Falling in Love with Franz

By all accounts, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) smoked like a chimney, drank like a pirate, had affairs or one night stands with more women than is usual, and wrote a ton of music when he wasn’t partying.

I had played several of his songs in college while accompanying singers. He wrote over six hundred in all, and it’s obvious that he had a natural gift for using the human voice, poetry, and the piano to convey emotions of tremendous depth.

As a piano soloist, I’d played some of his small-scale works, like the Impromptus Op. 90, a few of the waltzes, and even most of his “Trout” Quintet. But I was late coming to the piano sonatas, and only studied my first one in 2003, in preparation for a competition in Prague.

What I discovered is that I am in love with this composer and his music.

Compared to Mozart, he’s not as organized in form and content, and he’s got more interesting parts for the left hand, too.

Looked at beside Beethoven, Schubert isn’t as tonally rich or as passionate. He doesn’t have the ornamentation and humor you find in Haydn, either.

But if you want a composer who follows a melody as far as it will carry without restrictions on how it’s used, Schubert is your man. He didn’t seem bothered by the fact that, in pursuing these melodic ideas to their full flowering, he often had sonatas that ran upward of thirty-five minutes, especially if you take all the repeats.

Repeats are a tricky thing for a performer. You’ve got to decide when to do them, and when to leave them out. In Schubert’s case, I often take my audience into consideration. If they’re non-musicians, I often leave the repeats out. But for formal performances, or if I’m recording to CD, they’re all in. Some people might think they make the piece too long, but another group, which includes me, enjoys hearing how Schubert uses the melodic ideas he’s found, and often it takes that second hearing to understand what we’ve just witnessed.

I’m currently playing his Sonata in A Minor, D. 845, a relatively late work (although anyone who dies before they’re halfway through their thirties can’t really have a truly “late” or “mature” work). The first movement is full of places where the silence is just as important as, if not more than, the notes surrounding it. The second movement starts simply enough but spins itself out into an extended set of variations that are luxurious to play because of how lyrical they are. I love seeing what kind of beautiful and expressive sounds I can get out of whatever instrument I’m playing on, and this movement is ideal for pushing the limits of tone quality: can I make an instrument that’s essentially a percussion instrument sing like something with breath?

The third movement is full of drama. It looks back to the Classical era’s penchant for form in that, dropped like a rainbow amid grey clouds, there’s a breathtaking trio tucked in. It has nothing to do with the melodies we’ve been hearing all along in the movement, but who cares? It’s just plain gorgeous music!

And to cap it all off, there’s a rondo, which is a form that keeps returning to the music heard at its outset, with each repetition of the beginning ideas separated by different sections. The repeated visits to the familiar opening themes build tension and excitement because, no matter where Schubert wanders, he always gets back to square one somehow. A listener can spend the movement in wonder at how he gets himself in and out of some of the places he goes. In other words, it’s an exciting and exhilarating way to finish.

I’m glad I didn’t try these sonatas any sooner than I did. I think you’ve got to have a certain amount of patience and indulgence for a composer who doesn’t always take the usual route to creating a large-scale work like a sonata. They’re kind of like those big, baggy novels we sometimes read because, even if they’re not the best-written stuff out there, the dialogue is believable, the plot(s) captures our imagination, and it’s easy to get lost in them for hours at a time because they’re just good fun.

I think you also need to have patience because, as someone who was keenly aware of the human voice and what it could do, Schubert approached much of his composition, especially the piano music, with that ideal in mind.

The pinnacle of his sonata output was the final three sonatas, D. 958 through 960. I am fortunate to own a Braille score for D. 960, in B-Flat major. With all repeats, it’s almost fifty minutes long. It’s a piece I plan to study next year.

With each piece I encounter and memorize, I learn something and grow in what I can do with my instrument. I have no doubt that that final Schubert sonata will be an excellent teacher. In the mean time, I’ve got more to explore in the sonata I’m playing now. It will be a regular feature of many of my recitals this year, and I’m looking forward to sharing the journey it carries us all on, whether as performer or listener.

Schubert didn’t live very long. But we have a lot of music from him to be very, very thankful for.

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4 Comments on “Falling in Love with Franz”

  1. ombudsben Says:

    Interesting description of the different composers, Halfnote! Do let me know when you come to the SF Bay Area. My dear wife likes to get out and go to events; I am more the homebody perfectly content to stay home and read, cook, and walk the dogs. But if it works for our schedules it would be fun to go to San Jose and hear you play.

  2. halfnotes Says:

    Ombudsben,

    Not playing this time, but I do have CD’s for sale at $15 each; if you’re interested, E-mail me at

    stephpieck@hotmail.com

    for further information. Partial proceeds go toward an education fund for a blind student from Indonesia who wants to come to the U.S. to get her degree and become a piano teacher.

  3. ombudsben Says:

    I guess I misunderstood — didn’t you say something about possibly coming out to San Jose for a performance? Or did that fall through?

  4. halfnotes Says:

    Yes, I am coming to the San Jose area for a conference, but as of right now, have no plans to play a recital. Perhaps the next time.


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