Saturday, September 1, 4:00 P.M.
Sunday, September 2 at 4:00 P.M.
Works of John Harbison, Franz Joseph Haydn, W. A. Mozart, and Robert Schumann
ProgramSonata in G major, K.301/293a (1778) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Keyboard Sonata in E major, H. XVI:22 (1773) Franz Joseph Haydn In Early Evening (2017-2018) (world premiere) John Harbison Trio in B-flat for Violin, Cello and Piano, H. XV:20 (1794) Haydn Dichterliebe, Op. 48 (1840) Robert Schumann Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 63 (1847) Schumann
For the last two seasons our Festival has given over much of its final weekend to two very large song cycles by Franz Schubert. His cycles are really his own invention. The derivation often cited from Beethoven’s An die Ferne Geliebte is a little shaky ‐ yes, that’s a series of connected songs, meant to be performed as a unit, with a loose narrative frame. But the Beethoven piece is, especially by the composer’s own standards, unambitious and even undistinguished. It is a large leap to Schubert’s harrowing visions of an innocent young man self-condemned to die of love unrequited, his own ultimate dramatization of his fate as a lonely outsider.
In the years following Schubert’s death in 1828, a great campaigner for the spread of his reputation was the journalist-composer Robert Schumann, one of the first to completely grasp Schubert’s unique sense of scale and pacing, one of the few who really understood how radical his predecessor’s vision had been. Schumann never attempted to put forth a song cycle of the scope and daring of the big three Schubert pieces, he did something very different, he transformed the concept of the voice and piano song.
Schubert’s songs strive for an almost equal partnership between singer and pianist. The singer sings the song, the pianist accompanies in the most imaginative sense, but very seldom makes a self-sufficient presentation of the primary material and almost never proposes an independent solo-comment on the song in progress or the song just heard. Brief preludes in Schubert songs are miraculous atmospheric clues, but they are mostly preludial, statements anticipating the accompaniment patterns. And even at the end of his song-writing career, some of the finest Schubert songs consist of vocal melody soaring over a relatively static grid, its very restraint amplifying the expressivity of the line.
Most of the modesty of the accompaniment mode is gone in Schumann. Unlike Schubert’s lineage in the simple folksong or the operatic orchestra, Schumann from the beginning writes piano parts which, if the singer does not show up for rehearsal, are essentially self-sufficient piano pieces. In doing so he reveals himself to be part of a non-Viennese world, in fact a much more northern world, that of the Leipzig descant vocal line composers. Composers who, all the way back to Schütz and Schein, find no text unsettable if the issues fire their mind. Composers who often write instrumental parts that sound like everyone is already there, then add a freely inflected vocal part against it.
And part of the Leipzig vocal music urge is the extended instrumental core, exposition or comment, which means that in a Schumann song, as in a Bach cantata or Wagner opera, the instrument must have space to say its own piece.
There is another interesting reason that Schumann songs are so fundamentally different from Schubert’s, having to do with their pianistic ambitions. Schumann aspired to be a pianist, eventually injuring himself with his zeal to strengthen his hands. We can feel in all of his music with piano an urge to participate, to be engaged, even to dominate.
Schubert, like Schumann, wrote some of the most challenging solo piano and piano chamber music we have. Both of them write noticeably as non-active pianists, awkwardness and stretches and unusual patterns abound. But Schubert’s songs, expecting his own participation as pianist, are less stubborn, and even in his chamber music he is more willing to let the pianist cooperate, color, and lay out. (The numerous facilitations scrawled in his own song copies make encouraging reading for other challenged composer-pianists).
Finally we must ponder the most important Schumann characteristic, the closing epilogues, crown jewels of the Kerner Lieder, the Eichedorff Lieder, and most of all Dichterliebe. Walking away from a performance of the latter cycle, we are often still in the epilogues, wondering what they are about, deciding what they mean, resisting deciding. The have a quality peculiar to Schumann, that one-to-one, that music which is meant from him to one hearer. We know it is probably for Clara, but in that moment it is certainly yours.
When Schumann, two thirds through the first movement of his “Spring” symphony suddenly interrupts the piece for a passionate one to one message, new material out of the blue, he states that even in the most public musical form this can happen.
And in the slow movement of his Trio in D minor, he gives us an entire movement in that mode, a piece so strange, so personal, so intimate we cannot really watch, it is no wonder he directs the itinerant painter painting what will be his last portrait to inscribe the beginning of that movement at the bottom of the painting.