In this issue: We shine a spotlight on the great 19th-century Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797–1828).
Now, More Than Ever: Issue 27
Recently, I took a long (socially distant) walk with a professor friend of mine. In the way of these things, the conversation wandered comfortably over a wide range of topics but ended up addressing the concept of time. I’m oversimplifying here (and expect I can’t do it justice), but I understand that there’s a concept in quantum physics that postulates that time itself is not linear, that all events, past and present, are actually taking place at every moment, at the same time.
This all came to mind as I was thinking about today’s edition of Now, More Than Ever, which departs from tradition by being dedicated to the work of a single artist, the great 19th-century Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797–1828). At critical moments in my life, I’ve repeatedly found myself drawn back to Schubert, and to the idea that within his extraordinary music, everything—love, joy, death, loneliness, hope—seems to exist simultaneously. With this composer, in particular, it’s always less about following a musical narrative and more a question of where your eye (or ear!) falls at any given moment. Perhaps this is why I find his music so endlessly rewarding.
I’m choosing these videos during a unique period in our history, one that is fraught with conflicting challenges and mercurial emotions. Perhaps I’ve made these particular choices (of both artists and artworks) because they provide for me the space I need to process the complexities of the times. For me, that may be Schubert’s most profound and lasting gift.
Schubert: Allegro molto moderato from String Quartet No. 15 in G major, D. 887
This is the first movement of what is arguably Schubert’s greatest string quartet, if also his least approachable. (In terms of scope and emotional reach, it can be nearly overwhelming.) Here, I think Schubert is working mightily—and through sheer variety of sound and thematic transformation—to bring the depth of orchestral writing to his chamber music. It’s virtually impossible to discuss this composer without acknowledging Beethoven, the musical presence that loomed in the background for nearly all of Schubert’s years. Especially at the end of his life, Beethoven was writing for sound worlds that were purely imaginary, that almost couldn’t exist in the real world. But here, Schubert is writing for a sound world that very much does exist—and one that was usually reserved for the orchestra. Moments in this piece can be extremely difficult to classify, with few binary choices, little that is major or minor, happy or sad, the effect of which is to create co-existing dualities and musical worlds of tremendous nuance.
I encourage you to be patient with this music (as with almost every piece by Schubert). It can and will reward you, but the magnitude of the composer’s statement is so generous, dramatic, and brimming with love that it can take time to see the entire picture.
Sasha Waltz, choreography Cristina Marton, piano Sasha Waltz & Guests
As is always the case with great creators, it can be a true—even revelatory—pleasure to see how their work inspires other artists, especially those working in different genres. Case in point, the acclaimed German choreographer Sasha Waltz’s sublime Impromptus, set to a selection of Schubert’s piano and vocal music (here, the middle section of the D. 935 Impromptu, No. 1 in F minor). Seen at Zellerbach Hall in 2014, this work came as something of a surprise to Waltz’s legions of fans, given the provocative and startlingly political dance theater the choreographer has created for her collaborative troupe.
Writing in CriticalDance, Claudia Bauer called Impromptus “A deeply personal journey…. There is sincerity in the movement, and a craving for human connection in the choreography. As virtuosic as the music is, it simply expresses the vulnerability of a troubled, all-too-human artist. By combining them, Waltz achieves a simple, ambitious intention: to ‘connect you to your inner world, to your soul.’”
Composer David Lang is another artist whose work has been deeply informed and inspired by Schubert, as can be seen in this section from death speaks, Lang’s follow-up to his Pulitzer Prize-winning the little match girl passion.
Lang studied all (some 600!) of Schubert’s songs, carefully noting which ones featured a message delivered to the living by Death itself. The composer then translated those texts and recast them with his own music, creating a set of five musical portraits (of which this song is the fourth). It is notable that he chose to write the piece for an assemblage of gifted performers who both compose and perform beautifully in the classical and indie rock worlds, and whose personal styles fit so comfortably within Lang’s writing. The aesthetic of the piece is reflective, meditative, and transcendent, and Shara Nova has a voice of beguiling immediacy, singing words that otherwise might come across as mere phrases and aphorisms in a way that conveys the complexity Schubert intended for his personification of Death.
Schubert: “Der Doppelgänger” from Schwanengesang, D. 957
Ian Bostridge, tenor Sir Antonio Pappano, piano
There’s something deeply otherworldly—almost as if we’ve slipped into an unsettling episode of The Twilight Zone—in this famous entry from Schubert’s final song collection. One of the most chilling, complex, and ambiguous of all the composer’s works, “Der Doppelgänger” would seem open to endless interpretation. We begin with a view of a man, at nighttime, visiting the house of a former lover. As the narrator zooms in, he is shocked to recognize himself standing in the shadows. For Schubert, the German word “Doppelgänger” meant something more than simply a body double, carrying with it the connotation of “wraith” or “evil spirit.” Is this a memory? A dream? A hallucination? The beauty and power of the song is that it leaves us with no answers.
The pianist here—every bit the match to Ian Bostridge’s accomplished singing—is Sir Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, who is both a fine accompanist and someone, like Bostridge, who possesses an innate sense of drama.
The Wraith (translation Richard Wigmore)
The night is still, the streets are at rest;
in this house lived my sweetheart.
She has long since left the town,
but the house still stands on the self same spot.
A man stands there too, staring up,
and wringing his hands in anguish;
I shudder when I see his face –
the moon shows me my own form!
You wraith, pallid companion,
why do you ape the pain of my love
which tormented me on this very spot,
so many a night, in days long past?
Schubert: “An die Musik,” D. 547
Dame Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano Murray Perahia, piano
A reward for my YouTube wanderings this week was finding this performance of a work that has always spoken directly to me. Dame Janet Baker and a very young Murray Perahia seem to tap directly into the spirit and power of this glorious love letter to music. (The text, after all, is basically saying, “Thank you for saving my life.”). When you listen to “An die Musik,” aproduct of the composer’s youth, it’s hard not to think ahead to the 31-year-old Schubert, suffering through his final days as syphilis cruelly consumed his body. (Actually, one has to wonder whether it was the ghastly mercury treatments or the disease itself that ended this great artist’s life.)
Baker always limited her own professional appearances, preferring to remain near home and largely dedicating her career to song recitals and the occasional opera role, and she rarely appeared in the United States. She once compared her approach to music to creating a window into the composer’s world and to making sure to keep the glass as clean as possible. Such pure emotional directness is a rare quality—in an artist; indeed, in any person—and it shines brightly in this memorable performance.
To Music (translation Richard Wigmore)
Beloved art, in how many a bleak hour,
when I am enmeshed in life’s tumultuous round,
have you kindled my heart to the warmth of love,
and borne me away to a better world!
Often a sigh, escaping from your harp,
a sweet, celestial chord
has revealed to me a heaven of happier times.
Beloved art, for this I thank you!
Schubert: Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat major, D. 960
Mitsuko Uchida, piano
If you’ve kept up with these Now, More Than Ever columns, my love and respect for Dame Mitsuko Uchida will come as no surprise. As I said earlier, she has always been reticent about allowing her performances to be filmed, so this document of a superb performance (from 1997 in Tokyo) is something to be treasured.
Words fail when approaching Schubert’s final—and, I would argue, his greatest—piano sonata. Expansive. Poetic. Deeply humane. It is a profound work of art that one can revisit over a lifetime and still not plumb its depths. Each time you return, this miraculous music will reveal not that it has changed, but that you have.
I’ve always felt that the greatest compliment one can pay a performer or composer is to acknowledge that, through watching/listening, you have truly lost track of time, and that they have altered your perception of the world around you. Again—and I can’t stress this strongly enough—Schubert is always less about narratives than landscapes. Dare to lose yourself in them!