Schubert and the Concept Album

I will sing a cycle of spine-chilling songs to you.

Franz Schubert

Who invented the concept album? Was it Woody Guthrie with Dust Bowl Ballads (1940)? Perhpas it was Frank Sinatra in the 1950s with In the Wee Small Hours. Most settle on, as expected, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s as the first concept album in history. They are all wrong. Franz Schubert did. While Schubert composed long before recorded music was invented, his idea of composing a series of songs around the a central theme was the real revolution that made the concept albums of the 1960s possible.

Of all of his “song cycles,” Winterreise is perhaps his greatest. This set of 24 songs tells the story of a solitary man, tormented by his memory of love, seeing nothing but death before him.  The man embarks on a long journey through the harsh wintery conditions that are both his reality and a broader metaphor for the man’s life.

The parallels to Schubert’s life are not hard to discern—the composer was frantically working on his magnum opus from his deathbed.  Unlike Mozart who was reportedly giving instructions during his final hours for how to complete his Requiem, Schubert’s song cycle was complete and he died correcting the proofs from the printer.  Everything you need to know about Schubert the (composer is summed up in these songs.  They are as clear a vision of a composer’s soul as I have found in the history of music.

These songs are among the best constructed in history, each one a jewel. Let’s consider Rast. the 10th song in the cyle. The song is constructed in a strophic (repeating) form and set in D minor. In the A Section, Schubert uses an authentic cadence–a chord that incorporates the fifth tone of the scale (here, F-A-C)–Schubert seemlessly modulates to F Major. The cadence underscores the text–Da ich zur Ruh mich lege (as I lay myself down to sleep) . . . Auf unwirtbarem Wege (in an inhospitable way)–which moves from action to feeling. The B section is comprised of multiple short phrases, which allow Schubert to modulate from G major to F major and then back to D minor. It is a lovely song that shows the care and skill with which Schubert composed.

The last song in the cycle, Der Leiermann describes an encounter between the Wanderer and a Hurdy Gurdy Man who is seemingly as lost as the narrator. The Hurdy Gurdy Man plays his songs, but no one wants to hear him. Cold and hungry, his collection plate stands empty as the locals pass without even looking at him. And yet even in this bleak scene, hope emerges. The Wanderer asks the Hurdy Gurdy Man if he will accompany his songs, suggesting that neither man need be alone–even if it is just a brief respite from the storm.

The tenor Ian Bostridge is one of the foremost contemporary interpreters of Schubert songs.  His recording around the turn of the century, at the start of his career, is a modern classic.  Last year, however, he released a live version, recorded with the composer Thomas Ades at the piano.  This is, by far, the better recording.  Time has certainly taught Bostridge a thing or two about these songs, which he performs regularly.  But having Ades as a collaborator surely paid benefits.  Bostridge’s singing is more lyrical and the music flows much more naturally.  Der Leiermann seems to anticipate Kurt Weil a century on.  It is a remarkable song.  Use the links in the comments to listen to #1, #5, and #24—or the entire set. 

Franz Schubert, Winterreise, D. 911:

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