Before diving into the Romantic Period, it is important to take stock of how the music world had changed over the last two centuries. Through much of music history to this point, the Church had been the primary benefactor of the great composers. As the Church’s influence began to wane, particularly in the German States, the nobility assumed primacy over music, which took a more secular turn. But there was no mistake–with the rare exception on the operatic stage–the composers were the stars.

That began to change with Corelli, whose primary claim to fame was as a violinist. Mozart of course built his initial fame as a child prodigy on piano and violin. Beethoven first rose to fame as a pianist and only later on as a composer. But Paganini was different. He was a sensation. He performed his own works, but other composers wrote works for him to perform. Paganini’s star gleamed brightest and only from the stage and while others would follow, he set the mold that every great musician follows to this day.

The word most frequently associated with Paganini is therefore “virtuoso”. But what does this word truly mean? The OED simply says “a person highly skilled in music.” Classic British understatement notwisthstanding, the OED misses the mark considerably. What does “virtuoso” mean? It means this:

Classical Music VI: Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840)

The legendary violinist Niccolo Paganini was not a great composer.  He was, unquestionably, the greatest violinist and performer of his age (and, perhaps, any age). Paganini pushed the boundaries of what was possible and composed works that pushed what is technically possible on a violin to its absolute limit.  It is also worth noting that Paganini played pretty much every string instrument that existed, excelling on the cello and guitar.  But his fame was forged on the violin and the violin most associated with him, his Guarneri—the “Canon”—is on display in Genoa and still loaned for performances.  It was not his only instrument and his Strads and Amatis have been owned and played by many contemporary musicians.  His taste in instruments notwithstanding, his greatest contribution to the repertoire are his 24 Caprices, showstoppers that truly separate the wheat from the chaff. 

I will confess to bringing Paganini into our discussion here so that I could talk about the tragic life of Michael Rabin.  Rabin should have been the next great one.  Born a generation after Heifetz, Menhuin, Oistrakh, etc., he burst onto the scene at 13, making his Carnegie Hall debut at 15 with Paganini’s Violin Concerto.  Three years later, he made his European debut in London with the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.  Brave boy.  Tragically, a little bit over a decade later he would be dead at 35 from a neurological condition that first presented itself during a concert at Carnegie.  His recordings went out of print by the 1970s and became a sort of holy grail for violinists. 

Like Paganini, Rabin preferred the more sonorous sounds of a Guarneri.  Remastered recordings are only available on streaming services—I commend them, all of them–to you.

Paganini’s legacy is daunting for any violinist.  He was more than just a virtuoso; he was an international sensation.  He did things on the violin that no one had ever seen.  He was the first to perform without sheet music.  He was also dramatic, famously contorting his body on stage, earning the name “Rubber Man” as a result. But what comes down to us in history are the details of his exceptionally long and thin fingers, which have led modern scholars to speculate that he suffered from Mafran’s Syndrome—how else to explain his ability to play three octaves without shifting his hand?  And while we should be very distrustful of any speed record from the 19th century, he reportedly could exceed 12 notes per second.  To put that in conext, the current world record holder–nearly 200 years later–was timed at 13 notes per second.

Paganini’s contributions to violin technique are far too numerous to be listed here.  And every violinist I know, lists him as the greatest ever, despite any actual first hand evidence of his artistry.  Perhaps this is in homage to the rumor that he, like Robert Johnson after him, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for these otherworldly gifts.  How can you top that? The questionable truth of the source of Paganini’s gifts and strange physique aside, these are incredible pieces to hear live.  Here’s Rabin playing the devilishly difficult Caprice No. 5 at breakneck speed.

Niccolo Paganini, 24 Caprices, Caprice No. 5:

And if you thought that sounded familiar, it’s because of this:

My favorite of the 24 is the last, the most melodic of the bunch.  Here’s Maxim Vengerov, the greatest violinist of our generation, tackling it.

Niccolo Paganini, 24 Caprices, Caprice No. 24:

BONUS Conversation!  Now if you thought that was a really swinging tune, so did the great jazz clarinetist Benny Goodman.  A century on, here’s his swinging version:

Benny Goodman, Paganini Caprice No. 24:

And with Benny Goodman, of all people, we close the book on the Classical Period. On to the Romantics.

Schubert, Unfinished

It is the stuff of legend.

A dusty manuscript lies hidden in a desk draw of Anselm Huttenbrenner, a minor composer, for 43 years. In a letter to conductor Johann von Herbeck, Huttenbrenner describes it as his most prized treasure. One look at the score and von Herbeck is convinced and gives the music its premiere. The audience, not knowing what to expect, takes in the first few bars of rumbling, nervous strings. A clarinet and oboe enter, singing a song of woe. The audience is stunned: It’s Schubert, risen from the grave 37 years after his death.

From a first-hand account:

When, after a few introductory bars, clarinet and oboe sound una voce a sweet melody on top of the quiet murmuring of the strings, any child knows the composer and a half-suppressed exclamation “Schubert” runs hummingly through the hall. He has hardly entered, but it is as if you knew his steps, his very way of opening the door… The sonorous beauty of both movements is enchanting.

Eduard Hanslick

The first movement opens in near silence and in B Minor, Beethoven’s “black” key. First, the low strings play a barely perceptible theme, followed by the violins playing an ostinato that gives the impression of nervous energy. Schubert indicates that the cellos and basses should pianissimo, but the theme they play is central to the entire movement. But as soon as we begin to grapple with this dark and forbidding opening, Schubert brings in the winds, specifically the clarinet and oboe referred to by Hanslick in the above quote, who sing a song of such supreme melancholy as to melt the heart of anyone who hears it.

Schubert, as noted previously, was not very interested in developing themes. Where Beethoven would start breaking apart his themes as soon as they were introduced, Schubert merely repeats his. And who can blame him? It is a gorgeous theme, a prime example of why Schubert remains to this day the King of Song. But as we approach the end for the second time, Schubert’s mood turns black, with violent B Minor chords jolting the music from its melancholy. This dark and violent mood will not endure, as Schubert transitions to G Major and lets perhaps a bit of muted sunshine in for his second theme. If audience members are prone to humming a tune coming out of the concert hall, it is certainly this second theme, one of Schubert’s most famous. But why? There isn’t much going on in here harmonically or rhythmically. And yet, the music easily conjures up images of imperial Vienna in sepia tones, flecked by nostalgia and the barest tinge of regret. As always with Schubert, what appears to be simple is, in fact, supported by meticulously composed structures.

But we must wake from this sweet dream and wake we do, again with those violent chords sounding like an alarm clock at 6am on a Monday morning and sending us into the development section. Schubert amps up the drama with soaring music that, surprisingly has little to do with any of his themes. Instead, he relies nearly entirely on developing the accompanying rhythms for his two main themes, propelling the music forward until the opening rumbling strings return to start the recapitulation. Schubert repeats this trick at the start of the coda, unifying the entire movement around this “shadow theme.” The music, stuck rhythmically, swells in dynamics and pitch until it breaks across a chord of blackest resignation.

Up to this point, composers had varied the tempos of successive movements. Schubert, however, uses tempo to link the second movement to the first. Taken at a similar tempo, some musicologists have observed that the second movement is the “negative image” of the first. Although the pacing of the music remains more or less the same, the second movement opens in E major and moves to minor before returning to major; accordingly, the black mood of the opening movement is dispelled for golden sunshine. And when the minor second theme enters, the accompanying rhythm is identical to the major key second theme of the first movement.

Yet as the drama intensifies, it is the minor key that dominates, complete with thundering brass. But this is no ordinary development section and Schubert’s music has become unmoored from traditional form, transitioning freely to new keys. Just before the end, the music nearly comes to a stop, with solo violins taking the music to far flung keys before magically resolving back to the tonic. Frankly, I’m not entirely sure how Schubert pulls this off. It is deceptively simple–where Beethoven was forever jamming his music back into key, like a sticky gear box on an old sportscar, Schubert’s violins float peacefully from key to key before settling naturally back into the tonic. Breathtaking.

And then, just like that, it’s all over. Two utterly earth-shattering movements and nothing more.

Conductors have employed several strategies to avoid the profound sense of frustration brought upon by this premature ending. At the premiere, von Herbeck tacked on an unrelated final movement from one of Schubert’s earlier symphonies to give a sense of closure. Other conductors have made dynamic mountains out of the final cadence of the second movement to suggest finality. These are decidedly poor interpretive choices.

There is no question that Schubert had intended his symphony to have the traditional four movements. In the original manuscript, Schubert had noted a few measures of a Scherzo movement. A full piano score for that movement was subsequently unearthed. Naturally, this led some composers to finish the Scherzo. Some musicologists argue that Schubert tore the fourth movement from his notebook and repurposed it in his incidental music for a ballet, Rosemunde. But these are rarely performed: Two movements are all we have and when Schubert’s so-called Eighth Symphony is performed today, two movements are typically all we get.

Unsurprisingly, Herbert Blomstedt’s 2022 recording with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (my new reference recording for Schubert’s Great Symphony in C) gets it exactly right. The frustration at the premature ending is exactly the point. Here we have the perfect summation of Franz Schubert in music: Utterly brilliant and leaving us desperately wanting to hear more. Schubert and his symphony are, in a word, Unfinished.

Franz Schubert, Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, “Unfinished”, D.759

The Most Terrible Trill in All of Music

Schubert’s late works are filled with sorrow and grief. They are portraits of loneliness, regret and despair. For all the anger and chaos that fills Beethoven’s late works, you cannot help but feel buoyed by the great man’s inherent faith in mankind. Schubert offers no such respite. He is the composer who drives me to drink, and his final piano sonata, No. 21, is at the very top of that list.

Written just two months before his end, staring into the abyss, Schubert gives us a bleak soundscape devoid of hope or salvation. Instead, for the first time in music, we are confronted with nothing less than the black reality of death. Gone are the negotiations that dramatized Death and the Maiden—what we are left with is bleak acceptance of fate. Schubert’s Death approaches not with power chords, but with silence. An eerie whiff of hallucination falls like a shadow over the work—is this Schubert’s dying fever dream? Is this a reflection on his all too short life? This is particularly evident in the Scherzo, which seems to recall brighter days long since past. And what are we to make of the discordant note of hope at the end? This is when the whisky calls.

Consider the remarkable opening to the sonata. The main theme is introduced and expanded, coming to rest on a F-major chord. And then we get what has been called the most remarkable and terrbile trill in music history—a low F/G-flat/A-flat. It is nothing less than death’s calling and the immediate descent down the register is disconcerting in the extreme. It is life interrupted, signified by theme, which now begins to morph. By the time that that trill returns 20 minutes later, it is all resignation.

But I get ahead of myself. When Schubert died in November 1828, he left behind a remarkable legacy of works from that final year alone. We’ve already covered his remarkable final Mass and his final song cycle Wintereisse. He also composed three piano sonatas, which are a tryptich of sorts culminating in No. 21. In contrast to his other last works, the piano sonatas failed to make an impression, even on staunch Schubert devotees such as Robert Schumann, who pronounced them to be devoid of invention. But much like Beethoven’s last string quartets, Schubert’s final piano sonatas reach beyond the nascent Romantic movement to modernism. As Schumann observed:

[T]hese sonatas strike me as differing conspicuously from his others, particular in a much greater simplicity of invention, in a volunary renunciation of brilliant novelty. . .and in the spinning out of certain general musical ideas instead of adding new threads to them from phrase to phrase. . . It is as though there could be no ending, nor any embarrassment about what should come next. Even musically and melodically it ripples along from page to page, interrupted here and there by a single more abrupt impulses–which quickly subside.

Robert Schumann

Schumann is right: Schubert is up to something new here and completely inapposite from the emerging Romantic aesthetic. It would take a brilliant Frenchman to pick up this mantle half a century later before Schubert’s revolution would be fully appreciated.

Before diving into the music, a few notes. There is considerable debate regarding Schubert’s scores, due his notoriously poor handwritting. In particular, there is debate about whether certain notations indicate an accent or a diminuendo, as the latter is simply an elognated version of the former. His publisher routinely printed all such markings as accents, which is clearly wrong, and this debate allows for considerable variation in interpretation. Schubert also, as a good classicist, indicates that the exposition in his sonata form movements should be repeated. But as Schubert often scored lengthy movements, these repeats are often dropped, largely for practical reasons. The first movement of this sonata is no exception and great minds differ on the issue. In his recent Wigmore Hall lecture (link below), Andras Schiff notes that the great Alfred Brendel firmly believes that the repeats should be ignored, while Schiff takes the opposite view. I tend to side with Schiff, since the repeats allow for further exploration of coloration at the margins of Schubert’s themes. Finally, as noted previously with Beethoven, Schubert’s fortepiano had different pedals than modern pianos, including one that inserted a row of silk between the hammers and the strings. The quiet and ethereal sound created by this pedal cannot be duplicated on a modern concert grand. If you like this sonata, I urge you to see out a period instrument performance of it.

Now, to the music. Schubert opens his final piano sonata in what appears to be a peaceful mood. The tempo is noted not just moderato but molto moderato. Schubert’s clear instructions have been widely ignored, with many great pianists taking far too slow a tempo to be in any way moderate, let alone very moderate in pacing. This theme ambles along and conjures up the sense of sitting by the seaside, as observed by Schiff and many others.

I see a broad horizon, a calm ocean. It’s beautiful how often Schubert writes about the sea, even though he never saw it. Then the trill—a very distant murmuring, maybe of an approaching storm. Still very far, but approaching. It is not a pleasant noise, this murmuring. Maybe it is also the approach of death. And then silence. What other work is so full of silence? And then the original melody resumes. This is only speculation—I cannot say what it really means.

Andras Schiff (as reported by Alex Ross)

The theme of going to the seaside to die is an old one, but there is nothing about this first theme to suggest anything other than peaceful tranquility. The theme ends on a F major chord, which leads to that discordant G-flat trill, which allows Schubert to modulate the theme to G-flat major. Schubert provides for multiple fermatas in his score, indicating that the performer should pause before continuing. Some performers take these fermatas to extremes, believing that exaggerated pauses will add depth and meaning to the score. But Schubert has already cautioned–molto moderato. At least for the first pass, exaggerated pauses seem out of place to me. Schubert begins to modulate the music, first to F-sharp minor and then, finally, to F major and the second theme. This is of course where the first theme left off before the terrbile trill sent the music scurrying elsewhere. If there was any doubt that the exposition should be repeated, Schubert lays that to rest by composing different transition music to lead into the development section.

Any view that Schubert was not adept at harmonic development is laid to rest in this development section, where the music takes wild and wonderous harmonic leaps (so much so that I can’t really follow all of them), before concluding with that terrible G-flat trill. The recapitulation brings back the opening theme, now in B-flat major while the coda meditates on the contrast between that G-flat trill and what is now clearly the home key of B-flat major. It is an unsettling paring, since G-flat is foreign to both B-flat major and its dominant F major. Far from resolving harmonic conflict, the first movment ends with this conflict heightened.

The second movment brings us back to C-sharp minor, one of the many keys highlighted in the development section of the first movment. Schubert’s music again begings to shift harmonically, starting with A major (a bit of sunshine peaking out from the clouds) but evenutally returning to C-sharp minor. In the end, this movment feels like a further development of the first movement and ends in much the same conflicted way.

The third movement is a Scherzo, but this dance is like nothing we have encountered previously in Schubert. It seems like a memory in which the actors are all sped up as if in an old black and white film. A sense of wistful regret hangs over the music, as if our protagonist on the beach is recalling happier days.

The quick tempo continues in the final movement, which moves from Allegro ma non troppo to Presto. Again, Schubert uses the sonata form. The first theme is appropriately in the tonic B-flat major and the second in the expected dominant key of F major. But after a fermata, two sharp F minor chords introduce an unexpected third theme and Schubert does not provide for a repeat of this exposition. The shock of F minor has done its job in unsettling us, underscored by Schubert’s quavering rhythms. But we don’t know this and when Schubert brings back the first theme at the start of the development section, we expect that repeat. But the music spirals off in unsettling if not downright disturbing ways. This is not good. Time is moving too fast and the END is coming all to quick. The coda exacerbates this feeling by taking the tempo all the way up to Presto even as the chords appear to be breaking apart. But instead of darkness, we get light.

What does this light mean? Schiff takes an optimistic view:

These last two movements are like a hallucination of a new life,” Schiff told me. “They are what the dying person might experience on the threshold. The coda has a wonderful, chaotic joy in it: this rushing out, this looking for the final exit, this last flourish. Schubert is saying yes to life. There is still hope.

Andras Schiff (as reported by Alex Ross)

But Ross rightly notes: “But the trill has sounded.” And this is what dives me to drink. Unlike other composers who have stood at the edge of the abyss and composed their darkest fear, Schubert has jumped headlong into it. This, then, is the final resolution. As in music, so as it is in life. The tranquility of the opening theme and terribless of the trill are nothing less than the truth about human existance and Schubert, with mere days left to live, has accepted his fate.

Andras Schiff has done much to shape my understanding of this remarkable work and I highly recommend his lecture and performance captured last year at Wigmore Hall.

But as Schiff notes in the above video, Schubert is best on period instruments. His recording is a powerful argument in favor of the fortepiano.

Franz Schubert, Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major, D. 960:

The Genius that Lies Within: Schubert’s Mass in E Flat Major

Beethoven’s funeral took place in 1827 at the Dreifaltigkeitskirche in Vienna and Schubert was one of his torchbearers. Despite living his entire life in the same city, this is perhaps the closest the two great composers had ever been. Following the service, the Dreifaltigkeitskirche’s Society for the Cultivation of Church Music approached Schubert to compose a mass. This commission would result in Schubert’s Sixth and final mass–one of the many compositions that Schubert completed just before his death but never heard performed.

As with Beethoven, much is made about Schubert’s spirituality and supposed atheism. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis confirms that Beethoven was more Deist than Catholic, but Schubert may have been the real deal. While Beethoven used music to stress certain parts of the sacred text above others, Schubert edited it. Not only does Schubert repeat lines (perhaps not the greatest heresy), he deleted part of the Credo, the most sacred part of the mass itself–the profession of faith. Indeed, none of Schubert’s six masses contain the line Credo in unam Sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam (I believe in one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church). Perhaps this is understandable, as Schubert’s first five masses were composed for the concert hall, not for the Church. But this commission was different: Schubert was paid to compose a mass for Catholic worship. Unsurprisingly, in the fullness of time, all of Schubert’s masses were barred by the Church for liturgical purposes.

So what was Schubert playing at here? My view is that you need to take a deeper look into the music. Because, as is the case with all great composers, therein lies the genius. Schubert is the greatest songwriter in music history because the text serves his music and not the other way around. And that’s exactly what he’s doing here, in the highest form of songwriting. Schubert bends the text of the Catholic mass to suit his music. But that music is far from anti-religious or even anti-Christian. It is glorious on high.

In this mass, Schubert steps right up to the very precipice of the Romantic Movement, pushing Classical composition to its absolute limits. He strips the organ from the orchestra, using strings to create a sort of chromatic continuo throughout the work. Schubert may not go as far as Beethoven did in his Late String Quartets in pushing the harmonics all the way through to the 20th century, but the richness of Schubert’s harmonics here are rendolent of what would come in the mature works of Robert Schumann and other Romantic composers.

As a songwriter, Schubert makes two very interesting–and perhaps telling–compositional choices. First, he eliminates polyphony, which had dominated liturgical composition for more than two centuries, in favor of a more early Rennaisance homophonic style that perhaps takes its cue from Martin Luther and popular composition. To replace the power of multiple overlapping vocal parts creating a rich textual harmony, Schubert relies on dynamics, rhythm and formal architecture to bring the drama to his work. Second, Schubert’s mass is completely devoid of solo vocal arias. Especially in light of his decision to embrace homophonic composition here, his decision to eliminate the solo voice is telling. Schubert’s mass is about chorus, sometimes reduced to quartet or trio, backed by brass, winds and percussion. Strings play, as the often do in Schubert, a supporting role. In the scoring, Schubert has therefore made a very important statement. The mass is about community, not the individual. Beethoven had been the great iconoclast, the artist is supreme individual shaking his fist at the world. Schubert was more communal by nature and these decisions shape his composition. Peace be with you, my neighbor.

Masses open with Kyrie, a brief prayer for mercy. Schubert, however, stretches out the three lines of the prayer to symphonic lengths. Unquestionably, we have found ourselves in the same musical landscape as the Great Symphony. There is a peacefulness about the opening of this section that slowly gives way to uneasiness. Schubert may be asking of mercy, but he seems far from certain that his request will be granted. This tension between anguish and calm will pervade the entire score.

The Gloria opens in grand fashion. Here is where the shift from polyphony to homophony becomes most pronounced–it doesn’t take a degree in Latin to understand what is being sung. But Gloria is not all about the light–as was Schubert’s way, he balances the light against the darkness. And the darkness creaps into the music as the text turns inward towards human reflection, the Domine Deus section is the first to refer to Christ’s sacrifice (You who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.). The light returns when the text returns to glorification (For you alone are holy, you alone are Lord, you alone are the Most High). The grand theme returns, as if as a coda, and Schubert ends the section in a grand four part fugue (Cum Sancto Spiritu was traditionally composed as a fugue).

The Credo–the profession of faith–lies at the heart of the mass. Schubert shows his reverence for the moment, announcing it with solo timpani. The chorus enters, unaccompanied, then echoed by the winds and brass. This pattern continues for several passages. Schubert saves some of his most beautiful and haunting melodies for this section. Consider the soaring melody presentedby a trio of two tenors and soprano for the text Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto, ex Maria Virgine; et homo factus est (“And was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary; and was made man.). This graceful and tender melody is contrasted with the darkness of what follows: Cruifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, passus et spultus est (He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried.). Schubert’s love for the infant Jesus is contrasted with his horror and shame at Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Throughout this work, Schubert questions whether he is deserving of God’s love, of Jesus’ sacrifice. And that determination lies very much in the balance. If there is one emotion I hear repeatedly throughout this mass it is one of regret and sadness. And for those who would dismiss Schubert as an untrained popular song writer, I submit for their consideration the conclusion of the Gloria, an extended 224-measure long fugue that seemingly uses every form of contrapuntal composition known to man. It is as virtuosic a composition as any written by Bach, Mozart or Beethoven.

The Sanctus and Benedictus sections look backwards to barouqe fugue and high Classical composition, respectively. Yet even in these sections, and particularly the Sanctus, Schubert’s creative chromaticism and highly emotional dynamics seem to pave the path for the Romantics, notably Anton Bruckner. But as with so many masses, these sections are merely a bridge from the heavy Credo to the closing Agnus Dei.

The concluding prayer, Agnus Dei, asks Jesus, the Lamb of God, to show mercy and grant us peace. Images of peace–notably, the dove, the lamb, the child, the mother–are especially prominent in Christian iconography. For a religion that places the worst of human brutality at its very center, it is perhaps surprising that mercy and peace form the central themes of the mass. These contrasts, between the brutality of the crucifixion, the nobility of Jesus’ sacrifice, and our prayers for mercy and peace, were not lost on Schubert. His music is more of a direct communication of these powerful emotions and themes than the somewhat staid text can convey. Edits aside, this is powerfully spiritual music.

Schubert opens his Agnus Dei with a double fugue, in part borrowed from Bach’s C-Sharp Minor fugue in Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier. But only in part. The second subject is pure Schubert, which contrasts rhythmically with Bach’s theme in a way that the old Baroque master could not have envisioned. Here, Schubert refers back to the darker section of the Gloria–the Domine Deus is the only other section of the mass that also contains a reference to Jesus as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. The mercy (Miserere) theme from the Gloria also returns, which of course is itself a reflection of the opening Kyrie. Schubert thus links the overarching themes of the mass musically: sacrifice and mercy. Which leads to the wholly original Dona nobis pacem–Grant us peace. Moving from the darkness of C minor to the relative major (the tonic E-Flat Major), Schubert scores a four-part harmony between chorus, vocal quartet, winds and strings. The dynamics swell, the dark Agnus Dei theme returns, but, in the end, Schubert’s suggests that our prayers may be granted: The mass ends in a moment of profound peace. Yet it is an uneasy moment. We feel the contrast between grief at Jesus’ sacrifice and the calm of the peace that we seek. We grieve in C Minor, and yet we hope in E-Flat Major. That link between grief and hope, so fundamental to Christian faith, is made tangible by Schubert’s shift from the relative minor to the tonic major. More than divining meaning from text, we can feel that link made real in Schubert’s art. Here, in this moment, and perhaps more than in any other work by Schubert, his poor decisions regarding the operatic form are felt most keenly. The man surely had many great operas in him. Had he lived, perhaps he would be considered to have been the great operatic genius of his age.

But he did not live. Within months of completing the Mass in E Flat Major, Schubert was dead at 31. His final wish was to be buried next to his idol, Beethoven. Havng helped to carry Beethoven to his rest a year earlier, Schubert’s request was granted. Having never met in life, the two would remain side by side in death for nearly half a century, until ubran planners, in their infinte wisdom, chose to separate them once more.

Franz Schubert, Mass in E-Flat Major, D.950:

The Great(est) Symphony

‘I was utterly enraptured and only wished that you were my wife and that I could also write such symphonies.’

Robert Schumann (to Clara, who would soon be his wife)

One of the many works that Schubert left for posterity on his deathbed was the finished score for a symphony in C. It was discovered by no less a luminary than Robert Schumann, gathering dust in a trunk of Schubert’s possessions that was in the care of his elder brother Ferdinand. The year was 1838 and Schubert had been dead for a decade. Vanishing few people can simply look at a score and hear the music in its totality. Of those few, Robert Schumann–a great composer in his own right–had few equals. What a moment it must have been for him, presented with dozens of Schubert’s unknown compositions and then to pluck this one–a monumental symphony–from the lot and “hear” it for the first time.

There is no question that Schumann fully understood the importance of his discovery. He immediately wrote to his friend, the composer and conductor Felix Mendelssohn, who at the time was leading Leipzig’s Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of the greatest ensembles in all of Europe (which remains true today—more on that later). Mendelssohn, arguably the greatest talent of his age, knew exactly what he had been given (after a suitable arrangement had been negotiated with Ferdinand Schubert) and gave the symphony its premiere in 1839. Sort of.

The scope of Schubert’s last completed symphony is monumental, nearly as long as Beethoven’s Ninth (and without a chorus to liven up the finale). With all the repeats taken, the symphony takes the better part of an hour to perform. Mendelssohn therefore chopped up the symphony, performing only the first two movements, without the repeats, and with another work sandwiched in the middle. This sort of programming was not unusual back in the day and Mendelssohn was rightly concerned that audiences of the time might lack the stamina and concentration to appreciate such a work. He was right–they didn’t. When the symphony was finally performed in its entirety, it was roundly derided (even if Schumann insisted that it was “universally admired”). Today, it stands shoulder to shoulder with the greatest symphonic works in history, if not at the very summit.

For a composer who excelled at the miniature (songs and chamber works), this symphony seems to come out of nowhere and tantalizingly hints at what we might have expected from Schubert had he lived a longer life. I don’t know if Schubert’s last symphony is the greatest ever written, but it is the one I come back to most frequently. I just love it to bits. This is why.

It seems that the Ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.

Arnold Schoenberg

The curse of the Ninth Symphony begins here. Beethoven famously wrote only nine symphonies, but was sketching out a tenth when he died. Schubert likewise composed nine symphonies, leaving behind a piano score for what would have been his tenth. And so when Bruckner died after writing his ninth symphony, a shadow fell over composers attempting a 10th. It would take a Russian of sterner stuff to conclusively slam the door on that myth, but that’s a story for another day.

Back to Schubert. He appears to have begun sketching out what would become his Ninth Symphony in the summer of 1825, about a year after Beethoven had premiered his Ninth Symphony. Why is this significant? Because Schubert was there, no doubt lurking in the back stalls and marveling at his hero’s lastest creation. There is no doubt that Schubert was deeply inspired by Beethoven and Schubert’s ninth would mark a significant departure from his earlier, more classical, symphonies. In fact, this is why this symphony is known as The Great, to distinguish it from Schubert’s Sixth Symphony, the “Little” C Major Symphony.

Inspired as he was by Beethoven, Schubert was nonetheless a profoundly different composer than his hero. Beethoven increasingly came to experience music rhythmically, through the harmonic development of short motivic elements. Schubert, in contrast, experienced music melodically. This isn’t to say that Beethoven completely dispensed with melody–his Ode to Joy (whether or not it was intentionally borrowed from Mozart) is a singular melody in the history of music. Schubert does, of course, incorporate rhythmic devices into his works. It is simply a question of primacy: Schubert is more Beatles; Beethoven, more Led Zeppelin.

Schubert’s Great Symphony opens with solo horns, presenting a melody of “radical simplicity.” Historically taken at a very slow tempo (see, e.g., Bernstein for the most extreme example), further study reveals that Schubert intended this passage to be taken at something closer to double time. The theme gets passed around, first to the woodwinds and then the strings. Ultimately, the same melody is repeated five times. Why? Much like Beethoven, Schubert is training your ear for much of what is to come. We don’t object to Beethoven’s repetitiveness, whether it is his four-note motif in his Fifth Symphony or that endless parade of Es in his Seventh, because his use of rhythm makes the music interesting. Schubert, characteristically, uses melody—and subtle variations in the melody—to keep the music moving forward. It is as if Schubert has opened the door to his music and invited us in. The main theme, which always reminds me of a dance, emerges. It is, in effect, an even faster version of the opening melody. A second theme is introduced, characteristically in the woodwinds. This is one of the many examples of Schubert’s insertion of song in his symphonic works. The opening melody comes back, in the trombones, leading into the allegro section. In great performances of this work, I get the sense of Schubert as grand wizard, conjuring up bits of melody across the orchestra to create a seamless whole. More than any of Beethoven’s symphonies, Schubert paves the way for Bruckner—repetition of simple melodies, which are combined rather than developed.

Schubert would show a different way forward. Music would not need to be violent, almost ugly, to say new things. … Development sections, for instance, would not have to argue, they could tell stories. As Beethoven had dramatized Classical form, Schubert would lyricise it.

Roger Norrington

Schubert’s unique genius is on full display in the second movement, and Andante that many (if not most) musicologists correctly argue replicates a simple song in symphonic form. Here, in 1825-26, is the seed that would flower into Gustav Mahler, several generations later. Substituting an oboe for the human voice, Schubert spins of song of such beauty that it is only upon repeat listening that you discover that within the seven-bar opening (in the bass), you find all of the themes of the movement. Finding inspiration in Beethoven’s Seventh (the famous Allegretto) and Ninth (the Adagio), Schubert effortlessly scales the emotional heights that only his idol, heretofore, had reached. In one remarkable passage, Schubert transitions from A Minor to A Major, led by the horns, which Schumann wrote were “calling as though from a distance, that seems to come to us from another sphere and everything else listens as though some heavenly messenger were hovering around the orchestra.” Schubert’s inspiration did not come solely from Beethoven. Riffing on one of the most famous chord progressions in music history (from Pacabell’s famous Canon), Schubert transforms it into a soaring melody of pure bliss. But all is not all light and joy in this movement—darkness and terror creep in, foreshadowing the final two movements. Schubert brings us here through rhythmic devices—a dotted rhythm and a motif of two quarter notes. And when it is time to return to the light, Schubert does something radical. I have previously observed that in many ways silences are the key to understanding Beethoven. Schubert now takes this lesson to extremes. Just when the musc threatens to rip everything asunder, Schubert gives us a pause. While marked only for one measure, conductors often stretch this pause for dramatic effect, leaving us in the throes of Schubert’s horror show. Informed by what would come later, I half expect Schubert to ditch tonality here, plunging into pure dissonance. But instead he gives us silence. And what a brilliant choice that is, allowing the audience to fill in the gaps. Perhaps predictably, it is the cellos that restore the calm and bring the music back, albeit somewhat uneasily, home. For anyone who would dismiss Schubert as simply a composer of simple songs, this movement conclusively puts that to the lie.

Schubert’s Scherzo opens in characterically rollicking form. Building on thematic rather than rhythmic repetition, Schubert uses sequences to create tension. And if this wasn’t moving beyond Beethoven enough, Schubert’s soaring, melodic trio stretches out the music in ways that Beethoven never did.

But this is all prologue, as Schubert wraps up his orchestral legacy with a tour de force finale. Using two motifs worthy of Beethoven to push the music forward, Schubert whips the orchestra up into a barely controlled frenzy. Of course, this is Schubert and not Beethoven, so we are never far from the light and in the middle of all this angst, a dance breaks out. Much has been made the development section of this movement. Here, Schubert clearly quotes Beethoven’s Ode to Joy theme. If anyone was wondering how composers would cope with the seismic event caused by Beethoven’s Ninth, Schubert answered the question almost immediately. Here, and lest anyone had missed all of the clues from the earlier movements, Schubert formally acknowledges his debt to Beethoven by quoting what was to become his most enduring melody. And then, to top it all off, Schubert (much like Beethoven was wont to do) throws the rulebook out the window by starting the recapitulation in E-flat rather than in the expected C. This key change darkens the music, acknowledging the moments of horrors heard earlier in the piece. But Schubert eventually finds his way back to C by way of F major and we are off to the coda, bringing to a close a symphony rightly known as The Great.

In one of the great oversights I have made over the course of this blog, I ignored the recent recording of Schubert’s Great symphony by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, under the baton of noted Schubert scholar Herbert Blomstedt, in my Best of 2022 list. Oops. While no one would expect the 95-year old maestro to still be releasing vital recordings this deep into the 21st century, apparently no one told him that. So great was my surprise that when I first downloaded this remarkable recording a few weeks ago, that it literally stopped this blog in its tracks. It is THE definitive Schubert orchestral recording. And one of the truly great recordings of all time. And what I had previously known to be simply The Great, was revealed to me to be, perhaps, The Greatest.

Franz Schubert, Symphony No. 9 in C, “The Great”, D. 944:

Blomstedt’s vision of The Great has evolved over the years and his 2022 reading is so much more vital and alive. Just compare this very well-regarded earlier recording with the mighty Dresden Staatskapelle.

Having reckoned with this unexpectedly titanic recording, regular service will now proceed.

The Friday Symposium: Themes and Variations

A symposium is a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere.

Some of the more popular musical forms are equally applicable in the cocktail world. Take for example, the enduring form of theme and variation. There are many famous examples to choose from–this blog has already addressed Bach’s Goldberg Variations but skipped Beethoven’s Diabelli Variation. Rather than return to Beethoven, let’s consider an example from Schubert, his comparatively brief Imromptu in B-Flat Major, D. 935 No. 3. Setting aside the debate as to whether this is really the third movement of another piano sonata (as Robert Schumann believed) or simply the third of four indepdent works (as Schubert’s publisher determined), it is as perfect an example of the theme and variation form as you are likely to find.

The composition opens with a serene and floating melody, which is repeated beforre being put through its paces across five variations. The first variation adds a dotted rhythm, with synchopated chords in the basss. The second variation transfers part of the theme to the bass. The third variation modulates to B-Flat Minor, the parallel minor key, adding triplets in the accompaniment. For the fourth variation, Schubert modulates again to G-Flat Major before unleashing long and sweeping scales in the final variation. The music appears destined to return to the tonic of B-Flat Major, but instead we get a pause, leading to a brief coda in the form of a chorale. It’s a lovely work, especially in the hands of one of the great interpreters of Schubert, Alfred Brendel.

Franz Schubert, Imromptu in B-Flat Major, D. 935 No. 3:

Schubert was a natural at this form given his great gift for composing melodies. But music isn’t the only art susceptible to a “theme and variation” form. Consider the Negroni, as classic a cocktail as you could hope for. Invented in Florence about 100 years ago at the late-lamented Caffè Casoni for Count Camillo Negroni, the drink has become one of the stars of the 21st century cocktail revolution. And like Schubert’s best melodies, it is simplicity itself–equal parts gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, served up with a twist of lemon.

Variations on the Negroni are endless. The Boulevardier is a modern classic, appearing on many cocktail lists across the country–it simply swaps out the gin for bourbon. Choosing the right bournon to offeset the bitter Campari and a not trivial amount of sweet vermouth is no easy task. Rye actually might be your best bet here. All things being equal, I much prefer the ligheter and effervescent Negroni Spogliato, which substitutes sparkling Prosecco for the gin–a more pleasing version of the now-ubiquitous Aperol Spritz. Some variations make two substitutions, such as the Old Pal, which swaps out the gin for rye and the sweet vermouth for dry. Only the Campari and the tell-tale lemon peel garnish hint at its origins. The White Negroni, invented in France, swaps out the Campari for Suze and the sweet vermouth for dry. As it was invented by a director of Plymouth gin, the English contribution to the cocktail (and the lemon peel) are the only links back to the original.

As Bach and Beethoven were fond of demonstrating, the creative mind can take any theme and spin out endless variations on it. Bach was famous for doing so on the organ during church services; Beethoven’s inventive exploits largely took place in private at the piano. So too have bartenders with the Negroni. Pick one from the above or invent your own. Just keep it three equal parts and garnished with a lemon peel.

Classic Negroni Cocktail

  • 1oz gin (Plymouth is preferred)
  • 1oz Campari
  • 1oz Sweet Vermouth (Cocchi Storico is preferred)

Comine ingredients and stir for 30 seconds. Serve up with a twist of lemon.

The Ultimate Desert Island Disc

For the Professor:

The BBC Radio show Desert Island Discs provides a unique insight into the many composers, musicians, and other artists and illuminati who have featured as guests over its 75+ year run. In anticipation of its 75th Anniversary, the BBC crunched the numbers to find the most popular selections. In the end, six works towered above all others. Beethoven was naturally well-represented. Both his Ninth and Sixth Symphonies made the Top 6, as did his Emperor Concerto. Not surprisingly for a British show, Elgar also made the list (for Hope and Glory) as did Rachmaninoff (for his second piano concerto) for reasons I don’t quite understand. What do all of these have in common? They are all big, celebratory works written for large orchestras.

There was one work, however, that was not written for orchestra amongst the Top 6. Indeed, for much of the show’s history, it had been the #1 most requested work (mostly for its remarkable Andante second movement): Schubert’s Quintet in C. Unlike most quintets, which add a piano to the usual two violins, viola and cello, Schubert’s quintet adds a second cello, hence the dedication to our resident cellist, the Professor.

Schubert composed the Quintet in C during the final weeks of his life in 1828.  It was to be his last instrumental work and he died prior to it being performed. Indeed, the score was lost for decades, until it was found in a cupboard in the 1850s, published, and performed.

Schubert’s decision to bookend the standard two violins and viola with two cellos seems unprecedented.  The only works I am aware of with this unusual grouping are Luigi Boccherini’s–but that was because his patron was a cellist and the second cello part is little more than a basic bass line. Not so here–Schubert’s score is richly virtuosic in all parts. I suggest Schubert did this to add a darker color to the sound of the ensemble—string quartets skew higher in pitch than an orchestra, with its full complement of cellos and basses.  The Quintet sounds richer, fuller and more dramatic than the chamber pieces that preceded it—it is decidedly symphonic in sound and color, allowing Schubert to explore interesting harmonics with a second bass line. 

The first movement is written is classic sonata form (an exposition of two themes, development, recapitulation and coda). It opens with a classic Schubertian melodic line, which continues to unspool over the first minute or so. The melody moves between the first violin and first cello, just as the key shifts between major and minor. The two basic phrases that comprise the melody are separated by what can be called a fanfare–the “da dum” chords. As the violins shift into harmonic exploration, the cellos take over the melody. Arpeggios essentially push the music onward, not unlike Beethoven, but the presence of Schubert’s long melodic lines mark this work as very much his own.

The second theme emerges in G Major, the expected key for the second theme of a C Major sonata form movement. And this is where the two cellos emerge, playing a melodic line that is equal parts fragile and tragic. The theme revolves around the B in the first cello part (the third tone in the G Major scale) but pay attention to the harmony in the second cello. Minor tones are creeping into the score. The two violins take over the theme, bringing their brighter timbre to what is increasingly a sorrowful mood.

Schubert isn’t really concerned with the development of themes, because the contrast that his melodies provide are the necessary harmonic development he needs for his music to succeed. So instead of launching into the development, he adds a coda, a dance-like rhythm, before bringing back the second theme before launching into a very short development section. To be fair, this is far from the most interesting development section–it is largely comprised of a minor version of the coda in the cellos contrasted against the fanfare element in the violins. From this, a new theme is introduced (breaking the rules of classical composition), which contains elements of the second theme. The development section underscores duality of the scoring, rarely are two violins or two cellos left on their own.

The recapitulation is brought about through a series of arpeggios ending in G Major. The movement ends peacefully, but not unlike the creeping shadows of an autumn afternoon, suggest that darker times are ahead.

The enduring popularity of the Quintet in C lies in the serene and sublime second movement in E Major. This is peak Schubert, taking the opening chord from the first movement and unleashes a seamless melody of about five minutes. There is something deeply celestial about this music. The dreamlike state is interrupted by a trill–a shock to the system–which leads into a section of music that could not be more different from what came previously. This is the music of despair, aggitated and anxious, scored in F Minor. Schubert unfurls this heart-wrenching score–supported by those two cellos–until it literally melts away into extended silences, interrupted by chords reminiscent of the first movement’s fanfare element. After an age, a prayer of such fragility that it seems unsustainable. Is this Schubert’s prayer and, if so, what is he praying for? Musicologists have struggled to answer that question without reaching a satisfying conclusion. The agitated music returns in the first violin, but quickly disappears as the movement ends, back in E Major, but seemingly unresolved.

Schubert’s melodic gifts are on full display in the last two movements, a Scherzo and Rondo, respectively. The Scherzo, underscoring its roots in the minuet, is a folksy dance that lightens the mood considerably. The timbre of the quintet as a whole changes as the noise produced by the five musicians appears to increase exponentially. There are two reasons for this. First, Schubert provides many opportunities to play open strings, which, relieved of any pressure from the fingers, sing out with more intense overtones, giving the impression of additional instruments. And the instruments are asked to play more than one note at a time, compounding the effect. Resolving the dance, Schubert’s trio brings back the quasi-religious overtones from the second movement. This prayer, if anything, is even darker and more foreboding. But these phrases are increasingly fragmented, frustrated by the lack of resolution. Schubert’s prayers are not being answered. It is as if someone attending a wild party has been overcome by dark thoughts. The music descends downward, in tone and dynamics. It is, in a word, dying. Schubert’s imminent death is hard to ignore here–was he scoring his dread? The rollicking dance theme returns and Schubert’s repeat of the Scherzo ends on a joyous note.

The final movement is more of the same. This vaguely Eastern European music reflects the then-current vogue for Hungarian folk music, one persistent strand of the coming Romantic movement. This dance is never far away, even as the music turns inward, either reflecting the second movement’s prayer or the second theme from the first movement. But ultimately, the dance just won’t relent. To the contrary, Schubert increases the tempo. The end in sight, the dance becomes delirious and perhaps a bit out of control. A series of chords bring the quartet to its final conclusion.

And it is that final half-stepped chord at the death that has produced so much debate. It is a D-flat to C, bringing the quintet back to its home key. But it is fundamentally unsettling. Is it a moment of doubt? A premonition of his death? There are no clear answers here. But I’ve never come away from listening to this work particularly uplifted. Moved, shaken, disturbed–yes. But great art doesn’t always bring resolution. Indeed, in the coming century, art would move away from providing answers and assurances to simply asking more questions. In that, the Quintet in C is truly proto-Romantic.

Franz Schubert, Quintet in C, D. 956:

The Friday Symposium: Death and the Composer

A symposium is a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere.

Franz Schubert died at 31, but he is hardly the only or even the youngest composer to die before their potential had been fully realized. Pergolesi died at 26; Bellini at 33. Mozart died just short of his 36th birthday, Purcell just over his. And, still to come in this history, neither Felix Mendelssohn, George Gershwin nor Georges Bizet saw their 40th birthdays. We are all poorer for that.

Just consider the monumental career of Beethoven, which I have spent the better part of six months chronicling. He seriously considered suicide at 32 due to his progressive deafness. Had he done so, Beethoven would have been a footnote in music history–a composer of two promising symphonies, no operas, a handful of chamber music pieces, and assorted other works. His Pathetique and Moonlight sonatas would be his best known works, hinting at what might have been a great career left unfulfilled. Schubert, by constrast, was already a great composer–even if he feared that his music would not survive his death.

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

Franz Schubert

Staring clear-eyed into the abyss, Schubert composed Die Winterreise, his greatest song cycle. Over 24 songs, Schubert tells the story of a solitary man, tormented by his memory of love, seeing nothing but death before him. In contrast to the cheerful cherrub celebrated by his friends in their memorials of him, Schubert rips the shroud of religion from the mystery of death and presents us with the horror of the human condition: We die alone, cold and hungry, with an old organ grinder showing us the way.

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 frantically trying to give instructions for how to complete his Requiem, Schubert had finished his song cycle and he died shortly after 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.

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. Recently, 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 has surely paid benefits.  Bostridge’s singing is more lyrical and the music flows much more naturally.  Der Leiermann (The Hurdy Gurdy Man), which closes the set, 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:

When talented composers die so young, we often wish that they had been granted more time and wonder what they would have produced had they lived into old age. We will never know. But the perfect cocktail for contemplating such questions about Schubert while listening to Winterreise is surely the Corpse Reviver No. 2. Conceived by thoughtful bartenders as a “hair of the dog” remedy, there are many versions of the Corpse Reviver. They are all strong and, as they say, to the point. Of these, Harry Craddock’s 1930 version, memorialized in his legendary Savoy Cocktail Book is the most famous and the most influential. When you see cocktails that have four equal parts (strong spirit+citrus juice+2 strongly flavored spirits), that cocktail finds its roots here.

The Corpse Reviver No. 2

1oz London Dry Gin

1oz Cointreau

1oz lemon juice

1oz Cocchi Americano

dash of absinthe

A few notes about the ingredients. I prefer Plymouth gin, but any well-balanced London dry gin will do. The original recipe calls for orange liquerer, but I would steer away from cheap or overly sweet versions. Cointreau strikes the right balance there. Finally, the recipe (like James Bond’s Vesper) calls for Lillet. The original version is no longer made and Lillet Blanc is a poor substitute. Cocchi Americano is closer to the mark. Finally, you can add a couple of dashes of Peychaud’s bitters instead of the absinthe rinse.

Instructions: Rinse couple with absinthe and discard. Combine the other ingredients and shake hard and strain. Garnish with orange slice or a cherry.

Death and the Maiden

Schubert was my favorite composer to play in quartet.  His music isn’t exactly easy (especially for me—I always had to practice twice as hard to sound half as good), but there is a clear melodic line in his music that is fun to toss around the group—Schubert’s gift of song is ever present in his music.  This gift for melody is prominently displayed in his most famous quartet, The Death and the Maiden, which inspired Ariel Dorfman to write the play of the same name. 

It is often a fool’s errand to connect the events in a composer’s life to his music and yet, late Schubert compositions do appear to reflect his melancholy. I should note in this regard that there is considerable debate regarding the cause of Schubert’s demise. The traditional narrative is that he had contracted syphilis during his wild years and, following a brief remission, the disease ultimately killed him. This narrative, however, finds little contemporaneous support and some historians have gone so far to dispute that Schubert even had syphillis to begin with. Regardless, Schubert was not a well man, always impoverished and often malnourished. Death hangs over his late works like an ever present shadow. 

Schubert’s String Quartet No.14 in D Minor is somewhat of a intra-personal Conversation. Seven years previously, Schubert had written a song, Der Tod und das Madchen, in which the titular Maiden begs Death to pass her by.  Death, implacable, replies: I am not rough, you shall sleep gently in my arms.  Early in his despair of what proved to be his impending mortality, Schubert returned to this song as the basic theme for a new string quartet.  And despair is exactly the right word here.  As Schubert wrote to his friend around this time: Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who, in sheer despair over this, even makes things worse instead of better. Imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished… Throughout the quartet, you can hear the Maiden’s initial terror right at the start, her plaintive appeals—typically the more lyrical violin passages—followed by dark replies of Death.  It is not hard to imagine this is Schubert pleading for his life, producing a work of such artistic brilliance as an offering to stave off the inevitable. 

The first movement opens with attacking triplets that give way a theme that meanders as it develops into a gallop. A second, more compact theme, emerges and is developed chromatically. Written in classical sonata form, Schubert repeats the exposition before heading off into a developent section of such sheer complexity that it defies description. Although Schubert’s penchant for long melodic lines distinguishes him from Beethoven, Schubert has learned his lessons well from his elder and is economical in his development of themes, using brief rhythmic motives, derived from the melody, and unexpected harmonic progressions to tease further emotive power out of the theme. A stentonian recapitulation sets the score for the heart of the quartet, the second movement.

The second movement is, as expected, a theme and variation on Schubdert’s own theme from his earlier song of the same title (D. 531). Yet the part of the song that Schubert chooses here is from the second part of the song where Death tells the Maiden that he is “a friend” and not to be feared. And yet, despite the seductiveness of the music, there is a disquieting presence lurking beneath–the product of clashing triplets agaainst duplets. This rhythmyic dissonance is resolved only in the last variation. Building in complexity, the variations seem to go from darkeness to light, especially when the music suddenly shifts from G Minor to G Major, an effect that seemingly lifts the score into the clouds.

The meditative mood is lifted with a rousing scherzo, which leads to the remarkable finale–based on a tarantella. This traditional Italian dance is well-known, thanks to midcentury popular artists, but in reality depicts the madness and death that results from being bitten by a tarantula. Perhaps that’s what Francis Ford Coppola was getting at in this classic scene from The Godfather.

Schubert lets it all hang out here. On first listening, it appears that Schubert is lurching from idea to idea, much like the poor man in the death throws of spider-poison induced madness. But upon repeat listening, Schubert is carefully plotting his ideas, developing them slowly and so obscurely that the music seems almost contemporary.

For one of my absolute favorite works of music ever, I’ve turned to the reliably over the top Takacs Quartet, who turned the emotional acousticity up to 11, especially in that ripping first movement.  And to give a nod to Schubert’s internal Conversation, here is the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau with the original song on which the quartet is based.

Franz Schubert, Der Tod und das Madchen, D. 531:

Franz Schubert, Quartet No. 14 in D Minor, D. 810, “Der Tod und das Madchen”:

The Friday Symposium: Christmas Edition

A symposium is a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere.

Last year’s Christmas Playlist was such a hit, I decided to make two more. Taking a break from all things classical, here’s a playlist of classic songs that have been jazzed up.

A traditionalist at heart, I think there is nothing better than the very best carols sung by a chorus. The next list includes all of my favorites.

Finally, here’s last year’s list, which traces the history of Christmas music over time.

Thanks to A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens will forever be associated with Christmas. And that’s a good thing, because the best thing to drink on Christmas is punch and there is no Punchmaker in history quite like Charles Dickens. Of course, Dickens’ most famous punch was captured in a particularly florid passage in one of his greatest novels:

I informed Mr. Micawber that I relied upon him for a bowl of punch, and led him to the lemons. His recent despondency, not to say despair, was gone in a moment. I never saw a man so thoroughly enjoy himself amid the fragrance of lemon-peel and sugar, the odour of burning rum, and the steam of boiling water, as Mr. Micawber did that afternoon. It was wonderful to see his face shining at us out of a thin cloud of these delicate fumes, as he stirred, and mixed, and tasted, and looked as if he were making, instead of punch, a fortune for his family down to the latest posterity.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

In A Christmas Carol, Dickens refers to another even more traditional punch, as Scrooge is making amends for his mistreatment of poor Bob Cratchit: We will discuss your affairs this afternoon, over a bowl of smoking bishop, Bob! Unlike the poor rum punch favored by the chronically destitute Mr. Micawber, Scrooge favors Mr. Cratchit with a very upscale wine-based punch, made with roasted oranges studded with cloves, port wine, hot water and sugar.

But these are quite well-known and can be found in many recipe books. After all, Dickens’ penchant for punch extended far beyond his fictional creations. He loved nothing more than entertaining over a steaming bowl of hot punch. Indeed, a sterling silver punch ladle was auctioned at Christie’s some time ago, noting that it had been used by a Mr. Charles Dickens, Esq. at the George and Vulture Tavern, Cornill, London. Sadly, the ladle has been sold on to parts unknown, but the George and Vulture remains, as it was, in the Cornill section of the City of London. Namechecked in The Pickwick Papers, it remains a must-go for anyone seeking to recapture a bit of Victorian London.

But how would Dickens’ make his own punch? Fortunately, we don’t have to guess. Preserved in a letter to a friend, written in January 1847, is Dickens’ own recipe. And it is a corker–one of the very best drinks you will ever have. Trust me (or at least trust Dickens).

The Charles Dickens Punch

  • 3/4 cup of demerara sugar
  • 3 lemons
  • 2 cups of Navy-strength rum
  • 1.25 cups of VSOP Cognac
  • 5 cups of black tea
  • whole nutmeg

A few notes on the ingredients. While any sugar will do, demerara sugar provides a higher molasses content and a much richer flavor. Worth seeking out, not only for this recipe but for your Old Fashioneds too. It is essential to use Navy-strength rum. While I have made this successfully with non-overproofed rum, the extra alcohol helps considerably in lighting the fire. Yes, you read that correctly. Finally, do not skimp on the Cognac. Hine VSOP is a reasonably priced bottle and you will have plenty left over for several after-dinner snifters. Finally, while any black tea will do, I am very partial to using Mariage Freres’ Marco Polo blend or Harney & Sons Paris blend. Both provide subtle red fruit flavors that add an extra dimension to the punch.

To make the drink, add the sugar and peels of the three lemons to a heat-proof bowl. Rub the lemons and sugar together to release the citrus oils and let sit for 20 minutes. Add rum and cognac. Light on fire (best method is to light a spoonful of rum and add the flaming liquid to the mixture) and let burn for 3 minutes. Extinguish fire with heatproof cover. Remove lemon peels from the punch. Add the juice from the 3 lemons and add the hot tea. Garnish with citrus wheels and grated nutmeg.

The punch can be served hot or cold. I prefer it hot, especially since making the drink can provide your guests with a story and a show.

A Gertus History of Music’s Top 25* Albums of 2022

The death of good music has been greatly exaggerated. Over the last year, just like in every year in recent memory, artists (and, it must be said, particularly young artists) have released so many stunning albums that keeping up with contemporary music is a practical impossibility. The following is thus an imperfect and very incomplete list of 25 (plus 1) of my favorite albums released in the last year. They are presented in no particular order.

What happens when one of the world’s greatest pianists meets one of his composer-idols? He records a very personal double album, which presents many of György Kurtág’s compositions along with more familiar offerings. Reportedly based on pianist Vikingur Ólafsson’s childhood memories, he recorded both on grand and uprights pianos. This album is a fascinating study–one of many in Ólafsson’s discography–that explores musical connections across centuries.

Vikingur Ólafsson, From Afar

French composer Olivier Messiaen is one of my favorite composers of the 20th century and his brilliant Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus (Twenty Contemplations of the Infant Jesus) has been woefully neglected on record if not in performance. The roughy two-hour cycle, played without break, is taxing on both performer and audience alike. But perserverence is richly rewarded, especially with this crystal-clear recording of Bertrand Chamayou’s performance. To my ears, Bertrand comes closest to unlocking the metaphysical truths about Messiaen’s faith that are embedded in this work.

Bertrand Chamayou, Messiaen: Vignt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus

An important new recording of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 8 is reason enough the celebrate–it is in my opinion easily among the Top 20 compositions of all time, across all genres. Here, this titanic work–a quartet of truly symphonic pretensions–is paired with Alfred Schnittke’s Quartet No. 3, one of the composer’s most accessible works, and Silvestrov’s Quartet No. 1, which was, for me, a new work to discover. All three composers toiled under the most extreme circumstances, distrusted by their governments and, at least in Shostakovich’s case, fearful for their lives. Their struggle–reflected in the album’s title–is very much reflected in the Matangi Quartet’s performance.

Matangi Quartet, Outcast

In 2016, my wife returned from the Northeastern Regional Finals of the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions–the most important singing competition in the opera world–and claimed to have heard “the next best thing.” If I was intrigued at first–I was postively floored when she reported that the singer in question was a countertenor. And if that wasn’t enough of a shock, she then reported that he was a “champion breakdancer from Poland.” I had the pleasure of hearing Jakub sing at the finals some months later (which he won) and had to agree–my wife was absolutely correct. Since that time, I’ve heard Jakub sing the title role in Jonathan Dove’s Flight at Julliard and Orpheus’ Shadow in Matthew Aucoin’s Eurydice at the Metropolitan Opera. He’s been awarded Singer of the Year awards and nominated for a Grammy. And that’s before he released this, his best album to date. A personal account of Polish art songs, Jakub effortlessly bridges the gulf between genres.

Jakub Józef Orliński & Michal Biel, Farewells

What if a vampire performed Bach? The lights would be dimmed, everything would be black and, as an immortal, the vampire would surely take his time. Harpsichordist Jean Rondeau may not be a vampire, but anyone lucky enough to catch him in concert might be excused for thinking otherwise. Slowing tempos to the extremes is not usually my jam, as it were, but I find myself returning to Rondeau’s bewitching recording more and more. Now, where’s that garlic?

Jean Rondeau, Bach: Goldberg Variations

Renaissance composer Josquin Desprez wrote history’s first hit, thanks the invention of the printing press. That hit, like so much of Josquin’s music, is deeply religious in nature. Presented here is the other side of Josquin, a collection of secular songs, mostly from his years in France. Evocative and transporting in equal measure.

Doulce Mémoire & Denis Raisin Dadre, Josquin Desprez: Tant vous aime

This next album just might be my favorite of the year. Thanks to Alex Ross for suggesting it. But what exactly is this? The music, for me, completely defies classification. On its face, it is a collection of duets composed by soprano Jane Sheldon based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1905 Book of Hours. Sheldon, who sings both parts, draws on influences from Hildegard von Bingen (who Sheldon cites) to Björk (who she does not). But genre? Who cares. Timeless, stunning, and absolutely magical.

Jane Sheldon, I am a tree, I am a mouth

If you were to design the dream opera star, he would be a tenor and look like a matinee idol. Enter Jonathan Tetelman. Here is his debut album. Watch. This. Space.

Jonathan Tetelman, Arias

I spent a good chunk of 2022 writing about composers who died too young, Mozart and Schubert first and foremost among them. By comparison, we have been truly blessed by the longevity and productivity of many of the greatest contemporary composers, including Steve Reich. This new album from the LA Philharmonic presents two of Reich’s most recent compositions–the first time either has been recorded. Like all of Reich’s music, the more you listen, the more that emerges as the strands that comprise Reich’s finely wrought textures become more apparent and the emotional coloration becomes more familiar. Hypnotic stuff.

Los Angeles Philharmonic, Steve Reich: Runner/Music for Ensemble and Orchestra

Nothing is more boring–or more unnecessary–than another album of classical war horses with nothing new to say. Fortunately, the low cost of digitial production has allowed artists unprecedented freedom to explore soundscapes of thier own creation. On her most recent album, soprano Ruby Hughes covers nearly 500 years of music history, from the works of Purcell through a raft of contemporary British composers, including the titular song-cycle Echo, which was written for her. A strong contender for album of the year.

Ruby Hughes & Huw Watkins, Echo

Hilgegard von Bingen on electric guitar? I’m in. Sean Shibe continues to turn out thoughtful albums that shed new light on the classical repertorie.

Sean Shibe, Lost & Found

Did we need another recording of L’Estro Armonico? No. But the Concerto Italiano’s performance is such infectious fun that it easily finds its way onto this list.

Rinaldo Alessandrini & Concerto Italiano, Vivaldi/Bach

Clarinetist Pablo Barragán and pianist Sophie Pacini present a refined album of works (largely) composed during WWII, each of which pushes the boundaries of the “classical” genre.

Pablo Barragán & Sophie Pacini, Boundless

Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson is best know for his many film scores, but his posthumously released Drone Mass reveals a serious composer who had much more to say before his untimely death at 48. Drawing upon both Rennaisance polyphony and the spectral silences of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, Jóhannsson layers in electronica to create a soundscape that is uniquely his own.

Jóhann Jóhannsson, Drone Mass

“Classical singer” Julia Bullock’s debut album is a showstopper. Possessed of a velvety, voluptuous sound, I could listen to Bullock sing the phone book. Thankfully, I don’t have to. On Walking in the Dark, Bullock selects music from across the spectrum, from Samuel Barber and John Adams to Billy Taylor and Connie Converse, finding the connective tissue that unites them all. The standout track is, unsurprisingly, Adams’ Memorial de Tlateloico from his El Niño oratorio–Bullock is a seasoned Adams peformer on the operatic stage. The album closes with Sandy Denny’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes. Taking on a Nina Simone classic is the epitome of bravery and Bullock’s version is, at least for me, even more haunting and personal than Miss Simone’s. An instant classic that has found its way onto several of my playlists. More of this please!

Julia Bullock & Christian Reif, Walking in the Dark

Another contender for album of the year is Mari Samuelsen’s LYS, which is comprised of several short compositions that take us into a luminous soundscape rendolent of Philip Glass. The album contains arrangments of works by such diverse composers as the 12th century mystic and saint, Hildegard von Bingen, and modern day savant and goddess, Beyoncé, along with works by contemporary composers Caroline Shaw, Lera Auerbach and others. As the world turns dark, this album dares to let the light in.

Mari Samuelsen, LYS

Diverse voices are finally elbowing their way to center stage in contemporary music. Leading that charge is composer Nico Muhly, whose Two Boys created a sensation several years ago in the operatic world. Drawing from a variety of texts, Muhly’s song cycle Stranger is a haunting and moving presentation of the perspective of those at the fringes of society. Written for tenor Nicholas Phan, who sings with a uniquely tender vulnerability, and as supported by the brilliant Brooklyn Rider quartet, Muhly is revealed as the greatest songwriter of his age. In particular, Muhly’s setting of Lorne Ys My Liking, a 15th century Chester Mystery Play, stakes his claim as the true heir of Benjamin Britten.

Nicholas Phan, Stranger

Cellest Inabel Segev presents an album of 20 compositions completed during the pandemic year. The standout track here is Bruce Wolosoff’s Lacrymae for Cello Choir, which like all great music, will be eternally contemporary.

Inabel Segev: 20 for 2020 (2022 edition)

Back in 1994, I bought a CD from a new hot tenor sax player and was simply blown away. Heavily influenced by classic jazz, Joshua Redman’s debute with his quartet of up and coming stars showcased how the language of the past could be updated for the present. Having gone their separate ways, the quartet reunited two years ago. LongGone is their second reunion album. Fittingly, the best track on the new album is the nearly 13-minute long jam on Redman’s Rejoice. Rejoice indeed. This is jazz at its most essential.

Joshua Redman, Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride & Brian Blade, LongGone

It says something that in a year when Joshua Redman releases a fantastic album with his great quartet, that my favorite jazz album of the year was made by fellow tenor saxist JD Allen. Over 45 terse minutes, Allen meditates on the roots of American music, moving seemlessly in and out of jazz, blues, gospel, folk, and R&B. This is one to listen to with a good bottle of bourbon late in the night. Guitarist Charlie Hunter brings that extra special sauce to the group, but it is Rudy Royston’s drumming that stands out as the spine of the group. A tour de force that I have only begun to unpack.

JD Allen, Americana Vol. 2

caroline’s debut album defies classification and, frankly, I’m not sure what to make of it–only that I want to listen to it over and over again. Drawing from a wide array of influences–I hear Midwestern folk, 80s emo, the Velvet Underground, and a lot of Philip Glass–the eight musicians that comprise caroline weave a hypnotic spell over the listener. What is especially refreshing is the calculated casualness of the performance, which gives the music room to breath. The Beach Boys once sang “Catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world.” That’s sort of how I feel about this album–once you enter caroline’s world, the band takes you to far off and wonderful places.

caroline, caroline

Björk describes her tenth album as fungal funk. Yeah, I don’t know what that means either. But trying to make sense of Björk or her music has never really been the point. Simply put, Björk is the most interesting artist in the pop genre and her albums are always a ton of fun. Fossora is no exception. A fun house of sound, Plant Björk is always a joy to visit.

Björk, Fossora

What happens when two members of Radiohead go off to make an album with a different drummer? You get an album that sounds a whole lot like Radiohead. And that surely is a good thing. If John, Paul and George had gone off to make a record with Ginger Baker, would anyone have complained? Me neither. And, yet, surprises lurk here. First, and foremost, is the question of how any band fronted by Thom Yorke is called “The Smile”? Has rock great’s depressive found the silver lining? Not so much, as the lyrics attest. This is a false smile–someone assuring you that everything is fine when, in reality, we are all screwed. But if that mystery is solved, how do we explain Free in the Knowledge–a drop dead gorgeous ballad that is the worthy heir to Fake Plastic Trees, which is both my favorite Radiohead song and one that Thom Yorke has specifically disclaimed. Perhaps the answer lies in the final song, Skirting on the Surface, which closes with the utterly depressing summary of the state of the world in 2022: When we realize that we are broke and nothing mends, We can drop under the surface.

The Smile, A Light for Attracting Attention

Spoon is one of my favorite bands and its 10th album is one of its strongest. There is no mistaking the Spoon sound, it is as unique and timeless as REM’s. Unlike REM, however, Spoon has multiple modes, depending on how much bass and other electronica creep into the track. But at its core, Spoon is Britt Daniel’s vocals backed by guitar, piano and a steady beat. One part funk, one part rock and one part folk–mix and stir to perefection. Start with Wild, as infectous a song as Spoon has ever turned out. And that is saying something.

Spoon, Lucifer on the Sofa

I really can’t explain how I went a decade without being aware of this band. It certainly isn’t their fault, having released a staggering 21 albums over the last decade. But I am thankful to the West Coast Physicist for turning me on to this incredible band. Laminated Denim, true to form, is the seecond a three albums released this fall. The album is equally divided across two 15-minute tracks. With its DNA rooted in pyschedelic rock, jam bands, progressive rock, among others, this album will no doubt feature on the next lazy sunny day out back.

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Laminated Denim

The Professor was downright giddy to take me to my first Porcupine Tree concert. The brainchild of songwriter/singer/guitarist/sound engineer Steven Wilson, Porcupine Tree occupies the relatively sparse ground at the intersection of metal and progressive rock. Loud, rhythmically complex, and largely atonal, Porcupine Tree’s recent music is a tough sell. But buried within those disonnances and thundering rhythms lie something nearly mystical that transcends the narrow label of progressive metal. And that’s reason enough to stretch a Top 25 list by one.

Porcupine Tree, Closure/Continuation

BONUS: While Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood were recording as The Smile, Radiohead’s drummer was off making his second solo album. If the first song off that album (the full album is to be released in February 2023) is any indication, it is going to be a cracker.

Philip Selway, Check for Signs of Life

The Friday Symposium: A Schubertiade

A symposium is a tightly choreographed social gathering where men drank together, conversed, and enjoyed themselves in a convivial atmosphere.

As chronicled here, Mozart exploited his remarkable talents to become the first freelance composer in history. As such, he was beholden only to those who paid for his compositions and not to any one church or any one aristrocrat in particular. Beethoven took Mozart’s revolution one step further, refusing to bend his art to anyone and relying on a small circle of friends to fund him with no strings attached. For a while, this worked out splendidly for Beethoven–that is, until his benefactors ran out of cash.

Schubert, true to his poetic leanings, had no sense for money or business and was, accordingly, living at the very fringes of poverty for most of his short adult life. To ease his financial burdens, Schuberts friends organized small gatherings–much like the Greek symposiums that inspired the title for this series of articles–called Schubertiades. The idea was to gather like-minded folks in a salon to converse, drink, and enjoy Schubert’s music. While most of the works Schubert composed for these gatherings were songs, he also included some smaller works for solo piano, which he often performed. Schubert was nowhere as skilled a pianist as Beethoven or Mozart had been and these works tend towards the simple side.

These gatherings were vitally important to Schubert for other reasons. Naturally shy and slight of build, Schubert spent much of his life skulking around in the shadows. Despite living his entire life in Vienna, he apparently never met Beethoven. He certainly had the opportunity to do so–at the very least, they were both in the same room for the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But stories abound about Schubert hiding behind a pillar to observe his idol Beethoven, surrounded by admirers.

The Schubertiades coaxed Schubert out of his shell and proved to be a model for other composers of similar disposition in the future. These parties also served as the primary means by which Schubert’s music was disseminated and promoted. Devotees of Schubert continue to mount Schubertiades today, especially on January 31st (Schubert’s birthday). Here is a Spotify playlist of some of my favorite Schubert tunes that would be right at home at one of these salon-concerts.

The best cocktail to serve at a convivial gathering is, without question, a punch. Not only can a punch be mixed in advance, a punchbowl is always a welcome and festive sight at a party (and, no, I am not talking about the garbage cans used for punch at a fraternity house). Anyone who has visited Vienna in the winter will know that the Viennese are fond of their glühwein, which is served out of little stands all across the town. Mulled wine, while delicious, is not a punch. A proper punch must have five ingredients: alcohol, sugar, juice, water (or tea), and spices.

The Swedes make a punch called Glögg, which with a little tinkering fits the bill here. It is a perfect, if not potent, tipple for a Schubertiade on January 31.


  • 1 bottle red wine
  • 1 cup ruby port
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 6 cloves, whole
  • 5 cardamom pods, crushed
  • 2 star anise
  • 1 whole orange peel, with 1/4 cup of juice

Add all ingredients to a large sauce pot and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Sweeten to taste with additional sugar, as needed. Strain into punchbowl. Serve in punch mugs, garnished with a tablespoon of raisins and sliced almonds.

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:

The Friday Symposium: Songwriting

Franz Schubert is the Father of Song, so it seems appropriate to pause to talk a little bit about songwriting. The oldest and most basic form of song is the strophic form, which derives from the Greek strophē (turn). In sum, a strophic song has repeating music (the so-called “AAA” structure in which all stanzas are sung to the same music). Bob Dylan is a modern master of the basic strophic song, as this example attests:

Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind:

Schubert was also fond of strophic songs (and Trouts). I’m not sure Schubert ever gets quite so basic as a pure AAA song, but this example gets fairly close to that mark:

Franz Schubert, Die Forelle, Op. 32, D.550:

Setting aside the language (and the obvious difference in singing quality), the gap between classical master Schubert and folksy Dylan isn’t that great. Here are two other examples from the modern pop era:

Johnny Cash, I Walk the Line:

Next up in complexity is the modified strophic form. This broad category includes songs where each stanza is accompanied by a variation of the music heard in the prior section. Technically, Die Forelle is a modified strophic song, but the changes in the melody are somewhat difficult to hear. In this example from his great song cycle Winterreise (much more on that to come), Schubert dramatically shifts the melody from major to minor to alter the emotions in the music:

Franz Schubert, Winterreise: Der Lindebaum:

The most popular form of modified strophic songs is the verse-chorus song that dominates popular music today. At its most basic, the verse-chorus song can be expressed as ABAB form. Here is a great example from one of the best songwriters in history, John Lennon:

The Beatles, Norwegian Wood:

Building on that form, in American popular music, the 32-bar song (AABA form) evolved from its tin pan alley origins to dominate the radiowaves in the latter part of the 20th century. In its most basic form, the sections of the 32-bar song are divided equally: 8-8-8-8.

Harold Arlen, Somewhere Over the Rainbow:

Here’s a familar example from another songwriting great, Paul McCartney:

The Beatles, Yesterday:

The Beatles really are the masters of the form, placing the hook in different places of the verse. Sometimes, the hook (typically, the title of the song) appears in the first line of the verse (A Hard Day’s Night, Something, The Long and Winding Road), but just as often as the last line (Here Comes the Sun, I Am the Walrus, Ticket to Ride, Day Tripper). Other songs such as Magical Mystery Tour (first and last line), Blackbird (first line and bridge), and Girl (last line and bridge) mix the formula up further. Yesterday, of course, features the hook in the first and last line of the verse, as well as in the bridge–one of the reasons it is such an infectious ear worm.

Of course, the roots of AABA form go back to Schubert, who adopted contemporary folk song structures in some of his best known tunes:

Franz Schubert, Der Wanderer, D. 493:

Franz Schubert, Glaube, Hoffung, und Liebe, D. 955:

Schubert, however, was not satisfied with basic repeating form structures, which necessarily limited the range of emotions and ideas that could be presented in any song. While Schubert was perhaps not the first to employ the “through-composed” form, he certainly was the first composer to use it extensively in his music. In through composed form, the music is written without any repetiton or returns. This allows the songwriter to vary harmony, rhythm and the vocal line to a much greater extent than in strophic form. Schubert’s Der Erkönig, from the last entry in this blog, is the best example of a through-composed song from his catalogue. Here are a couple others:

Franz Schubert, Die Allmacht, D. 852:

Franz Schubert, Im Abendrot, D.799:

Through-composed music features regularly in progressive rock (Yes in particular), but two better known groups also made use of the form to great (and more accessible) effect:

Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody:

The Beatles, You Never Give Me Your Money:

Just as modern songwriters built upon the foundations of their classical forefathers, so too do mixologists, who have plundered classic recipies to create modern classics. The Paper Plane, built on the foundation of the Last Word (which in turn is a riff on the very classic Corpse Reviver #2), is one of the best examples. Like a well-crafted song, these cocktails are all based on the same structure—four equal parts. Created by Sam Ross (of the late, great Milk & Honey bar in NYC), this is a contender for one of the best cocktails ever. Fitting the theme of this article, the Paper Plane was named after a song–M.I.A.’s Paper Planes (which is a verse-chorus song, for those keeping score),

The proportions are key–do not free pour this, regardless of whether you are a pro or not.

The Paper Plane

  • 3/4ox Amaro Nonio
  • 3/4oz Aperol
  • 3/4oz Buffalo Trace bourbon
  • 3/4oz fresh lemon juice

Combine and shake vigorously and strain into a coupe. Enjoy with your favorite set of songs.