Through long, long years, I sang my songs.
But when I wished to sing of love, it turned to sorrow.
And when I wanted to sing of sorrow, it turned into love.
– Franz Schubert
The special, poignant connection that many musicians experience when playing Schubert arises not only from the sublime beauty of the compositions, but also from sympathy with a creative life spent in constant struggle. During Schubert’s all-too-short time on earth, worldly success remained elusive, and securing a respected teaching post or a grand operatic commission could have made all the difference. Multiple rejections left the artist depressed, isolated and helplessly dependent on the kindness of his large circle of friends. In a letter written to his friend the painter Leopold Kupelwieser in 1824, Schubert describes himself “a man whose most brilliant hopes have come to nothing.”
And yet the young composer was adored within his intimate circle friends and admired by Viennese society. Schubert was able to witness first hand the love and joy inspired by his compositions. Though they never met, Beethoven reportedly played Schubert’s sonatas at home and correctly prophesied that the younger man would make a great sensation in the world.
Schubert composed Sonata in A Major (D959) in 1828, the last year of his life. At that point violently sick from syphilis, and from the mercury being used to treat the disease, the artist nevertheless maintained a brilliant level of composition. Though now considered standards of the classical performance repertoire, the late sonatas remained largely ignored even after publication—a feat accomplished ten years after the composer’s death through the dogged efforts of his fervent admirer, Robert Schumann.
While the late-period Schubert sonatas are full of harmonic innovation, they do not have the same shocking, near violent quality of the late Beethoven sonatas. This is perhaps because the textures are kept so clear. The composer left the chords mostly in cleanly inverted triads and there is little competition among individual voices of the two hands. As one might expect with such a successful lied composer, all voicing appears to be written with the purpose of supporting the melodic theme of the moment. The effect is such that the multiple shifts in tonality give a sense of graceful balance, in much the same way asymmetrical pieces join together in a perfectly balanced mobile.
The piece begins with a rolling fanfare in the tonic key, which resolves into a hymn-like “Amen” cadence. This is followed almost immediately by a little playful burst of tarantella-like triplets in E minor. The movement continues in constant alteration between the serene, hymn-like theme and abrupt explosions of wildness. A third musette-like theme appears as well, adding grace and playfulness to the proceedings. Harmonically speaking, the movement roots itself in the tonic and dominant keys, which lends an overall sense of security. The composition actually proceeds through quite a wide variety of tonal areas, including a long passage towards the end, moving in a tonal holding pattern between C and B. We never doubt that we will return to the tonic at some point, and we frequently do, as well as to the dominant and the secondary dominant (this last an innovation for Schubert). The end of the movement gives us a long, rolling re-establishment of the tonic key that feels more dream-like than solid, perhaps due to the sudden appearance of an Italian sixth chord on B flat.
The movement starts in the relative minor key of F sharp, with a lulling, gypsy violin-like melody line, so lovely one wishes it never to stop. This has the curious effect of creating a sense of arrival, as if we have now reached the phrase that the listener will likely remember and leave humming. As a result, the relative minor now feels more like home than the A major. And yet the tune is disturbed by a fantasia-like sequence shortly after it is re-introduced in C sharp minor (significantly, this is regarded by Charles Fisk as Schubert’s “Wanderer” key). The theme is later punctuated by violent outbursts of chords, with the right hand striking the upper octaves. At the close, the melody dissipates quietly into a series of rolling chords on F sharp.
Without preparation we move into a leaping Scherzo in A major, which can be viewed as both playful and perhaps a little manic. The Scherzo section makes frequent use of empty bars, allowing for a dizzying, musical chairs effect. The appearance of the trio section, in the comforting subdominant key of D, calms the mood with a simple melody and additional use of Schubert’s clean textures. This, in turn, allows the return to the Scherzo to feel light-hearted and less off-kilter.
A Major at last feels like an arrival point in the stately Rondo, with the comfort of more hymn-like themes presented in a clear ABA format. The brief development sections seem to be more tonal holding centers, more chances to enjoy a bit of danger before returning to the singable parts. Once again, Schubert uses empty bars in the movement, but the effect is one of easing listeners into the shock of parting company from the tunes. The end is a modestly triumphant return to the fanfare of the beginning, with a refreshing lack of ego or fuss.
…They regard the productions of the leaders and pupils of the so-called New German School…which in part enforce new and unheard-of theories,
as contrary to the innermost spirit of music, strongly to be deplored and condemned.
– Johannes Brahms
The above passage, from a Manifesto written in 1860, amounted to a declaration of aesthetic opposition in what is now commonly referred to as The War of the Romantics. On opposing sides were the Absolutists, firm in their belief that music was meant to be constructed in its own unique, forms, guided purely by sonic considerations, and the New German School, led by Liszt and Wagner, who believed in a new method of composing in which form would be dictated by extra musical concerns, such as the depictions of specific images, stories or dramatic characters.
When the Manifesto was prematurely leaked with only four signatures attached, Brahms, as an Absolutist, found himself the subject of wide spread public mockery. Previously he suffered a hissing public reception to the premiere of his Piano Concerto in 1859, which was followed by a barrage of attacks in the press. It would take years for Brahms to again be fully taken seriously as a composer of musical importance. Clara Schumann’s well-received performances of Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op. 24, did somewhat help to repair the twenty-eight-year-old composer’s reputation. Even Wagner, the ultimate New German composer, admired the work: “One sees what still may be done in the old forms when someone comes along who knows how to use them.”
Written in September 1861, the Variations were dedicated to Clara and presented to her on her forty-second birthday. Masterpieces of the form, the surprisingly modern set of variations allow the royal pomp of Handel’s theme to shine through Brahms’s distinctly innovative musical vocabulary.
The theme is taken from an air in the third movement of Handel’s Harpsichord Suite No. 1 in B-flat Major, of which Brahms owned an original edition. The twenty-five variations utilize typical Baroque forms, such as a musette, a siciliana, and a fugue, but are steeped in the horn calls and hunting rhythms that are typically Brahms. Within the variations, there are forays into woozy, drunken chromaticism in dreamy triplets set against two, moments of sharp syncopation with a quick trading of hands up and down the keyboard, and many moments of galloping octaves. The twenty-five variations represent tiny worlds in and of themselves, each exploring a uniquely Romantic compositional detail. They are capped by an intense fugue in which the subject is passed through a storm of changing textures and moods, merging all previous patterns and ideas.
Theme, Aria. A simple, elegantly ornamented theme in B flat, phrased in two repeating four-bar phrases of 4/4, a structure that is mostly maintained throughout the variations.
Variation 1 The B flat major theme takes immediately takes off at a trot with a clever use of opposite rhythms in each hand. The ornaments are replaced with little moments of wild scalar activity.
Variation 2 Dreamy triplets in the right hand are set against a gentle two in the left. Tiny moments of chromaticism suggest the minor key without fully landing there.
Variation 3 Broken chords traded between hands give a gently syncopated feel.
Variation 4 Syncopations deep into the bass clef punctuate a full gallop in octaves.
Variation 5 A complete change to the parallel minor with a lilting melodic treatment of the theme, made slightly restless by a slightly shifting tonality. There is subtle but constant use of sixteenth notes in the bass clef.
Variation 6 Still in minor and still restless, but the contrapuntal octaves add a sense of sweep and urgency.
Variation 7 Back to a galloping, hunting rhythm in B flat major, with alternating third and fourth intervals in the right hand suggesting horns.
Variation 8 The same eighth-plus-two-sixteenths pattern is put into the bass clef and steadily beat out on one note, allowing for a drum-like texture.
Variation 9 Insistent, staccato octave punctuations give way to woozy triplets in this highly chromatic variation.
Variation 10 Triplets are now used in a staccato fashion to once again give a feeling of the hunt, the pattern slightly delayed by the use of tiny scalar ornaments.
Variation 11 A sweet, contrapuntal musette, lent a modern treatment by a small smattering of accidentals giving way to a slight tonal uncertainty.
Variation 12 The delicate Baroque texture is maintained, but this time with Romantic horn calls sounding in the bass clef.
Variation 13 The theme is given the same woozy, treatment as in Variation 9, now in minor and with somber, funeral chords rolling deeply in the bass clef. There are no repeated phrases within the structure, only continual variation and the ornaments are in irregular groups of five.
Variation 14 Another wild gallop, here in parallel sixths and fourths taking the hands up and down the keyboard in continual sixteenth note patterns. The traditional trill is used as ornament, but at a thrilling speed.
Variation 15 The gallop gives way to pomp and circumstance, with the same staccato pronouncements as in Variation 9 and stately ornaments written fully into the texture.
Variation 16 A playful, scherzo-like variation with chiming punctuations going high up into the right hand.
Variation 17 Clock-like syncopations cascade down from the right hand, while gentle horn calls sound from the left.
Variation 18 A fantasia cascade of eighth notes fall from the upper octaves, played against gently syncopated horn calls to give a sense of expanding the time.
Variation 19 A traditional Baroque siciliana in 12/8 represent a mild return to the feel of the hunt.
Variation 20 Thickly chromatic triads begin in middle voice and rise only slightly out of it. Pedal tones in the bass accent the right-hand chords, creating a church organ texture.
Variation 21 For the first time we have a variation in the relative minor, with triplets in the right hand moving delicately against a strumming texture of sixteenths in the left.
Variation 22 A return to the musette, his time with a lovely music-box feel, played all in treble clef.
Variation 23 Another variation in 12/8, though here with only a nod to the siciliana. Sharp syncopations and an entirely bass clef texture add a new sense of the chase.
Variation 24 Continues along the same lines in 12/8 but with wild chromatic scales surging up in a fantasia style.
Variation 25 A flurry of syncopations with ringing octave textures drive up the keyboard in anticipation of the ending fugue.
Fugue: All previous variation ideas seem to converge into this pianistic showcase. While it remains a traditional fugue with a melodic subject that is continually passed throughout each voicing, the various textures are equally subjects to be passed around. The effect is ecstatic and dizzying, yet is brought to an appropriately Handelian conclusion with a stately, simple return to a B flat chord.
Ode to Music
Having written a wind quintet for the Dorians, upon which they lavished playing of great precision and elegance, I was warmly disposed towards them. So it was no surprise when, in a burst of friendship I blurted out, "Is there a piece of music you all wished -- no dreamed -- had been written for wind quintet? I will transcribe for your Quintet anything you choose".
After much conversation the players settled upon Shubert's song An die Musik - a little miracle in two verses which is often the last song sung on the last recital of a distinguished lieder singer's concluding career.
My dear friend and piano-champion, Marc Peloquin, heard this arrangement and posited: "David, I think it would also sound well on the piano". He began then to transcribe my transcription which started me thinking: Could this become the basis of a grand piano fantasy much as, in 1978, I transmuted my chaste Acrostic Song into a gleaming, grandiose Virtuoso Alice? Yes, I decided, it could work and set to the task quickly and with passion.
To Music is the result -- 9 minutes that Franz Schubert might have written had he been enamored of Richard Wagner and at the same time a piano student of Franz Liszt!
– David Del Tredici
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