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.

Classical Music V: Franz Schubert (1797-1828)

So great was the shadow cast by Beethoven over the musical landscape of Vienna (and so great the popularity of Rossini among the masses) that it nearly obscured another, perhaps even more tortured, musical genius roaming its streets and haunting its taverns. Franz Schubert was born, lived and died in Vienna. He studied with Salieri, idolized Mozart in his early years and fell completely and totally under the sway of Beethoven later on. He composed his first symphony at 16 and took his last breath at 31. And over the 15 years in between he turned out some of the most brilliant music of his age, some 900 works, 600 of which were songs. If you are looking for where the three-minute pop song began, look no further: Schubert’s song-cycles are his calling card for posterity. Schubert’s great gift to musical history is nothing less than the fusion of poetry and music. Without Schubert, there is no Bob Dylan.

The idea, of course, was not a new one. The Greek choruses of antiquity sung their poetic lines. The Church commissioned hymns of stunning beauty even as Martin Luther sought to connect tones to syllables to make the words more comprehensible. But Schubert sought to connect music to emerging Romantic poetry of the day–Goethe in particular–so as to better express the turbulent emotions coursing through his soul.

As a young man, Schubert was drawn into a circle of Viennese intellectuals called the Bildung. Here, a young poet named Johann Mayrhofer inspired Schubert’s development as a songwriter. The two eventually shared an apartment until they fell out spectacularly in 1820. Much rank speculation and rumor-mongering has ensued about the nature of Schubert’s relationship with Mayrhofer. That said, it is a pity that Schubert did not finish his opera Adrast, which was based on Mayrhofer’s score and which contained a same-sex love aria. What would 19th century European society have made of that?

Following his split from Mayrhofer, Schubert flung himself into two years of debauched existence, emerging in 1822 with both a renewed sense of purpose and what history has judged to be an ultimately fatal case of syphillis. He was only 25 at the time. Inevitably, my favorite works of Schubert come from the last six years of his life, when he was living under a death sentence.

So, where to begin for this composer dubbed “the most poetic musician who ever lived?” With a song, of course. Here’s one everyone knows. It is one of the most famous songs ever written.

Franz Schubert, Ellens dritter Gesang, D. 839.

Schubert’s gift for melody is undeniable, but he has also taken lessons from Beethoven–rhythm plays an undeniable and central role in his songs. The best example is Der Erlkönig, which is based on this very dark and brooding Goethe poem:

ho rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp’d in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.

“My son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?”
“Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?”
“My son, ’tis the mist rising over the plain.”

“Oh, come, thou dear infant! oh come thou with me!
For many a game I will play there with thee;
On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,
My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”

“My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?”
“Be calm, dearest child, ’tis thy fancy deceives;
‘Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”

“Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care;
My daughters by night their glad festival keep,
They’ll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”

“My father, my father, and dost thou not see,
How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?”
“My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
‘Tis the aged grey willows deceiving thy sight.”

“I love thee, I’m charm’d by thy beauty, dear boy!
And if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.”
“My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
For sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”

The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child;
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread, –
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.

Johann Wolfang von Goethe, Der Erlkönig (translated)

Goethe’s poem was a significant source of inspiration for Schubert. He first composed this song as a teenager, revisiting it several times before publishing the final version in 1821–coming at a time where Schubert’s emotions were at their most turbulent in the wake of his falling out with Mayrhofer. Using the piano as much for its percussive force as for its tonality, Schubert transpartently conveys the father’s terror and, tthrough its sudden asbsence, the dread of the ending.

Franz Schubert, Der Erlkönig, D. 328, Op. 1:

Schubert’s song would have a profound effect on the coming Romantic period. Liszt transcribed it for piano:

Franz Liszt, Der Erlkönig, (aft. Schubert), S. 558 No. 4:

A more recent transcription for violin, building on the Liszt transcription, is even more dramatic.

Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst, Erlkönig for solo violin, (aft. Schubert), Op. 26:

As the above demonstrate, Schubert’s music is capable of remarkable transformations, moving from voice to piano to violin seemlessly. His music also scales. For example, consider the following basic song:

Franz Schubert, Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, D. 494:

Schubert later rewrote the setting for four voices, two tenors and two bases:

Franz Schubert, Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, D.538:

Not satisfied with this quasi-barbershop quartet on steriods version, Schubert scaled it up again for eight voices (four tenors; four bases) and added multiple string parts:

Franz Schubert, Gesang der Geister über den Wassern, D. 714:

The poem is, of course, Goethe’s (Spirit Song Over the Waters):

The soul of man
Resembleth water:
From heaven it cometh,
To heaven it soareth.
And then again
To earth descendeth,
Changing ever.

Down from the lofty
Rocky wall
Streams the bright flood,
Then spreadeth gently
In cloudy billows
O’er the smooth rock,
And welcomed kindly,
Veiling, on roams it,
Soft murmuring,
Tow’rd the abyss.

Cliffs projecting
Oppose its progress,–
Angrily foams it
Down to the bottom,
Step by step.

Now, in flat channel,
Through the meadowland steals it,
And in the polish’d lake
Each constellation
Joyously peepeth.

Wind is the loving
Wooer of waters;
Wind blends together
Billows all-foaming.

Spirit of man,
Thou art like unto water!
Fortune of man,
Thou art like unto wind!

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (translated)