My late father-in-law, along with his siblings, owned a scrap yard. But in the 1970s, to enhance its respectability, they rechristened their business as a "conservator of natural resources." Recycling is good, but it's hardly a novel idea.
Nowadays, with plagiarism easy to spot, no self-respecting musician would intentionally lift an old tune for an ostensibly new, original piece (other than through sampling or other conscious tributes to respected forebears). But in earlier times when publication was rarer and unhurried, and copyright was far less lucrative, there were few such qualms. Composers often wrote variations on others' themes and were sorely tempted to get maximum use out of killer themes of their own. Franz Schubert recycled three of his most popular songs to create three of his most beloved instrumental pieces.
By the summer of 1819, although not a single one of his hundreds of compositions had yet been published or performed in concert, manuscript copies of his wonderful songs were being sung informally. The famous opera baritone Johann Vogl, then 50, became an early admirer and took Schubert, then 22, on his first real vacation to Vogl's birthplace of Steyr, an Alpine arts colony. (A rather nasty caricature sketch by their "friend" Schober shows the timid, potbellied, bespectacled composer trailing behind the tall pompous singer.) Schubert was enthralled. In a letter to his brother, he remarked not only of the natural wonders ("more beautiful than anyone could imagine") but the eight girls in the house where he stayed ("nearly all of them pretty"). He soon found himself the center of attention at evening musicales sponsored by Sylvester Paumgartner, an amateur cellist, arts patron and wealthy local mine owner, who particularly liked one of Schubert's songs, "Die Forelle" ("The Trout"). Whether commissioned or intended as a "thank you" gift, Schubert used the song as the basis of a quintet which he wrote upon his return to Vienna and sent to Paumgartner, who struggled to perform it, as Schubert apparently had over-estimated his skill, and then shelved the score, which was to be published only after Schubert's death.
The vast majority of chamber music is written for established combinations – sonatas for an instrument plus piano; trios for violin, cello and piano; and quartets for two violins, viola and a cello or piano. An unconventional array of instruments suggests unusual circumstances or a customized purpose. (Perhaps the most famous modern example is the Quartor pour le fin de temps ("Quartet for the End of Time") for violin, cello, clarinet and piano, which Messian wrote as a prisoner of war for himself and three other inmates.) Here, Schubert used the unusual combination of violin, viola, cello, bass and piano. (Interestingly, the only other quintet known to have used this grouping was written by Hummel two decades before; scholars still speculate whether the works arose independently or if Schubert might have seen the score in Paumgartner's library.) Since Paumgartner was an amateur cellist, Paul Meyer has suggested that Schubert added a bass to relieve his host from the cello's normal duty of anchoring the bass line in order to share in the melodies with which the work abounds.
The "Trout" song is based on a rather cute but trite 1783 poem by Christian Daniel Schubart (no relation to the composer) – a fish darts joyously about in a clear stream to elude a fisherman, who finally, to the poet's ire, muddies the brook and catches the trout. (A final stanza, wisely omitted by Schubert, concluded with a strained and rather blatantly Freudian warning that girls flee the tempter with a rod, lest they bleed.) The repeated melody, typical for Schubert, is effortless, thoroughly enchanting -and instantly memorable, and further enlivened by a leaping, joyous figure in the piano accompaniment the evokes the subject fish. The fourth of the five movements is a set of variations on the "Trout" melody, brightened by a dotted rhythm and a shift from D-flat to D major. As Myers notes, Mozart or Beethoven would have derived their structure from bold thematic and harmonic transformations, but for Schubert the melody is paramount, and so his variations consist of passing the melody among instruments, as if to delight in examining it from all angles. To tease his patron, he withholds until the very end the wonderful piano figure from the original song.
While the variations movement is the centerpiece, the entire quintet is delightful. Massimo Mila calls it a "holiday poem" that reflects Schubert's ecstatic delight with the open country after being pent up in the city his entire life; "in it is enshrined the memory of a delightful summer, of carefree leisure days; the music is bathed in sunshine and the spirit of youth, ... friendship and humanity woven into the very texture of the music." Indeed, the rest of the quintet (an unusual five, rather than four, movements) is breezy and beguiling, brimming with effortless melody and warm, gentle modulations, the instrumentation lending a rich, satisfying and kaleidoscopic blend of evolving sonority.
Only five years later, illness and poverty had driven Schubert to the low point of his brief life and the opposite end of his emotional spectrum. He wrote to a friend that he was "the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world ... whose most brilliant hopes have come to nothing." In Elizabeth Norman McKay's analysis, Schubert was cyclothymic, a manic depressive whose seasonal mood swings were often assuaged by exigencies of commissions and performances. Most composers either sublimated their personal moods into a rarified idealism or refined their work over a sufficiently long time to temper their soaring inspirational peaks and plunging fits of despair. Schubert, though, often wrote songs in a matter of hours and rarely spent more than a few weeks on even a full opera; thus, he composed so rapidly that each of his works is a valid snapshot of his fleeting psyche. If the Trout was a pure outburst of carefree youth, in his Quartet # 14 in d minor he confronted the despair that would drive him increasingly toward heavy drinking, nicotine addiction, depravity and abusive temper that increasingly took their toll.
In late 1822, Schubert had contracted syphilis and spent most of the next year confined and weakened by debilitating treatments. Without the necessary personal attention, his career stalled and income ceased. Even when he emerged from the first two phases of his illness, he faced the constant terror of not knowing how long the incurable disease would remain latent before resuming its final and fatal course.
For his Quartet # 14, Schubert reached back to a remarkably concise and chilling song he had written in his teens to an eight-line poem, Der Tod und das Mńdchen ("Death and the Maiden") by Matthius Claudius, in which a girl begs to be let alone by death, who soothes her with a promise of friendship and gentle sleep. Except for the girl's brief frightened outburst, the melody and accompaniment are an unremitting somber rhythm of a half and two quarter notes that only barely rise above a throbbing monotone, suggesting the grimness and inevitability of a doom that the na´ve girl barely suspects. The quartet's second movement is a set of variations on the song that follows and expands upon its narrative. After stating the austere theme, violin filigrees invoke the maiden, then the texture thickens, darkens and becomes more urgent as death nears before emerging into the promised peacefulness. For the final variation, the minor dirge returns, builds to a strong climax of triumph and then subsides into a whisper as death moves on to patiently lie in wait to lure his next innocent victim.
The remainder of the quartet provides a fine prologue and aftermath for this central drama, establishing and sustaining the mood through persistent minor tonality, tense rhythms, bold harmonic progressions and stormy emotion. The unforgettable opening is not only among the most riveting in the entire quartet literature, but telescopes the story with astounding efficiency – an assertive unison figure of a dotted half note, descending triplet eighths, a quarter note and a 3-beat rest is repeated, becomes perplexed and then mellows into feminine grace before rebounding with an insinuating fury that traps the tenderness within its grasp. The scherzo is a grotesque dance of death, sharp and offbeat, with a gruff sort of allure. The finale is all coiled tension and bundled energy, culminating in a vertiginous acceleration to a breathless conclusion – we all know that the destiny of humanity ultimately is to lose the battle against mortality, but Schubert urges us (and himself, of course) to resist.
A fascinating psychological companion piece is the Quartet # 13 in a minor, written the same month after a six-year chamber music hiatus while Schubert concentrated on song and opera. Here, despite occasional moderate outbursts, the mood is one of grace and submission; even the scherzo is restrained and tentative. The theme of the andante is a bland and gentle tune from an Entr'acte from Schubert's incidental music for Rosamunde that occurs at the decisive point in the play where a princess resolves to return to her bucolic childhood home. Indeed, the overall lightness of the music harks back to the pleasant diversions of Schubert's own early student pieces. The "Rosamunde" Quartet suggests that Schubert, too, while pining for his happier past, might accept his fate and hide from the future, but it's the anger and drive of the "Maiden" Quartet that decisively opens the door to Schubert's mature style.
A third element in Schubert's development that points toward his final work was an epic outlook. One of its earliest manifestations was his 1822 "Wanderer" Fantasy for piano. Here, too, it seems fair to infer his psyche both from his choice of the song and the way he developed it into a new work. Believed to have been written just as he realized he was stricken with syphilis, the composer, forced to confront mortality at such a tender age, was understandably shaken but deepened his outlook into visionary realms (as he did in his symphonic writing with the "Unfinished" Symphony, which he began – and abandoned – at the same time).
For inspiration, Schubert turned once again to an early song – his 1816 "Der Wanderer" ("The Wanderer"). The poem by von Lubeck is set over ominous triplets and presents a joyless stranger searching for happiness that eludes him everywhere he turns. Finally, a ghostly whisper provides an ominous answer that foretells eternal gloom – happiness is wherever he is not!
Despite being titled a fantasy and played through continuously, the work suggests a sonata, with sections corresponding to the traditional four movements. As with the Trout and Maiden, the song's melody feeds the slow movement, but here Schubert uses the song's accompaniment as well to serve as a unifying motif – the disarmingly simple rhythm of a quarter and two eighth notes (modified to a dotted quarter, eighth and quarter for the scherzo) appears throughout the 22-minute work, from the energized nobility of the opening to the resolute power of the concluding fugue, as if to suggest that the composer was searching throughout the world of musical possibilities for the comfort and contentment of an elusive home.
Critics have admired the work for its dense textures that both respect the essential percussive nature of the piano while stretching it with tremelos and repeated notes to suggest the density of an orchestra. It's also one of the few overtly virtuostic works Schubert wrote; reportedly, he became frustrated trying to play his own concluding fugue. Nearly alone among Schubert's work, its visionary innovation was a clear influence upon Liszt (who uncharacteristically simplified the original writing when he arranged it for piano and orchestra) and who seized upon a similar structure and treatment of the piano for his own influential Sonata in b.
Among the abundant recordings of the Wanderer Fantasy, Brendel (Vox or Phillips) tends to clarify the structure, Rubinstein (RCA) is rather formal, Curzon (Decca) tender, Richter (EMI) full-blooded and Perahia (Sony) rich and probing. My personal favorites are the invigorating and intensely idiomatic Jeno Jando (Naxos) and the superb inspired blend of drama and poetry of Edwin Fischer (Pearl and other labels).
Their convenient length and current popularity has made the Trout and the Maiden a natural CD pairing. Yet, it's rare that a single group can do full justice to pieces of such radically different temperament. The most successful is the Amadeus Quartet (on a DG CD) whose brilliantly lit "Trout" with pianist Emil Gilels courses with life, while its "Maiden" is more astringent in tone, its slight methodical dryness mostly relieved by tight rhythm and extremely cohesive ensemble. The American Fine Arts Quartet (Boston Skyline) is somewhat prosaic in its "Trout" but hard-hitting and direct in the quartet with solid, uninflected musicianship.
Several more CDs pair separate groups to achieve interpretive variety. Dutton couples two seminal historical recordings. Artur Schnabel and the Pro Arte Quartet present a fleet, smooth and gracious 1935 reading of the Trout that manages to be invigorating yet thoroughly comfortable (although the sound slights the all-important bass), while the Busch Quartet provide an earnest, subtly colored Maiden in the "old" style in which each player takes free expressive flight without damaging the overall aura of self-assurance and concord.
Bargain hunters have three choice picks. Sony teams a Budapest Quartet/Horszowski Trout that's warm and sweet (albeit somewhat gingerly and reticent, especially in the finale) with the Julliard Quartet in a subtly scary Maiden of tautly controlled emotions and intense precision. (An earlier Julliard RCA recording was brilliantly dramatic, in which passions constantly bubbled beneath the surface of an essentially classical reserve.)
Given the circumstances of its composition, the Trout doesn't necessarily require an established ensemble; indeed, often the most exciting readings reflect the joy and mutual discovery of a fresh association. Peter Serkin, Alexander Schneider, Michael Tree, David Soyer and Julius Levine (all Marlboro cohorts) project a magnetic aura of youthful invention. Vanguard teams their 1965 Trout with a magnificently lively Maiden by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, consisting of Soyer, Richard Dickler, Sidney Harth and Teresa Testa Harth.
While the Melos Quartet's 1975 Maiden is rather mellow and light-weight, it's paired on DG Universal with a superlative Trout by James Levine (the conductor sitting in on the ivories), Gerhart Hetzel and Alois Posch (of the Vienna Philharmonic) and Wolfram Christ and Georg Faust (of the Berlin Philharmonic), with vividly detailed inflection and instantly responsive to the shifting moods.
Of the many separate Maiden accounts, the Cleveland Quartet (1974, RCA) seethes and surges with passionate commitment, but perhaps the most striking is the 1993 Teldec Brodsky Quartet, as much for the cumulative impact of its seething drama, dark portentious tone and brooding funereal air as for its bold pairing with George Crumb's Black Angels, a truly unforgettable modern masterpiece suffused with the moral agony of Vietnam that quotes and then reflects upon the second movement of the Schubert with terrifying distortion and radical technique. Would Schubert be shocked or flattered at Crumb's bold recyling of his own recycled work?
Copyright 2005 by Peter Gutmann
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copyright © 1998-2005 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.