Reflections on the Final Piano Sonatas of Franz Schubert

Excellent post by Hendrik Slegtenhorst. on Schubert’s last piano sonatas.

HENDRIK SLEGTENHORST

It is said the last three piano sonatas of Schubert are suffused with premonitions of his death. It may be so, but the contemplation is often sweet, as if Schubert cannot help being so in his music and, thus, so as well in his preparations for death.

They are piano sonata 19 in C minor, D. 958; 20 in A major, D. 959; and, 21 in Bb major, D. 960. They are long, D. 958 over half an hour, the other two three-quarters of an hour. The length is temporal, not aural. A similar phenomenon occurs in the compositions of others; repeatedly, for example, in the performance of Wagner’s Ring, where even the longest acts seem to go by more quickly and acutely despite their actual temporal length.

Melegh_Portrait_of_a_Man_(Schubert)_1827 Melegh : Portrait of Schubert (1827)

Schubert was 31 when he died, twenty months after the death of Beethoven. Like Beethoven’s final…

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How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time

How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time: A composer details how music works its magic on our brains.

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One evening, some 40 years ago, I got lost in time. I was at a performance of Schubert’s String Quintet in C major. During the second movement I had the unnerving feeling that time was literally grinding to a halt. The sensation was powerful, visceral, overwhelming. It was a life-changing moment, or, as it felt at the time, a life-changing eon.

It has been my goal ever since to compose music that usurps the perceived flow of time and commandeers the sense of how time passes. Although I’ve learned to manipulate subjective time, I still stand in awe of Schubert’s unparalleled power. Nearly two centuries ago, the composer anticipated the neurological underpinnings of time perception that science has underscored in the past few decades.

We conceive of time as a continuum, but we perceive it in discretized units—or, rather, as discretized units. It has long been held that, just as objective time is dictated by clocks, subjective time (barring external influences) aligns to physiological metronomes.

Music creates discrete temporal units but ones that do not typically align with the discrete temporal units in which we measure time. Rather, music embodies (or, rather, is embodied within) a separate, quasi-independent concept of time, able to distort or negate “clock-time.” This other time creates a parallel temporal world in which we are prone to lose ourselves, or at least to lose all semblance of objective time.

Considering the composer’s goal of distorting time perception, musical time is notated with remarkable imprecision and ambiguity.

Composers, more often than not, rely upon qualitative rather than quantitative directives to inform performers of intended tempo. And if the vagaries of such terms as Adagietto (somewhat slow), or Lentissimo (slower than slow) are not ambiguous enough, terms such as Allegro ma non troppo (fast, but not too fast), or terms that connote speed through emotion such as Allegro appassionato, Bravura, or Agitato, or terms that confuse complexity with speed, such as Tempo semplice, oblige the performer to imagine temporality from the composer’s perspective through guesswork.

My favorite temporal marking is the term Tempo rubato, literally “stolen time,” in which duration is added to one event at the expense of another. Long after German inventor Johann Maelzel patented the metronome in 1815, composers continued to persistently avoid strict measures of time in their scores, instead relying primarily on adjectival description.

It is Schubert, more than any other composer, who succeeded in radically commandeering temporal perception. Nowhere is this powerful control of time perception more forceful than in the String Quintet. Schubert composed the four-movement work in 1828, during the feverish last two months of his life. (He died at age 31.)

In the work, he turns contrasting distortions of perceptual time into musical structure. Following the opening melody in the first Allegro ma non troppo movement, the second Adagio movement seems to move slowly and be far longer than it really is, then hastens and shortens before returning to a perception of long and slow. The Scherzo that follows reverses the pattern, creating the perception of brevity and speed, followed by a section that feels longer and slower, before returning to a percept of short and fast. The conflict of objective and subjective time is so forcefully felt in the work that it ultimately becomes unified in terms of structural organization.

Even though I attended my first concert of the String Quintet 40 years ago, I am still overcome by its powers. The slow second movement persistently puts me on the verge of a sense of temporal stasis. I feel submerged in a viscous medium—not at all struggling to move forward, but rather fully absorbed in an alternate temporal universe.

Although immersed in the music, I am aware of time in the external world. I tend to breathe along with phrases, and find myself coming up short of breath. Remarkably, this sensation is relived each time I listen to the String Quintet.

Like all music that feels both part of time and beyond it, the String Quintet seems to connect us to something bigger than ourselves—in the words of Schubert’s friend and collaborator, the poet Franz von Schober, “time’s infinite ocean.”

Full article here:

http://nautil.us/issue/9/time/how-music-hijacks-our-perception-of-time

Period instrument recording of Schubert’s String Quintet:

Schubertiad- poem by Fiona Sampson

Schubertiad- poem by Fiona Sampson

FranzSchubert10

Schubertiad

After the String Quintet in C, D956

One moment before it starts –
one breath.

Light stills
in the meadow,

stalls at oaks
and the river’s silver line.

For an instant
your stomach turns over –

as if you missed yourself

and this minute
and the next

were already a memory.

    *

Sometimes,
world slips from beat to beat
like a song.

The afternoon fills
with lokum’s evasive scent,
deep notes of cherry,

and there are saucers of honey
and peaches and a girl
who leans on a cushion to sing –

Open your notebook,
catch
how she throws out the tune

as if she tongued
a rose
between her lips –

    *

Wanderer, the wide river
shines in the morning sun.
Between the country and the city –
                          see it run.

You’d like to run with it
to a quiet place, in fields
time and sickness never visit
                      and joy shields.

Too soon the flood and battened sluice,
the detritus of a life
that’s been turned adrift
                      on this tide

which now seems beautiful and bright:
the river’s backdrop to the kiss
you borrowed from daylight
                     and bring to Dis.

    *

Waiting (stateliest of the modes)
among Greek key, acanthus,
shuttered glass
and the light snagged in stucco –

where each façade rises
in stillness
and stone grows
infinitesimally –

you feel a creak and strain:
spring ice
yawing on its tethers.
You poor soul.

Without summer’s garlands and girls
you’re quite bare,
bespectacled and alone
in that soiled bed.

From The Guardian online, by Carol Rumens:

Details of the composer’s life are weaved together with themes from his work and echoes of his music in Fiona Sampson’s deft sequence, Schubertiad

This week’s poem, the four-part sequence, “Schubertiad”, by Fiona Sampson, seems, at first glance, a kind of translation – of music into text. As the epigraph tells us, it is written “After the String Quintet in C, D956” and, if you know the quintet, you might hear an echo, in the first poem, of the mysterious opening of the Allegro, or recall the Adagio’s pizzicato passages in those very short lines at the end of the second. But the translation analogy doesn’t take us far. What these small, song-like poems seem to do is create a parallel world. They are impressionistic, and, in their swift movement and glancing, sun-and-water imagery, they realise the essential, mercurial quality of Schubert’s music.

It’s a quality demonstrated in the way the composer can take a single song through such varying tonalities it seems almost to encompass the emotional range of an opera. Sampson is a poet who shares something of this legerdemain. “Schubertiad” also weaves in a biographical thread. In the Quintet, an unusual second cello adds gravitas. In the sequence, darker harmonies arise from the conflict of the composer’s time-poor life with the power of his genius to re-make time on its own terms.

The Quintet was completed during Schubert’s final illness in the autumn of 1828. His deathbed forms the closing image of the poem. “Schubertiad” begins, though, by tracing an uncertain miracle closer to birth. “One moment before it starts – / one breath.” This is the pause before the music happens – before the composer writes down the first notes, before the ensemble, poised to breathe as one, begins to play. But the opening stanzas are not tied down to a particular narrative, and the reader might equally see a love affair unfolding, or any emotional event that tunes anticipation to concert pitch.

Full article here:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2010/aug/02/schubertiad-fiona-sampson-poetry

Blog series on Schubert’s song cycle, “Winterreise” -Beyond The Notes

Blog series on Schubert’s song cycle, “Winterreise” -Beyond The Notes

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A great blog which discusses Schubert’s Winterreise.

Here is one post:

A lesson in painting with music: Winterreise’s “Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope)

Throughout this song cycle we have seen many fantastic examples of Schubert at his best when it comes to painting a picture through music: plodding footsteps, whistling wind, falling tears, roosters crowing, bugling posthorn, galloping horse just to name a few. The sixteenth song in the cycle, “Letzte Hoffnung (Last Hope)” is no exception. In fact, I think up until this point, I think it might qualify in my book as being the most dense musical painting we’ve seen yet.
I want to include the text for this song. I’m going to give a rough translation of my own so that I don’t have to worry about copyright issues so if it isn’t perfect (it isn’t), please just overlook that!

Here and there there are on the trees
Many colored leaves that you can see,
And I stand under the leaves
Often in thought.

I look upon one leaf,
I hang my hope on it,
If the wind plays with my leaf,
Tremble I, how I can tremble.

Ah, and if falls the leaf to the ground,
Fall I with my hope,
Fall I too to the ground,
And weep on my hope’s grave.

Read on:

http://ericaannsipes.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/lesson-in-painting-with-music.html

The contents page:

http://ericaannsipes.blogspot.co.uk/p/blog-series-on-schuberts-song-cycle.html

András Schiff review – Schubert as we have never heard

András Schiff review – Schubert as we have never heard.

The pianist’s recital of two of Schubert’s most searching sonatas on a 1820s fortepiano brought extraordinary illumination and revelations.

By Andrew Clements.

András Schiff.

It’s a number of years since András Schiff has played Schubert in London; over the last couple of seasons especially, he has concentrated on Bach and Beethoven. But his latest Wigmore appearance, the first of three there this month, was devoted to two of Schubert’s most searching piano sonatas, the G major, D 894, and the B flat, D960.

This was not, though, Schubert as we have ever heard it before from Schiff. In 2010, he acquired a fortepiano once owned by the last Austro-Hungarian emperor, Karl I, which had been made in Vienna by Franz Brodmann around 1820. The handsome instrument was meticulously restored in the 1960s, and is normally to be seen in the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, where it’s on loan, but Schiff has brought it to London for these concerts.

Such a piano may lack the tonal power of its modern counterpart, but as Schiff’s Schubert performances demonstrated so eloquently, the illumination it brings to works to which it’s exactly matched chronologically and geographically is extraordinary. The distinct characters of the top, middle and bass registers, together with the effects produced using the pedals (four on Schiff’s instrument) added extra layers of articulation and transparency to the music, while the intimate, contained soundworld complemented Schiff’s introspective view of these works perfectly.

If anything, it was the B flat work that gained more from this teasing tonal variety. There were moments of great delicacy and charm in the G major sonata, but not quite the revelations that (after a false start when one of the piano strings slipped out of tune) the final sonata brought. New relationships between its musical elements seemed to be revealed, melodic details and harmonic shifts took on new colours and made sense in a way they never had before. Schiff must now, surely, go on to perform more of the Schubert sonatas on this very special instrument.

http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/jan/12/andras-schiff-review-schubert-fortepiano

I couldn’t find any videos of Mr Schiff playing Schubert on the fotepiano, but here is the mentioned B flat major sonata played on fortepiano by Andreas Staier:

Documentary – Winterreise Franz Schubert – Jan Van Elsacker, tenor -Tom Beghin, fortepiano

Documentary – Winterreise Franz Schubert – Jan Van Elsacker, tenor -Tom Beghin, fortepiano

Schubert’s Winterreise is the most recorded cycle in the lied catalogue, but historically informed interpretations are comparatively rare. The present CD demonstrates why it pays off to have a background in baroque singing and historical keyboard research and performance. The confrontation of Jan van Elsacker’s restrained sense of drama and story-telling, and the colour and intimacy of Tom Beghin’s fortepiano spawns a Flemish miniature painting in which the protagonist’s journey transcends into a metaphysical exploration of leaving, loneliness, longing, and eventually loss. This Winterreise may be low on surface theatrics, but it is unbearably tragic to the core.