Schubert's Tuneful Chamber Music

Copyright © by Fred Flaxman, 1997.

Long before there were CDs, or LPs, or even 78s - in the centuries before there were any recordings at all - people who wanted music in their own homes had to make it themselves. So it was that a very young Franz Schubert began composing string quartets for his own, highly-musical household. He went on to create some of the most magnificent chamber music you can hear today in the comfort of your own home on compact discs.

This year marks the bicentennial of Schubert's birth and, coincidentally, the centennial of George Gershwin's birthday. The two were amongst the most prolific melody writers of all times, though they each died in their 30s. Schubert's compositions reflects early 19th Century Vienna just as surely as Gershwin's evokes New York in the 1920s and 30s.

Neither composer married. Both loved more than anything else to play their pieces on the piano for friends at private gatherings. The big difference, of course, is that Gershwin was a huge, popular and financial success in his own lifetime, while Schubert died virtually unknown and without money at the age of 31. There was only one public performance of his music during his own lifetime, and that was in his last year, organized by friends to help him pay off some of his debts!

Although Schubert walked this earth only a third as long as he might have had he not contracted a venereal disease, he wrote three times as many pieces as most composers create in a very full lifetime.

At his best he produced profoundly beautiful, deeply moving, well-crafted, heartfelt music of the very highest order - unsurpassed even by the composer he revered above all others: Beethoven.

Even at his worst, Schubert was often original. A century before the invention of silent films, for example, he wrote tremolo piano music which was ideal for accompanying the silent screen's villains, if nothing else. If you don't believe me, listen to his "Fantasie in G, D1" on Sony SK 68243, with duo-pianists Yara Tal and Andreas Groethysen, from 12 minutes, 54 seconds to 13 minutes, 8 seconds into the piece!

One of my very favorite chamber music pieces of all is Schubert's "Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano in A Minor, D. 821." I first discovered this work when it was used as the background score for a French telefilm of de Maupassant's short story, "Le PËre Amable." Well I tell you, they don't write film scores like that anymore! From the very opening theme to the end of the piece, some 28 minutes later, there is no break in the beauty, no flaw to the flow. If Schubert had written nothing else, eternity would owe him a debt of gratitude for this wonderful work alone. At least I would.

And yet he wrote many other chamber works which were just as beautiful: the String Quartet in D Minor, D. 810 ("Death and the Maiden"); the Quintet in C, Op. 163, D. 956; and the Octet in F for Strings and Winds, Op. 166, D. 803, to name three.

But I must give you a warning on the subject of the Arpeggione Sonata: don't buy a recording in which this piece is played on an arpeggione - even if you go for period instruments! The arpeggione was a six-stringed instrument with frets, played with a bow, invented in 1823 by a Viennese instrument maker named Johann Georg Staufer. A year later Schubert was asked to write a piece for this "guitar-violoncello." He obliged, using - and perhaps even coining - the term "arpeggione" because the instrument was so well-suited for playing arpeggios.

But by the time the sonata was finally published in 1871, the arpeggione was already - and thankfully - totally forgotten. If I had first heard the Arpeggione Sonata played on an arpeggione, I might not have realized how lovely a composition it is. Played on a cello by, let's say, Mstislav Rostropovich (London 443 575-2), all the introspective, romantic melancholy of the piece emerges as it can't from any other instrument.

So do yourself a favor. Don't get this piece performed on a flute (even as well played as it is by James Galway on RCA RCD1-5303), viola, clarinet, guitar quartet, or viola da gamba, even though all of these versions are currently available - and are probably on sale.

As terrific as the Arpeggione Sonata is, it is not Schubert's best-known chamber work. That honor probably goes to the Trout Quintet (officially the "Quintet for Piano, Violin, Viola, Violoncello and Double Bass in A Major, Op. posth. 114, D. 667"). There are arguably more whistleable tunes per minute in this light, happy piece than any quintet ever written. This work is so accessible, even people who don't otherwise care for chamber music like it, and it makes a good introduction to the genre for that reason.

Thanks to Sony, Emanuel Ax and Yo-yo Ma, you can now buy a superb new recording of the "Trout" which also includes, at no extra charge, the Arpeggione Sonata with those very same world-famous artists. As an added bonus, the CD (SK 61964) includes soprano Barbara Bonney singing the original Schubert "Trout" song ("Die Forelle, D. 550), accompanied by Ax at the piano. This CD, which lasts over an hour, is a winner in every way.

Listen to these pieces and you'll understand why I put Schubert and Gershwin in the same paragraph. No one alive today seems to be able to turn out one gorgeous melody after another the way these two dead white males did, exactly a century apart from each other.

It makes me wonder: Have the good tunes all been written?

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