways a composer could make a living in Schubert's Vienna was to publish music for the “amateur market” (which I mentioned in the previous post) where the performances took place in family parlors rather than in concert halls. This involved reams of dances and variations geared to less accomplished performers, perhaps, but which afforded a sense of accomplishment to the non-professional and proved, one hoped, entertaining to their friends.

Schubert rarely got to write music specifically for a bona fide concert-level pianist. One of his most famous was the “Wanderer” Fantasy – written in 1822 after having put aside his Symphony in B Minor (which he then left unfinished). Unfortunately, the fantasy turned out to be beyond Schubert's own abilities to play it. But that doesn't mean his other piano music is generally “amateurish” in our modern view of the word.

Schubert was easily the shortest of the Great Composers, standing barely five feet tall (some sources say he was 1.52 meters tall which converts to 4' 11.8424”; others say 1.56m, which would be 5' 1.4172”) – his friends sometimes called him Schwammerl or “Little Mushroom” – and that may have something to do with his being shy and, certainly, insecure compared to, say, Beethoven (who would easily rank as one of the least shy and least insecure of the Great Composers). At parties when the dancing started, Schubert preferred to play the music rather than dance, and would improvise for hours, much to the delight of his friends. Then he would write some of these down and send them off to his publisher, usually as strings of little piano pieces like 36 Waltzes or 17 Ländler. But he also wrote a number of more substantial dances for piano duet and these were more often meant as “performance pieces” in the parlor rather than music to be danced to.

Schubert was also probably the poorest of the Great Composers, looking back on it, always dealing with poverty, and always trying to make ends meet, often dependent on friends for lodging and the frequent financial loan. On the other hand, one can also blame these same friends for the kind of lifestyle that may have contributed to his early death – taking him out drinking with them against his doctor's orders, for one thing – but that's beyond the limits of this post.

So an actual job presented itself to Schubert through one of his fans, a teacher at a prestigious school for aristocratic sons and the father of a soprano who would eventually sing at the premiere of Beethoven's 9th Symphony. In one of the few successful examples of “networking” in Schubert's life, this is how Schubert, then 21, became something of a composer-in-residence with Count Johann Karl Esterházy at his summer estate in Hungary, a small town in the Galánta region called Zselis (now in Slovakia). But this is not the same kind of gig Haydn had, in charge of his own orchestra, running the opera house, and being responsible for everything from church services to dinner music. This Count Esterházy was a poorer, more distant cousin of Haydn's Prince. In fact, the sum total of Schubert's duties involved giving the count's two daughters musical instruction and composing pieces for them and their family to perform in the evening as well as arranging music for special occasions like the visit of a small handful of fellow aristocrats. For them, over a period of two summers, he wrote a number of songs and “part songs” – songs for two singers or more, in some cases like small choruses (one-on-a-part) in which everybody gathered around the parlor piano and sang while Schubert or one of the daughters accompanied them – as well as numerous piano duets, some with more challenging primo parts for himself to play, others with less demanding parts intended for both sisters together.

the Esterházy estate in Zselis as seen today
His first visit ended in mid-November when he returned to Vienna, happy enough with the job if a little lonely and feeling isolated not only from his friends but – as Haydn also felt – far removed from the musical circles that inspired him. He was also no doubt happy enough with the money he had in his pocket. Through the winter, he continued to give the young countesses their music lessons either at the Esterházy town house or their suburban estate (poorer than Haydn's Prince, but not too shabby, compared to what Schubert was used to), but if he were invited to return to Hungary the next summer, he may have declined because of the potential of having one of his operas produced and realizing that, comfortable or not, it was not realistic to while away the summers in a nobleman's distant country estate when so much career potential existed in the Imperial capital. It was clearly a different world than Haydn's had been.

It was not until 1824 that Schubert accepted another invitation to Zselis. In between, the success he had hoped for eluded him – his opera was a failure and new ones were refused – his publisher Diabelli was losing interest in his music and what royalties he earned showed Diabelli's disdain. Plus he was dealing with bouts of ill health, particularly syphilis in 1822 and again in early-1824, so perhaps the reasons that kept him in Vienna in 1819 were no longer that important and the idea of a few months in the country might be the vacation he needed (not to mention a guaranteed income).

By this time, Countess Marie, the younger of the two daughters, was becoming an accomplished pianist with a good soprano voice. Though Karoline, the older daughter, had a weak contralto voice and was less proficient at the keyboard (she was “a useful accompanist”), she was more passionately interested in music and Schubert found himself falling in love with her.

Countess Karoline von Esterházy
How serious this budding relationship was, we can't really say but he did make a verbal declaration to her, at one point, as witnessed by Baron Schönstein, one of the guests there and a fan of Schubert's music. He later recounted how she could not return whatever the young composer felt for her – class distinction aside: she would later marry Count Karl de Crenneville-Poutet but not until 1844) – and chided him that so far he had not dedicated a single work to her. Schubert responded, “What does it matter? Everything is dedicated to you anyway.”

Though this time his salary had increased by 25%, Schubert was treated more as a family friend who stayed in the main house rather than as one of the servants living in the estate agent's quarters. He wrote more songs, dances, and piano duets, including the one called the “Grand Duo” in C Major, D.812, a large-scale sonata that for generations many saw as the sketch for the Grand Symphony he had talked about writing (especially the legendary “Gastein” Symphony supposedly written in 1825). Schönstein also relates how the part-song Gebet (“Prayer”), D.815, came to be written: at breakfast one early-September day, one of the other guests asked Schubert to compose a song for them all to sing, setting a poem she was particularly fond of. That evening, after dinner, less than ten hours later, they all gathered in the music room to sing it through, reading from the manuscript – daughter Marie, the soprano; mother and daughter Caroline, the alto; Schönstein, the tenor; Count Esterházy, the bass; Schubert at the piano – a song of 209 measures, almost 11 minutes in this performance. They performed it then “with more assurance” the next evening after Schubert had a chance to copy out their individual parts. Other nights would find them reading through sections of Haydn's Creation or the Mozart Requiem. Schubert seemed happy enough.

But when Schönstein later announced he would be leaving in mid-October, Schubert suddenly begged him to take him back to Vienna with him, a month earlier than he was scheduled to leave. One could imagine at least one reason for his frustration, this time.

Though he wrote a great deal of music after his return – the first thing, apparently, was another attempt at making some money, a sonata for a newly invented instrument that, given Schubert's luck, never caught on and made his effort useless, some hybrid thing called an arpeggione – his Fantasy in F Minor wasn't written until early 1828, a little over three years later. He had written other piano duets since he'd left Zselis, but this one is, in so many ways, different. Plus, he dedicated it to Countess Karoline Esterházy. Which may, perhaps, explain... well, who knows...

By the way, that famous drawing of Schubert playing the piano surrounded by his friends I'd posted above? It was drawn by one of his closest friends, Moritz von Schwind, in 1868, recollecting a “musical evening” spent at their friend Joseph von Spaun's home (he called it “a Schubert-Evening”). It is a gallery of over thirty of the composer's friends – the singer Vogl sitting next to Schubert at the piano, Spaun just to the right; only Franz von Schober, one of Schubert's closest friends (who also supplied the poem for An die Musik) and an indefatigable prankster, seems disinterested in Schubert's playing – he is in the middle row, far right, facing away from the piano, flirting apparently with a young woman who would later become his wife.

But presiding over the room – more likely Schwind's artistic license rather than in any reality – is a portrait directly looking over the piano.

It is a portrait of Countess Karoline Esterházy, absent from the gathering of friends, perhaps, but apparently present in more ways than one.

- Dick Strawser

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