Special Report

The Luckiest of Friends

Franz Schubert is born again at the Bard Summer Music Festival.

By 8.28.14

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For the past 25 years, the Bard Summer Music Festival has offered classical music lovers a unique way to spend summer vacations: two weekends in August packed with concerts and lectures focused on the life and work of one composer. This year, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, Bard staged a Schubert Olympiad, featuring 17 concerts and lectures covering the astonishing array of works created by Viennese composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828). Those who thought the “Ave Maria,” “Unfinished Symphony” and “Trout Quintet” were Schubert’s greatest hits were in for a shock.

Schubert died at the young age of 31, his health ruined by the “French disease.” But his short life was marked by a prodigious musical output. According to scholars, Schubert composed his first keyboard work at age 13, and his first symphony at age 16. In his 18th year alone, Schubert composed nearly 150 songs, according to Christopher Gibbs. This scholar notes that by the age of 23, Schubert had composed two-thirds of his total musical output of 1,000 works. This included more than 600 songs, 18 piano sonatas, 17 string quartets, 10 symphonies, 7 operas, 6 masses, as well as many, many other solo and ensemble works.

Historian Paul Johnson, in The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830, characterizes Schubert as a pivotal figure among great Western composers because he was the first to “compose essentially for the middle-class drawing room and concert hall,” rather than the imperial courts and chapels that previously drove the music market. That’s why so much of Schubert’s output was devoted to songs, and smaller keyboard and chamber works that could be performed by music-loving Viennese and Germans in their homes. For those lucky enough to snap up the tickets for this year’s festival, Bard offered an interesting mix of well-known and obscure treasures from each genre in Schubert’s vast output. Here are some of the highlights:

Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony in B minor, D759, is his most well-known work today. So the Festival included this work and two other symphonies (#3 in D Major, D200 and #7 in E Major, D729). They were ably performed — with a twist — by the American Symphony Orchestra under the leadership of Festival Co-Artistic Director Leon Botstein. The Symphony in B minor was played exactly as it was written by Schubert — stopping abruptly, mid-phrase in the second movement, where the composer left off. Similarly, the unfinished Symphony in E Major was performed, but in the two-movement version orchestrated by conductor Felix Weingartner. After Schubert’s death, there was a thriving market arranging his most famous melodies for larger ensembles. Bard presented several of these amalgamations, including Schubert’s renowned Der Erlkönig in two versions orchestrated by Liszt and Berlioz (the audience had to guess which composer wrote which arrangement), and Franz Von Suppé’s 1864 operetta, “Franz Schubert,” a wonderful piece of biographical kitsch based on Schubert’s tunes.

Among Schubert’s numerous chamber works, the much-loved “Trout” Quintet, D667 is often performed today. Instead of this piece, however, Bard offered Schubert’s intense String Quintet in C major, D956. It was performed with fiery passion by the rising young stars of the Dover Quartet (with the addition of second cellist Peter Myers). In addition, the gifted Horszowski Trio played another Schubert gem, the Piano Trio in E flat major, Op.100/D929. Pianist Rieko Aizawa was especially noteworthy for dispatching her difficult part with ease.

Of course, a Schubert festival would not be complete without Schubert’s songs. After all, during his life he was known as the “Prince of Song,” for raising the humble German lied to the level of art by setting romantic German poetry to beautiful melodies with evocative accompaniment. The Festival provided interesting examples of all types of Schubert songs. There were unaccompanied part songs for male voices, including drinking songs Schubert composed for friends. (I had no idea there was such a thing as a Schubert drinking song.) An entire concert was devoted to the Winterreise (Winter’s Journey), the bleak but haunting song cycle Schubert wrote when he knew he was dying. Another showcased his recently uncovered Kosegarten Liederspiel (1815), described as a “song play,” performed by several voices in a dramatic presentation

But the crown jewel was the lied that made Schubert famous — his setting of Goethe’s poem, Der Erlkönig. It’s the horrifying story of a young boy pursued by an evil spirit, whose father assumes it’s just his imagination and ignores his cries for help. The demon claims the boy’s life, and he dies in his father’s arms. It’s hard to believe today, but this poem was once so popular among the German- speaking public that composers vied with each other to set it to music. The Festival included three of the most well-known musical settings of Der Erlkönig, so the audience could compare them with Schubert’s version. None had the searing impact of Schubert’s thundering masterpiece, with its fiendishly difficult triplets in the piano accompaniment, signifying the beating hooves of a horse hurtling through the night forest. Young American baritone Andrew Garland delivered an outstanding, dramatically satisfying performance of this heart-stopping work. He was superbly accompanied by pianist Orion Weiss, and together, they provided one of the most memorable highlights of the festival.

We also had the opportunity to hear the upside of Schubert’s song writing, including a delightful performance by Deanna Breiwick, Laura Flax, and Anna Polonsky of his exquisite “The Shepherd on the Rock.” Written for soprano, clarinet, and piano, it features a lilting, ascending and descending melodic line, tossed back and forth between the soprano and clarinet. The piece evokes a shepherdess singing on top of a mountain, then listening to her voice echoing back from the valley. It’s extraordinary that Schubert wrote this enchanting work during the final months of his life, when he was facing death.

While the level of musicianship at Bard is always excellent, every year the festival features one or two truly remarkable performances. This year, for me, it was pianist Danny Driver. This UK-based musician has a huge technique combined with a deep, poetic musical sensitivity. He vanishes into the piano and the music with total concentration. He played Schubert’s “Wanderer” Fantasy in C Major, Op.15/D760 with tremendous attention to articulating the inner voices, and with such a sensitive ear to dynamics, that at times it seemed as if each hand was producing its own independent sonority. It was an extraordinary performance, and at the end the audience jumped to its feet and cheered for three ovations. If only we could hear this gifted artist more frequently in the big concert halls of the United States.

There were many thought-provoking discussions over the two weekends. The panel “Who was Schubert?” included a presentation by Malcolm Bilson, one of the leading proponents of music played on period instruments. He played excerpts of Schubert’s Fantasy in F minor, D940 on a replica 1825 forte piano, and then on a modern Steinway, so the audience could hear how the inner voices are sometimes lost or compromised on today’s instruments. This prompted a testy exchange between Bilson and panel moderator Leon Botstein. Botstein took issue with the period instrument movement, characterizing Bilson’s demonstration as “charming,” but ultimately irrelevant, to which Bilson took great issue. Both made points worth considering. The entire Fantasy in F minor, surely one of the greatest compositions ever written for piano four hands, was performed during an evening program by the superb husband and wife team of Orion Weiss and Anna Polonsky.

Among the other standouts was gifted Princeton composer and professor, Scott Burnham. In a pre-performance lecture, he gave a play-by-play description of the structure and harmonic idiosyncrasies of a difficult movement in Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Major, D959. It includes lilting melodies, but also thundering chromatic chords and scales that sound as if they were written in 2014, rather than 1828. Using his hands, sometimes humming along to excerpts, Burnham explained how Schubert moves from the tonic home base to distantly-related keys, stays there a while, moves on, stays there a while, and eventually returns home the long way. He illuminated the structure of the piece with such charm and clarity that even those with little musical education could understand it. It was a startling reminder that Schubert was much more than a creator of catchy tunes. He was a serious musical innovator who broke new harmonic ground and influenced many composers after him.

Schubert hoped, in vain it turns out, to make his fortune writing music for the stage. So Bard mounted two of these works: a semi-staging of Schubert’s comic opera, The Conspirators, and his three-act grand opera, Fierrabras. With The Conspirators, Schubert had the rare good luck to set a very engaging libretto — a short comedy modeled after the Lysistrata, in which Crusader wives swear not to sleep with their soldier-husbands until the men promise to give up war. It is written in the Italian style — lyrical, lilting, and tuneful — but without the bel canto ornamentation German composers disliked. After hearing this delightful piece, I am at a loss to explain why it is so rarely performed in this country.

Fierrabras is a long work, with many beautiful and compelling sections. The Festival omitted much of the spoken dialogue, but the performance was still over 3 hours. This opera never made it to the stage in Schubert’s lifetime, and is rarely — if ever — performed today. For me, its failure to make it into the modern repertory can partly be explained by the absence of show-stopping numbers to wow the audience. The Bard Summer Festival always finds first-rate professional voices for its operatic performances. This year was no exception. In Fierrabras, two outstanding bass baritones — Alfred Walker and Robert Pomakov — stole the show.

These are only a few of the many highlights of this year’s festival. Behind all this glorious music, however, was a man whose life was complicated and tragic. Paul Johnson notes Schubert was short (5 feet, 1 inch), extremely nearsighted (his glasses are in a museum), and unattractive to women. Apparently, he dealt with this by drinking excessively, frequenting the worst parts of Vienna at night, and consorting with prostitutes. Sometime in his twenties, he contracted syphilis. Thankfully, the details of this part of his life are largely unknown. But we get a glimpse from boyhood friend, Josef Kenner. He wrote that Schubert’s “body, strong as it was, succumbed to the cleavage in his — souls — as I would put it, of which one pressed heavenward and the other bathed in slime.” It is worth noting that, despite his disease and the suffering it entailed, Schubert kept on composing right until the end of his life. Scholars tell us he was correcting proofs for Winterreise on his deathbed. Friends visited often, to say goodbye.

Many of Schubert’s works were unpublished during his lifetime. According to Christopher Gibbs, the public and even his friends were unaware of how much music he had composed: his “Unfinished” B minor symphony wasn’t premiered until more than 40 years after his death! But throughout the 19th century, friends and admiring composers continued to search out, uncover, perform, and publish Schubert’s work, growing his reputation and assuring his legacy was not forgotten. Today, Schubert is a regular in America’s concert halls. His fans are fortunate that the 2014 Bard Summer Music Festival found the talent and resources (largely thanks to private donors and private grants) to mount a retrospective of this depth and breadth. As Scott Burnham told the audience, because of this rich musical legacy, “We are the luckiest of Schubert’s friends — we never have to say goodbye.”

Note: In 2015, the Bard Summer Music Festival will focus on the music of 20th century composer Carlos Chávez; in 2016, the focus will be on the music of Giacomo Puccini.

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About the Author

Laura Genero served 20 years in senior government positions, including Associate Deputy Secretary of Labor, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, and spokesman for the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services.