The Endicott Players of Boston and Tucson

Pamela Dellal, mezzo-soprano
Michael Manning, piano
Roy Sansom, recorder

 

 

SWAN SONG - PROGRAM NOTES

download PDF

SWAN SONG – PROGRAM NOTES
by Michael Manning (MM), Pamela Dellal (PD), and Roy Sansom (RS)

There are a handful of composers in the western sphere that evoke reverence bordering on sycophancy - Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky among them. It would have shocked the sickly Austrian Franz Peter Schubert, who survived only thirty-one years, to find himself in that company, for in his life he saw little success. He died a syphilitic pauper, known only to a small circle of aficionados (although his last two years saw a significant increase in his popularity and financial rewards, whereupon, of course, he died). Schubert’s life was sad, and his music reflects that, or rather, it refracts it through a unique voice empowering one of the most fertile, facile, felicitous imaginations in human history. In his short life, he gave birth to some 1500 compositions, most of them arguably belonging to the canon of human achievement. The pater seraphicus of Romanticism, he elevated the art of song to what we now call Art Song, with hundreds of settings of the lesser and greater poets of his age, dizzying in their variety and depth. He similarly elevated the nascent genre of “miniature” to an exalted status with myriad short pieces for piano. A product of Beethovenian classicism, he wrote dozens of sonatas and sonatinas for various instruments as well as string quartets worthy of the Mozartian legacy, piano sonatas worthy of Beethoven, chamber music with piano that stands at the front of the genre, and symphonies, three of which are staples of the modern concert repertoire.

To perform Schubert is an exalting and humbling experience, for the demands he places on a performer transcend technical considerations. It’s sometimes suggested that Schubert is not as technically challenging a composer as, say, Beethoven or Brahms, and surely not in the virtuoso camp of the likes of Liszt or Chopin. But such a dismissal misses the essence of what it means to challenge technique. In Schubert, as in Mozart and Bach, the technical demands are expressed not in notes-per-square-measure but in the more refined metrics of phrasing, color, voicing, rhythm, texture, and timbre - objects of control, not density; metaphorically of landscape, not acreage. Start there and add, as in the late piano sonatas and the two piano trios, the bravura of Beethoven and a breadth of vision exceeded only in latter years by Mahler, and the performer is confronted with works of such daunting difficulty as to discourage most from concentrating on this literature. But we do it because its rewards are as transcendent as its challenges promise. Schubert takes us into the realm of magic, of mystical power. To perform Schubert is to exercise humanism and theology, the former stripped of its politics, the latter, of its pretensions to rigor. The human experience, equally sweet and bitter, is expressed in every single work, and as is emblematic of the Romantic aesthetic, its penetrating universality is projected outward from the deeply personal.

Two of the works on tonight’s program, the songs from Schwanengesang and the Piano Sonata, are from the astonishingly fecund final months of Schubert’s life (Die Taubenpost is thought to be the very last composition he completed) which saw, in addition to the three last piano sonatas and Schwanengesang, the C Major Quintet, the F Minor Fantasie, Drei Klavierstücke, numerous songs including Auf dem Strom and Der Hirt auf dem Felsen, the completion ofthe Ninth Symphony, and sketches for a tenth symphony. Any one of these completed works would be sufficient to establish Schubert in the front rank, and there are dozens of them. The third of tonight’s offerings is the final rondo from one of Schubert’s many compositional curios, the much earlier sonata for arpeggione (more on this below) and piano, a thoroughly luminous work, conveying a deep sense of well-being but with, as with all Schubert, shadows. (MM)

Rondo from Arpeggione Sonata, D. 821 (1824)
Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata is a bit of an oddball piece. It was composed on a commission by Vinzenz Schuster for an instrument he invented, the arpeggione; a kind of bowed guitar, most similar to the viola da gamba, which never gained much interest and would have died a quiet death had one of the greatest composers not written this wonderful piece for it. Many of these instruments have been made in recent years (far more than there are pieces for it). The piece was not published in Schubert's lifetime, but was rediscovered by Diabelli in 1871, 43 years after Schubert's death. Since its discovery in the 19th century the sonata has been transcribed for cello, viola, euphonium, clarinet, kitchen sink etc. The transcription we'll be performing was done by flutist Robert Stallman. I've made some changes since my instrument has a smaller range than the modern flute. 

Though this sonata has three movements we're only performing the final one, the allegretto. This movement is a rondo, which begins with a hopeful and serene theme in A major supported by a musette-like accompaniment. The following section is in stormy d minor with assertive arpeggiated figures, which eventually calms down and returns to the more placid rondo theme. Next comes a playful and entirely sunny E major section, followed by a short transition for the piano back to the stormy section transposed to a minor. The movement ends with the A major rondo theme with some devastatingly wonderful turns in the harmony to end this perfectly satisfying piece. (RS)

Selections from Schwanengesang, D. 957 (1828)
In the fall of 1828 Schubert was dying. His long struggle with syphilis, compounded by poverty and a frail constitution, made him aware that his time was running out. During this period he continued to be marvelously productive, and almost every piece he wrote was a masterwork. Among them are 14 songs that were published posthumously as his third song cycle, Schwanengesang (Swan Song). The title of this cycle, as well as the order of its contents, was chosen by Schubert’s publisher, Tobias Haslinger, who exploited the untimely death of the composer to help draw attention to this final group of songs. The songs themselves do not form a unified cycle in the model of Schubert’s two groundbreaking cycles. Die Schöne Müllerin and Winterreise revolutionized the Lied by creating a large-scale narrative, linking individual songs by a single poet together. Here we have settings of seven poems by Ludwig Rellstab and six poems by Heinrich Heine. There is evidence that Schubert planned to publish these sets separately, and possibly in a different order than they appear in Haslinger’s edition. Haslinger also appended a final, fourteenth song, Die Taubenpost, to a poem of Johann Gabriel Seidl, which is considered to be the last song Schubert composed.

The ambiguous history of Schwanengesang and the nature of the songs themselves invite deconstruction, reconstruction, and other ways of organizing the songs. Without final evidence of Schubert’s own intentions, many artists have changed the published order, inserted other songs, or made shorter selections from the cycle. This evening we present five Rellstab, two Heine, and the final Seidl setting, in two excerpted sets that reflect the variety of moods and emotional range of these brilliant pieces.

Even though this grouping of songs does not have an internal story or innate reason to be bound together, certain themes recur again and again. In the Rellstab poems, separation and longing pervade almost every song. Our sequence begins with a departure: Abschied. While this song is a supreme example of the infectious joy that Schubert can weave through a boisterous accompaniment and cheerful melody, the poem tells of a man saying farewell to all he holds dear as he departs on a journey.

The only song in the set not involving separation is Ständchen. Here the lover’s serenade calls softly to his beloved to join him in the night. The sensuality, intimacy, and tenderness of this song have made it the most often excerpted from the cycle. Yet even this love song is imbued with the implicit pain of yearning and unfulfilled desire.

In the final three songs, the narrator is distant from his beloved. Liebesbotschaft shimmers with one of Schubert’s most characteristic motives, a rustling brook; the traveller, missing his beloved, entrusts the water with his message. Here the longing is tempered by real optimism and tenderness. Isolation is key in the bleak landscape of Aufenthalt; far from human habitation, the poet sees his suffering mirrored in the natural world. In der Ferne recalls the desolation of Winterreise in the self-exile and despair of the poem; in true Schubertian fashion, the turn to the major key and the entrance of the ‘water music’ is suffused with almost unbearable poignancy.

One of the most marvelous achievements of Schubert’s final year is the set of six songs he composed to the poetry of Heinrich Heine. Schubert’s engagement with one of Germany’s greatest poets brought him to a new level of brilliance; how regrettable that Schubert did not have more time to explore this collaboration further! Heine’s mastery lies in the simplicity and utter clarity of his writing, akin almost to folk song, allied with potent passion and a mixture of fantasy and irony. Some of his most famous poems feature this synthesis: Der Atlas portrays the unhappy lover as a hubristic seeker of universal happiness (or pain), introducing imagery from Greek mythology and ironic self-flagellation; Der Doppelgänger depicts a man so distraught over an obsessive passion that he witnesses a version of himself as if burned into the air, mimicking actions he repeated over and over in the past.

We have selected only two songs from the Heine set, which make a miniature arc in themselves. In the first poem, Das Fischermädchen, we see the poet wielding his considerable charm to woo a working fisher-girl. By the second, Am Meer, they are a pair, but her unhappiness infects him with an almost magical curse. Schubert brilliantly captures Heine’s playful, negligent tone in the first poem, allowing the hint of danger to flash through in twists of harmonic direction. The lowering, ominous mood of the second song is enhanced by mysterious tremolos and darkly colored cadences.

Die Taubenpost is generally acknowledged as Schubert’s final composition in the song genre. While filled with all the magic of the composer’s genius, it seems almost trivial after the gigantic achievements of In der Ferne or Der Doppelgänger. However, in its subtle shifting of harmony and sweetness of melodic line, the ever-present theme of unfulfilled desire insinuates itself once more into the texture. In his final song, Schubert is still sending messages through intermediaries, trying to bridge the chasm between his heart and the object of his passion – this time his messenger, charmingly imaged as a carrier pigeon, is in fact his own longing. (PD)

Piano Sonata No. 19 in C minor, D. 958 (1828)
The last three sonatas, D. 958, 959, and 960, were written between March and September of 1828, and are rightly considered the heirs to the sonatas of Beethoven, a composer whom Schubert (like everyone in the early 19th century) revered. There seems little doubt that Schubert was aware of his connection to and ultimate divergence from this singularly imposing oeuvre, and one gets the impression of a deliberate evolution from the clearly post-Beethoven C minor sonata, with its canonical classical architecture, to the sublime expansiveness of the last sonata in B-flat Major.

All three sonatas are cast in the classical four-movement mold, but the C minor is the most classically adherent of the three, including a minuet where the others offer the more contemporaneously typical scherzo. The dramatic work begins with a textbook sonata-allegro whose theme is unmistakably derived from that of Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C minor. The slow movement is an echt-Schubert excursion into the divine, and the finale, an effusive sonata-rondo cast as a fleet tarantella that, in the hands of any lesser composer, would simply have been prolix. Throughout, the technical demands are very high, again recalling the virtuoso tradition embodied in the 32 sonatas of Beethoven. But the rhetorical style is unmistakably Schubert’s, from the casual asymmetry of the first movement’s second theme to the parade of dark spirits in the finale (which pianist Mitsuko Uchida has called a “death hunt”), to the uniquely Schubertian key changes in the second and fourth movements (Schubert, more than any other composer, is capable of getting to anywhere from anywhere with a naturalness that defies standard music theory). (MM)