Monday 3 February 2014

Schubert and Schumann

Our At Lunch 2 concerts featuring Roderick Williams and Britten Sinfonia Voices focus on the part songs of Schubert and Schumann. SinfoniaStudent, Anna Kaye explores both composers in this fascinating article;

Schubert and Schumann are composers that I first encountered quite late in my musical education. I was sixteen before I played the cello line of the Unfinished Symphony, and I still have only listened to much of Schumann’s lieder where I have sung many of the other major composers of the mid-Romantic period. As I reflected on this, I was initially frustrated by the fact that such wonderful music was absent from my repertoire for so long. But it is in reflection that I understand that this was perhaps a good thing.

Schubert was the epitome of the tortured artist. It is estimated that in his lifetime that only 10% of his works were actually performed. Despite this, Schubert lent respectability to song as a form that would not have been seen before. He changed the public’s perception of song as a genre, and this change was no less momentous for being posthumous. Lieder was the field of the amateur composer, of the homespun musician, and of the inexpert singer. Part songs were equally trivial, being composed to suit the requests of whichever choir performed them. Schubert took these genres and transformed them into something that required skill, and more importantly, taste, on the part of the performers. One need only listen to a substandard performance of Du Bist die Ruh to see that it highlights, rather than masks, the weaknesses of the singer - and, to a lesser extent, the accompanist. The part songs are no less forgiving for the singers. The favour of high tenor lines seems to have been founded in Schubert’s early life working with the boys’ choir of the Imperial Chapel, and the combinations of soloist and chorus, accompanied and unaccompanied, are certainly reminiscent of the demands and abilities of a group which fluctuated between boys’ and men’s voices.

Schubert tended to follow an instinct that allowed music to flow from his pen, and wrote very little literature for such a prolific composer of music. Robert Schumann was, first and foremost, a writer. His On Music and Musicians continues to provide some of the definitive reviews of music that we musicians value today. There is a particularly well-thumbed edition from my college library that has made the near-permanent move to my room as I continue to review it, much to the chagrin of the four other music students at my college. But it is not necessarily musical interest that drives me to return to Schumann again and again. It is the simple joy of reading such eloquent and expressive writing. Certainly, one cannot deny that Schumann is a skilled composer. Mondnacht, which Roderick will be singing in At Lunch 2, is a fantastic piece of music and one of the best examples of Schumann’s strophic song. But, in my opinion, it is the poetry that flowed from Schumann that is what elevates him above Schubert in the composition of song. In the words of the composer himself:

“People who are unfamiliar with the most significant manifestations of recent literature are considered uncultured. The same should apply to music.”

Schumann believed that the piano had a voice independent and equal to the singer. He was not entirely trusting of the singer and their ability, but his faith in the abilities of the piano is all too clear, not only in his song but in his solo piano compositions such as Traumerei, one of the greatest and most popular piano pieces ever written, so much so that it features heavily in one of my favourite novels - Jilly Cooper’s Appasionata. Make of that what you will.

Schumann and Schubert were complex people and both their lives ended in tragedy - Schumann’s in an asylum, and Schubert’s taken by syphilis. However, their vocal music transcends these unhappy circumstances to lift up the listener to a calmer, higher place. Schubert, particularly, was adamant that the purpose of music was to raise the listener “closer to God”. It is indeed complex music but it is also music that is returned to again and again - much like my borrowed copy of On Music and Musicians.

The reason I am glad that I didn’t attempt to perform the work of these composers until later in my life, and the reason I am glad I have yet to perform the majority of them, is because the performance of their works requires great tenacity in one’s technique and a superior judgment that leads the performer away from self-indulgence. I possessed neither of these when I was younger, and it will be a while yet before I will feel secure in performing a song cycle like Winterreise. It is a excellent thing then, that those attending At Lunch 2, will have the pleasure of hearing performers like Roderick Williams and Britten Sinfonia Voices, whose judgment and taste I trust implicitly.

Anna Kaye
Britten Sinfonia, SinfoniaStudent

At Lunch 2 performances take place on Wednesday 5 February 2014 at London's Wigmore Hall, Sunday 9 February 2014 at Saffron Walden's Saffron Hall and on Tuesday 11 February at Cambridge's West Road Concert Hall. Click here for more details.

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