This Afternoon's Featured Composer
FRANZ PETER SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Few composers created such divinely inspired melodies as Franz Schubert. His music seems to flow from a fountain of endless melody. Schubert was born in Vienna (then, as now, the music capital of the Austro-German artistic tradition) in 1797. His father was a schoolmaster. At a young age his extraordinary genius became manifest. He studied violin, piano, organ, and harmony. While a boy chorister at the Imperial Court, he studied composition with Antonio Salieri from 1808 to 1813. (Salieri was the most prominent and respected musician of his time. Peter Schaffer's play "Amadeus" presented an inaccurate image of Salieri. His many students - in addition to Mozart and Schubert - included Beethoven, Cherubini, and Carl Czerny. Beethoven's letters to Salieri show a degree of respect and admiration that were virtually absent from that composer's dealings with his contemporaries. Salieri's operas are being revived and these scores show him to be an important and innovative composer.)
Family pressure forced the young Schubert to teach in his father's school but he continued to compose prolifically. By 1815 his output included numerous songs, three symphonies, string quartets, three settings of the Latin mass, and several operas. Schubert formed an artistic bond with Josef von Spaun, the poet Johan Mayrhofer, and the law student Franz von Schober (as well as the baritone J.M. Vogel). Their intimate musical evenings became known as "Schubertiads" - concerts of new works presented to audiences of Vienna's new intellectual elite. Surrounded by this protective group of creative friends Schubert left his teaching position in 1818. New works revealed increasing harmonic complexity. Schubert had broken with the compositional models of Haydn and Mozart. (From this period come his 5th and 6th Symphonies - works of new harmonic subtlety and melodic richness.) After a brief period as music master to the Esterhazy family (shades of Haydn), Schubert turned to writing chamber music. The divinely inspired "Trout" Quintet (a movement of which forms a series of variations on Schubert's song "The Trout") revealed an artistically newly mature Schubert. The score remains a land mark of the chamber music repertoire!
In 1821 Schubert's circle issued 20 of his lieder by private subscription (predating 20th century marketing techniques). Although he never wrote a successful opera (due mostly to poor librettos), "Alfonso und Estrella" (written in 1820-21 in collaboration with Schober) was his favorite stage work. Musically the score is prime Schubert! In 1822 the composer apparently contracted the syphilis that would lead to his premature death. Despite the darkness that began to engulf him, Schubert composed with even greater fervor. In the early 1820's he composed some of his greatest works - the florid "Wanderer" Fantasy, the 8th ("Unfinished") Symphony, the eloquent song cycle "Die Schone Mullerin," and the lyrical opera "Fierabras." (In the 1990's a Vienna revival of this neglected score - under the baton of Claudio Abbado - was a great success. Despite their lack of effective dramaturgy, Schubert's operas are worthy of reinvestigation.) In 1824 came the dramatic "Death and the Maiden" Quartet and the large scale Octet (for winds and strings). Around this time he also wrote the initial draft of the "Great C Major" Symphony (No.9) - the "Symphony of Heavenly Length." (How characteristic of Felix Mendelssohn - as Principal Conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra - to bring this magnificent score to public light. Mendelssohn also revived the music of Johann Sebastian Bach - after a century of neglect - and vigorously promoted the path breaking orchestral works of Robert Schumann. Mendelssohn's role as a major conductor and promoter of the works of major creative geniuses has not been sufficiently appreciated by music historians.) In his final years (1827-28) Schubert created the remarkable, boldly original late piano sonatas, the deeply personal "String Quartet in G Major," and the moving song cycle "Winterreise." When Schubert died in Vienna in 1828 at age 31, he remained unknown and appreciated only by a small group of artistic intelligencia. (What Schubert might have produced - had he lived longer - is a tantalizing question. There were sketches for a Tenth Symphony. The late Italian composer Luciano Berio partially completed this musical torso of a score. Last season Michael Tilson Thomas's performance (with the New World Symphony) of the Schubert-Berio "Markings" revealed a work of profound harmonic complexity. Schubert was clearly experimenting with angular and fragmented thematic motifs. Clearly the 9th Symphony had marked a turning point for Schubert. He apparently was working on grander, larger scale musical structures. His early death was clearly one of music history's great tragedies.)
The generous creative output of Schubert's brief lifetime is a plethora of riches. The composer embraced the full panoply of cultural mediums with the inspired footprints of genius. His Masses exude a harmonic boldness and grandeur more characteristic of Beethoven. These great choral works deserve more frequent performances. The autumnal serenity of the final piano sonatas seems to come from another worldly aura. (The monumental "Piano Sonata in B-flat Major," which Philippe Entremont will perform, is one of the most inspired works in the literature - a treasure trove of melodic and harmonic wonders!) The slow movement of the great "String Quintet in C" is one of the most moving, passionately felt compositions in the history of chamber music. (This score ranks with Beethoven's late quartets for sheer mastery and striking originality.) Even with only two completed movements the melodic richness and harmonic tension of the "Unfinished" Symphony are unforgettable! For all its glittering virtuosic fireworks, the "Wanderer Fantasy" is a masterpiece of cyclical form. (This seminal experiment would remain unchallenged for most of the 19th century. Not until Cesar Franck's "Symphony in D Minor" would cyclical musical structures be reasserted with such creative vigor and inspiration.) The sheer lyricism and abundant melodic variety of the vocal works (particularly "Die Schone Mullerin" and "Winterreise") remain unique.
For abundant melodic inspiration and structural rigor, Franz Schubert was unsurpassed! In a relatively short time he created a series of works that redefined 19th century Romanticism. For sheer beauty of thematic inspiration and deeply personal musical utterance, Franz Schubert was a one of a kind genius!
Program Notes by Lawrence Budmen