a series of one-hour radio programs produced, written, hosted, and edited by Fred Flaxman
©2002 by Fred Flaxman
"Schubert's Tuneful Chamber Music"
MUSIC: Schubert: Trout Quintet opening [Sony SK 61964, track 1] under the following:
FLAXMAN: Welcome to Compact Discoveries. I'm your guide, Fred Flaxman. Thank you for joining me for another chapter in this personal musical voyage of discovery. This next hour will be devoted to "Schubert's Tuneful Chamber Music."
MUSIC: fades out
FLAXMAN: 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.
Coincidentally, Franz Schubert and George Gershwin were born one hundred years apart: Schubert in 1797 and Gershwin in 1897. I mention this because the two composers - the first, Austrian, and the second, American - had quite a bit in common. Both 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.
One of my very favorite chamber music pieces of all is Schubert's Sonata for Arpeggione and Piano in A Minor. I first discovered this work when it was used as the background score for a French telefilm of de Maupassant's short story, "Le Père 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.
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. 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, Yo-Yo Ma, all the introspective, romantic melancholy of the piece emerges as it can't from any other instrument.
MUSIC: Schubert: Sonata for Piano and Arpeggione in A Minor, D. 821 [Sony SK 61964] [24:28]
FLAXMAN: Franz Schubert's Sonata for Piano and Arpeggione in A Minor. Yo-Yo Ma was the cellist; Emanuel Ax was at the piano. This was from a Sony Classical compact disc.
You are listening to Compact Discoveries, and this hour we are exploring some of "Schubert's Tuneful Chamber Music." I'm your guide, Fred Flaxman.
MUSIC: Schubert: Arpeggione Sonata [RCD1-5303, track 1] under the following:
FLAXMAN: If you enjoyed the Arpeggione Sonata as much as I do, I hope you'll help support classical music on compact discs by purchasing a copy. If you follow my advice, don't get this piece performed on a flute - even as well played as it is in the background by James Galway on RCA - or on a viola, viola da gamba, or clarinet, or by a guitar quartet, even though all of these versions are available -- and are probably on sale. This piece is at its very best on a cello, believe me.
MUSIC: fades out
FLAXMAN: As beautiful as the Arpeggione Sonata is, Schubert wrote many other chamber works which were just as exquisite. These include the String Quartet in D Minor, also know as Death and the Maiden; the Octet in F for Strings and Winds; and - perhaps the most popular work in the chamber music repertory - the Quintet for Piano, Violin, Viola, Violoncello and Double Bass in A Major, known as the Trout Quintet.
I'm going to play movements from each of these pieces during the rest of this hour, starting with the Trout Quintet. 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 Classical CDs, Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma, you can buy a superb recording of the Trout Quintet which also includes, at no extra charge, the Arpeggione Sonata with those very same world-famous artists - the recording I played at the beginning of this hour. As an added bonus, the CD includes soprano Barbara Bonney singing the original Schubert Trout song, accompanied by Emanuel Ax at the piano. Let's listen to the original song. Then we'll hear the theme and variations on this tune that Schubert included as the fourth movement of his Quintet.
MUSIC: Schubert: The Trout, D. 550 [SK 61964, track 9] [2:17]
MUSIC: Schubert: Trout Quintet, D. 667 [SK 61964, track 4] [7:46]
FLAXMAN: The fourth movement of the Trout Quintet by Franz Schubert. Emanuel Ax was the pianist; Yo-Yo Ma, the cellist; Pamela Frank was the violinist; Rebecca Young, the violist; and Edgar Meyer played the double bass. This movement was preceded by the original Trout song, sung by Barbara Bonney. Schubert wrote the quintet on a commission from a mine manager and amateur musician who loved Schubert's song. Whether Schubert put the song in the quintet by request or just because he knew that the man who was paying the piper liked the tune, I do not know.
The Death and the Maiden Quartet, as you can tell from the title, shows a more serious and dramatic side of Schubert's tuneful chamber music. He also made use of a theme from one of his earlier songs in this work. That song was called - you guessed it - Death and the Maiden. It's lyrics were from a poem with the same title. Schubert was in very bad health at the time and was thinking about his own death. He wrote to a friend: "Imagine a man whose health will never recover and whose despair makes things worse rather than better Each night when I go to sleep I hope never to wake again, and each morning serves only to recall the misery of the day before."
Fortunately for posterity, Schubert didn't get his wish for another four years, and his composing continued. Otherwise we would not have been able to listen to this:
MUSIC: Schubert: Death and the Maiden Quartet [DGG 410 024-2, track 1] [11:43]
FLAXMAN: The powerful, dramatic opening movement of the Death and the Maiden string quartet by Franz Schubert. It was performed by the Amadeus Quartet on a Deutsche Grammophon compact disc.
I would like to conclude "Schubert's Tuneful Chamber Music" on Compact Discoveries with my favorite movement from Schubert's Octet in F Major for Strings and Winds. This is from a Nonesuch compact disc with the Boston Symphony Chamber Players.
MUSIC: Schubert: Octet in F, Op. 166, D. 803 [Nonesuch 9 79046-2, track 3] [5:06]
FLAXMAN [over the music]: At the beginning of this hour I compared Schubert to Gershwin. These were two composers who really knew how to write beautiful tunes, and they both died in their thirties. 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 all the really good tunes been written?
With this excerpt from Schubert's Octet, this hour of Compact Discoveries comes to an end. Thanks so much for tuning in. Remember, Compact Discoveries articles are ready for your reading pleasure at www.fredflaxman.com, and you can e-mail me from that site. I'd love to hear from you.
Compact Discoveries is written, produced, recorded and edited by your host, Fred Flaxman, and is a production of WXEL-FM, West Palm Beach, Florida.
MUSIC: fade out at 58:00
"Wagner Without Words"
MUSIC: Wagner: Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin [London 448 155-2, track 7] down and under:
FLAXMAN: Next time on Compact Discoveries, join me, Fred Flaxman, for "Wagner Without Words" - the best music of Richard Wagner without the operatic singing that turns so many people off.
TAG: [Sunday at 7 p.m. on 90.7, WXEL-FM.]
MUSIC: fade out at 30 seconds
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